Cleary’s piano speaks with a New Orleans accent

by Michael Kinsman on April 16, 2012

Pianist Jon Cleary admits to being intimidated when he first heard New Orleans musicians at work.

As a 17-year-old guitar player from Kent, England, Cleary got a dose of the real deal during his first stay in New Orleans. He planned on a two-week visit, but it turned into two years.He vowed right then and there that he was going to play New Orleans piano and play it the right way.

Now after nearly three decades as a New Orleans resident, Cleary says he still talks like an Englishman but plays music with a New Orleans accent.

Cleary has just released “Occapella,” a collection of 12 Allen Toussaint songs that Cleary has interpreted

Toussaint funk and street rhythms  in his own way.  He’ll  perform April 20 at Anthology in San Diego, playing the songs from his new CD.

Toussaint covers are nothing new. The prolific New Orleans songwriter and arranger has seen his songs recorded by such strange bedfellows as Glen Campbell (“Southern Nights”), Aaron Neville (“Wrong Number”), Boz Scaggs (“What Do You Want The Girl To Do”), the Rolling Stones (“Fortune Teller”) and Elvin Bishop (“I’m Gone”).

Cleary upends these songs by winnowing them down to the core, capturing their essence and then using sparse arrangements that tap into not only the innate power of the music, but their colorful shadings. The underlying funk and the percussive street rhythms of New Orleans are usually at the bottom of these songs.

“What you get with Allen Toussaint is not just great lyrics and chord progressions that are very creative,” he says. “You get a New Orleans sound unlike any other.”

Cleary admits he wasn’t too enthused when his manager suggested his next CD project should be covers of Toussaint material.

“I wanted to do original music, but I casually started messing around with Toussaint’s songs and I thoroughly enjoyed it. His songs are such full of life. Each of his songs is like a jewel and he builds these jewel boxes around them that are just as precious as the jewels in them.”

Cleary plays all the instruments on this CD (piano, guitar, drums and bass), except for the first track “Let’s Get Low Down” which features some New Orleans musicians as well as Bonnie Raitt (his former employer) and Dr. John (the New Orleans pianist he most relates to).

“Down here, people have a rich culture and history and that shows up in the music,” he says. “The songs here have a lot of depth to them and to play them, you really have to feel New Orleans.”

That’s a lesson Cleary learned on his first trip to New Orleans.

At age 17, he got a free air fare from England to the U.S. by purchasing a ticket and then selling his baggage rights to the fledgling courier service DHL, which found it less expensive to pay for airline tickets than buy space on cargo carriers.

“I had a little bag with a toothbrush, toothpaste, a couple of t-shirts and very little else,” he recalls. “When I landed in New Orleans I had a hundred dollars in my pocket.”

Through a network of friends, Cleary made connections with the manager of the Maple Leaf Bar, a dive of a music venue off the beaten path.  Cleary took a job painting the bar.  “I could work as much or as little as I wanted,” he says. “I would usually work four or five hours to get enough for a meal and some beer and I was off.”

Some afternoons, legendary New Orleans pianist James Booker would relax at the bar in the afternoon, sometimes playing the piano.

“It took us six months to paint that bar,” Cleary says. “There was no reason to leave.”

By the time he returned to England, he tried to assemble a band to play New Orleans music. He quickly discovered, however, that his fellow musicians couldn’t keep up.

“In London, the musicians played sort of amalgam of black American music,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for the music of New Orleans and to play it right you it takes years to learn and get it right.   To play New Orleans music you need to do it from the inside out … you need to drink the water and eat the food to get it right.”

He knew then, he needed to return to the land of Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, James Booker, Allen Toussaint, Art Neville, Dr. John and …  Jon Cleary.

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