“I think if I have any talent at all, it’s for picking good guys to play with to make me sound good,” Jon Cleary says, then laughs and takes another sip of his tea. The Grammy-winning pianist, vocalist and composer still retains that ritual of his British birthplace, though musically he’s long fully embraced the sounds of New Orleans, his residence since 1981. Cleary stands as the keeper of the flame in the remarkable lineage of pianists such as Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, James Booker and Henry Butler. He also faithfully revisits classics from rhythm and blues giants like guitarists Snooks Eaglin and Earl King and vocalists Ernie K-Doe and Lee Dorsey.
As a pianist who also sings, Cleary is very much aware that it is up to him and others like Davell Crawford to keep the material from this city’s rhythm and blues heydays alive for future generations.
“I used those solo gigs at d.b.a. to make sure that somebody is here playing and singing the New Orleans songbook,” Cleary explains. “A lot of the piano players that were around here when I was a kid coming up aren’t here anymore. There are some great piano players in town, but not very many people who play and sing. There is repertoire.”
Surrounding himself with talented musicians has been Cleary’s signature from the time he first moved to the city and continues to today as heard on his formidable new album, Dyna-Mite, which is loaded with New Orleans top artists.
Back in the day, when he was just starting to gig in New Orleans, he realized that it was the veteran musicians who, at the drop of a hat, could play the old songs with which he was familiar. Younger cats certainly might have been capable of playing them, though lack of a budget for rehearsals often thwarted that option.
“I found if I called the old guys—like drummer Smokey Johnson and [bassist] Erving Charles—then I could call out a Little Willie John tune and they all knew it,” Cleary recalls, “and I knew a lot of old songs. I’d also get [bassist/vocalist] George Porter who has a great encyclopedic knowledge of old tunes because he came up playing with older musicians and has respect for the tradition. I could play with George.”
Another essential for Cleary was that the members of his band were also vocalists. The guys in his first group, the Absolute Monster Gentlemen—bassist Cornell Williams, guitarist Derwin “Big D” Perkins and Jeffrey “Jellybean” Alexander—who came out of the gospel community, definitely fit that critique.
The same can be said about the core artists on the new album as well as Cleary’s very busy touring band, which includes drummer/vocalist A.J. Hall and longtime running mate bassist/vocalist Williams. “With three voices you can cover the essential ground to harmonize and paint a full picture,” Cleary says. When the budget allows, keyboardist, organist, and of course, vocalist Nigel Hall, who Cleary connected with after discovering their mutual admiration for vocalist Donny Hathaway, is also on the bill. “With four voices, the harmony really gets interesting,” he notes.
“All of the musicians in my bands have to be able sing well,” Cleary confirms. “That’s very important to me. When your band sings it’s almost like you’re building a bridge that crosses the divide between the stage and the audience. People really respond to that. It’s kind of like a primeval thing that is part of our DNA. Also, I like playing songs. I think songs are important because they always have a catchy little hook.”
Talk about “catchy little hooks”: The title cut embraces them—New Orleans style—in abundance rhythmically, melodically and lyrically. Cleary references the piano of Professor Longhair, plus there’s the Meters-esque guitar of Leo Nocentelli. Straight off the streets is the repeated refrain, “Don’t tell nobody,” that is most associated with the tune “I Got a Big Fat Woman.” Despite those and other elements that are highly associated with New Orleans, the song remains uniquely devoid of too often–used clichés. Cleary was able to accomplish this because of his deep knowledge and respect for the city, its music and its musicians.
“When I first came here, I was aware that it was going to be a long process and the way to do it properly was to absorb it all—not just the music, but the food, the water,” he explains of grasping the inner workings of New Orleans music. “Then it just goes into your mental inventory of ideas. If you just continue to work at it, when it comes out it’s going to be honestly New Orleans. A lot of people play good copies of New Orleans tunes. I didn’t just want to be an imitation.”
The proof of the success of Cleary’s concept to dig deeply and lovingly into all things New Orleans in order to access this city’s essence lives in the title tune as well as when he covers classics or creates original compositions. “I wrote ‘Dyna-Mite’ on a plane during the short moment between when you take a seat and have to turn off your phone,” Cleary remembers. “It has a silly play on words and I wanted to have a song that had that distinctly New Orleans groove because it’s great for the way I play piano. When you play that groove live, it doesn’t matter where in the world you are, it makes people feel good. It just works.”
On the album, Cleary’s piano and vocals often enjoy the luxury of being backed by large ensemble complete with the duo rhythms of drummer/vocalist Jamison Ross with percussions supplied by A.J. Hall. The two outstanding musicians are teamed in the rhythm section with the solid bassist/vocalist Calvin Turner. When the horn section kicks in, as it does on the opener, it boasts a full complement of the essentials—trombone, saxophone and trumpet. Naturally, it’s financially impossible to take a band of this size on the road, yet Cleary says because of the song’s nature, it can hold its own in a smaller setting.
