When interviewed, Allen Toussaint often mentions the jolt he felt at his first encounter with Professor Longhair’s music, the earth-shattering effects of a radical listening experience. One could argue that Toussaint’s gift was the ability to distill and then arrange the pieces of Fess—the thundering left hand, the mesmerizing right—into an unparalleled combination of funk and pop. The resulting songbook generated classic hits around catchy choruses and thick bass lines.
On Occapella, his sophisticated treatment of that canon, Jon Cleary strips Toussaint down to the studs, then rebuilds by concentrating on the composer’s rhythmic genius. Rather than overburden us with production embellishments or even extended solos, Cleary goes basic. At times, his backing band (himself on all instruments) consists of just a fuzz guitar, high hat, and steady rim shots. Pianos and organs remain central, but don’t take up much space. Cleary no longer needs to prove that he’s a monster, and instead covers the beats, squeals and neighborhood wordplay so essential to the master sound.
With equal wisdom, Cleary appreciates the cleverness, the rake behind Toussaint’s natty perfection. His voice is as fine as we’ve heard it, somewhere between Peter Tosh and Van Morrison. Hear the drowsiness of “Southern Nights,” its finger snaps like traffic lights turning green, the soft internal dialogue of 4 a.m.—should we stop for one more? Do we need another? This understated treatment reminds us that the brass and color of day are not the only reasons you end up staying out so late, far from whence you came, a wining boy in search of a sidewalk to call your own.
The percussion work on “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky” is brilliant, and the glistening organ on “Poor Boy Got to Move” is the sort of smart production the man himself appreciates. Then Cleary goes and recasts “Fortune Teller” as a Booker-esque instrumental, part swoon, part burner. Amidst the high register twirls and dips, another side of Jon Cleary pays tribute to another side of Allen Toussaint. In the middle of that exchange is quite a place to sit and listen.