Jon Cleary has three pianos. There’s nothing obviously antique, historic or novel about them. They reside in his home studio in the Bywater under posters from gigs he’s played—one for a venue on Louisiana Street that featured “J. Marky D.” In the control room, a framed blue, battered poster advertising a Johnny Adams gig at Dorothy’s Medallion rests on the floor.
“It used to be so dark in there that it would take your eyes 20 minutes to a half-hour to adjust,” Cleary says. “Dorothy used to wear these big sunglasses all night.” Cleary played there with Adams and Walter “Wolfman” Washington, gigs that went all night. ‘You didn’t get out of there until 6:30 in the morning,” he says. “Who were these people who didn’t have anywhere to be on a Monday morning?”
Today, Cleary is doing business. He takes phone calls including one from his manager. He has new management, but without new product, they can only do so much. New releases don’t sell like they once did, but they’re still central to how and when artists are promoted, and that includes touring. Cleary’s ready to go.
It seems like Cleary has been in a state of transition for a few years now. He’s been a band guy almost since he came to town, playing with Johnny Adams, John Mooney, Bonnie Raitt, the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, and more, but since the tours that followed 2004’s Pin Your Spin, the number of musical companions has been dwindling. In 2007, he released Do Not Disturb, an EP he cut on his own in hotel rooms, backstage and during soundchecks. He formed the self-explanatory Piano, Bass and Drums, then renamed it the Philthy Phew.
Most of his local appearances have been solo piano shows at d.b.a. and Chickie Wah Wah. “I thought if I can do a couple of solo gigs a week I can concentrate on the recording,” he says. “Solo gigs are easier and earlier, so I’m not getting in at 4 in the morning. I can actually get up and get into the studio for 10 in the morning, turn on the machines and say, ‘Right, what’s the job today?’”
The economics of music have forced some hard choices. He’d like to work again with Absolute Monster Gentlemen Derwin “Big D” Perkins, Cornell Williams and Jeffrey “Jellybean” Alexander, but they appear in voice only on three tracks on Cleary’s new album, Occapella. It’s a tribute to Allen Toussaint, and Cleary’s versions of Toussaint’s songs are spare, sometimes to the point of skeletal. They’re funky, and they’re almost all Cleary.
Those three pianos are only occasionally obvious on Occapella, and only “Fortune Teller” receives a piano professor treatment. His version of Lee Dorsey’s “Lover of Love” features guitars and percussion behind his voice, and Toussaint’s “Poor Boy’s Got to Move” has a mild reggae groove fueled by a subterranean bass, scratched guitar and off-beat organ accents. In Cleary’s mind, though, the piano’s at the heart of all these versions.
“What’s great about the piano is that you can imply everything that a band does,” he says. “Piano is technically a percussion instrument. You can play to suggest in such a way to imply what a conga player or a drummer would be playing. Then you’re playing bass lines, and you’re vamping chords like a guitar player would, and you’re soloing on top of all this stuff.” To arrange the album, he took the parts he was playing on piano and moved them to other instruments.
Cleary himself plays most of the parts. That’s not as hard as it might sound because even though he’s most associated with the piano, it’s not his first instrument. That would be the guitar, followed by drums. “When I first came to New Orleans I didn’t bring a guitar with me and there was a piano in the first house I moved into,” he says. “I played every night for hours and hours, and I’d go out—[James] Booker was a piano player in the local bar—and I’d hear a lot of great piano music. Tuts Washington was around, Sweet Emma was around, Mac [Rebennack, Dr. John] would come to town occasionally, and I would occasionally get to see Allen Toussaint play.”
The decision to play all the instruments was partially a financial decision—”If you hire musicians, you’ve got to pay them”—but it was an artistic one as well. When he thinks of a song, he hears the whole thing in his head. “It’s like a finished record,” Cleary says. “I’ve got to take that and quickly get it to the point so that what comes out sounds like what’s in here,” pointing to his head. With a studio in his house, he can overdub the parts one by one. “People say, ‘Why did you play drums when you could’ve gotten Raymond Weber or Terence Higgins or any of these people?’ The answer is not because I didn’t want to use those people, but there’s a line Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson [who played all the instruments on his records] used when he was asked a similar question. He said, ‘It’s important that all the instruments have the same attitude.’”
With one mind behind all the parts, the instruments work in perfect sync. There may not be the happenstance discoveries that come when musicians play together, but there also aren’t egos and tendencies to accommodate. It’s also hard to imagine a drummer who would have been happy playing on Occapella, which rarely if ever employs a full drum kit. Percussion instruments are selectively employed to play exactly what’s needed and not a note more.
Although the process of making the album is very unlike the one that produced the classic New Orleans R&B recordings, Cleary takes lessons from them.
“When you hear a great New Orleans funk record like ‘Mr. Big Stuff’ or ‘Groove Me,’ there’s very little going on, but everything sits in its own space,” he says. ”It makes everything seem lighter, and that’s what makes you want to get up out of your seat and dance.”
Today, the snare drum is prominent in most mixes, but Cleary keeps the principal percussion small in the mix, much the way Toussaint did on records he produced. The interaction of the parts and not a pounding snare generates the funk.
“Something that’s really funky has to have a lot of soul in it,” Cleary says. “You take the soul out of the equation, and you’re left with something that sounds heavy and cumbersome and ungainly. That’s not a description of what I like about New Orleans music. New Orleans has always been generally musically sophisticated.”
He was pitched the idea of recording a tribute album and initially resisted. “It seems corny to me because people have done that,” he says. When Toussaint was suggested, Cleary’s attitude changed. It’s a body of work that he has had affection for since before he came to New Orleans.
“Some tunes of his really resonated with me before I knew they were his,” Cleary says. One of his uncles played with Scottish singer Frankie Miller, whose Toussaint-produced High Life was released in 1974. Cleary heard Miller’s version of “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)” on the BBC, not knowing who wrote or produced it. “I can remember hearing it and saying, ‘Wow!’ I loved that piano lick, and the pocket, the groove, everything,” he says. It was one of the few Toussaint songs he’d hear on BBC, along with Little Feat’s “Long Distance Love” and Robert Palmer’s “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley.” Since he had an uncle who had lived in New Orleans, Cleary knew a lot of New Orleans as a pre-teen, but he’d yet to realize that these tracks came from Toussaint. It was only after he moved here that he made the connection.
On Occapella, he covers one of Toussaint’s signature songs, “Southern Nights,” by slowing it down. “There’s a piano line that comes in that is quite melancholy and dark,” he says. It guides Cleary’s remake, which is akin to the moody, semi-spoken introduction Toussaint sometimes uses to preface the song, a preface Cleary saw nightly when he toured Australia with Toussaint and Henry Butler in 2008.
“There were one or two where I stuck pretty closely to the original just because that was fun,” he says. ”But there were others where the challenge was to do something different with it. That’s the test of a good song, that you can arrange it in an entirely different way. ‘When the Party’s Over’ for example. There are no drums on that. I played drums on the tune, but I took them off because it gave it a lighter, breezier sound. It’s kind of refreshing.”
Cleary says he could have given any of the songs the solo piano treatment, but “Fortune Teller” made it easy. “It’s not very sophisticated musically, but the actual melody has a nursery rhyme quality to it that anybody can hum along to,” he says. “That’s an important part of writing pop songs. Toussaint is first and foremost a great writer of pop songs. For a song to succeed as a pop song it has to be hummable.”
There are three upright pianos in Cleary’s studio, and posters that recall the New Orleans R&B greats on the wall. Upstairs, WWOZ’s on the radio playing New Orleans music, and he’s just cut an album of songs by one of the city’s greats. Where has Cleary spent much of the last year? In front of his computer.
“I think the main instrument that I devoted the most time to was learning how to record,” he says. “I’ve had to become an engineer. Learning how to edit and record in ProTools. If I was independently wealthy, or if I played a style of music that was more commercially successful, I would have the financial wherewithal to pay other people to do all these things. But I don’t. I live in New Orleans. I play New Orleans R&B and funk and soul. It’s music for real music lovers. You have to be inventive and find a way around it.”
Jon Cleary plays the French Quarter Festival’s “Thank Goodness It’s Festival” kickoff party on Wednesday, April 11 at 6 p.m. at House of Blues.