“It’s an area where the piano is the perfect vehicle for implying what all the elements of the band do,” he explains. “Even if I play ‘Dyna-Mite’ solo, I’m implying what you hear the horns and drums or the [Mardi Gras] Indian percussionists play out in the street. Strip New Orleans funk down to its lowest common denominator and you get the street.”
In New Orleans there aren’t many people who think of Jon Cleary as a guitarist or have ever seen him wield the instrument. He has recorded with the guitar on earlier albums and here his guitar plays a major role. On the road, which has been his longtime home away from home, he’s also brought the instrument to the stage even in a trio setting. At one time, he admits, he didn’t really like guitar trios because when there was a guitar solo, the chords would drop out. He remembers thinking, “I’ve got to do this and I just need to find a way to make it work. It’s nice to have some variety.”
“I played guitar for a lot longer than I played piano,” Cleary clarifies. “It was my first instrument. When you move from an instrument like a guitar to piano, it’s like going from a garden to a huge pasture because of the piano’s range. So when you’re used to having that all under your fingertips, to go back and pick up the guitar the picture seems to shrinks a little bit.”
“Over the years, my piano playing has informed my guitar playing more,” he continues. “I think a lot of the good New Orleans guitar players always played a bit like piano players because New Orleans was never a guitar town. So Snooks [Eaglin] played like a piano player and Earl King played like a piano player quite often in the arpeggio of chords he used to play. Walter Washington has a beautiful way of voicing chords which is like what a piano would do.”
Cleary’s piano and vocals continue to dominate the sound and groove of Dyna-Mite while he turns not only to the guitar but also the Hammond B-3, Wurlitzer, clavinet bass and even drums on numerous cuts.
In fact, on the humorously titled “Big Greasy” Cleary plays all of the above; Jamison Ross came into the studio to overdub the drums on top of Cleary’s creation that included a drum loop. It’s a little gem of a reggae number and of the album. It has all of the crucial elements—melodically, rhythmically, vocally, lyrically and basically stylistically—of what makes reggae reggae.
“Yeah, ‘Big Greasy’ is me pretty much playing just about everything,” Cleary points out with a laugh. “All these things start out as just me pressing record and just playing. It began with a New Orleans kind of funk groove with a Jamaican style bass line and a lyric that I wrote while driving back from a gig in Memphis. I think I sang it into my iPhone, like two or three lines. I spend half my life just following red tail lights coming back home.”
“‘Big Greasy’ is full of lots of little references that anybody who’s really into reggae will be able to spot. Reggae music was an important part of the soundtrack of my adolescence in England. In the late ’70s we got to see all the amazing Jamaican bands that came to England to play,” says Cleary, adding that during that era punk rock and reggae bands—like The Clash and Steel Pulse—would be double billed. “That’s what kids my age were listening to.”
Like most reggae tunes, “Big Greasy” contains a social message, though it’s directed specifically to New Orleans rather than universally. “Don’t go messing up a good thing,” Cleary warns. “It’s the funk that holds it [New Orleans] together.”
Though that line—a truism for many—might bring a smile, Cleary remains seriously concerned about some folks’ intent to “clean up” the city, which they often see as closing down bars and joints with live music that in many cases have existed for years.
“New Orleans was so funky that you either loved it or hated it,” Cleary says. “The people who hated it left and never came back and the people who loved it moved here so we were all kind of funky together and it was cool. Parts of the local populace always, it seems, want to clean it up—they were a little bit ashamed of the dirtiness. The song is like, okay, that’s cool but don’t sweep it all away. There seems to be a conspiracy to try to de-funkify it.”
The atmosphere gets a bit more sophisticated on Cleary’s soul ballad “Best Ain’t Good Enough” that opens powerfully, with him advising, “If you’ve got a good thing my friend, mmm, mmm, hold on tight,” while his B-3 effectively backs his preaching. Its late night quality is reminiscent of a tune that could show up in the songbook of guitarist/vocalist Walter “Wolfman” Washington, who was an important factor in Cleary’s early career in New Orleans.
“I wrote that song years ago—early 1990s,” Cleary explains. “At the time, I think I had been listening to a lot of Ray Charles and Walter was very influenced by Ray Charles. That probably was the musical common denominator there. I learned so much from Walter Washington. Walter influenced the way I sing and voice chords. We also share a love of Johnny Guitar Watson.”
Cleary and Washington first met back in the winter of 1984 when the pianist was playing at Benny’s Bar with vocalist Mighty Sam McClain and Washington stopped by one night and sat in with the band.
“We hit it off straight away and he asked me if I would come and play with him at Dorothy’s [Dorothy’s Medallion Lounge] with Johnny Adams,” Cleary remembers. The pianist made his first tour with Wolfman heading down the road in a station wagon to play small, black barrooms in Mississippi. The group, which included drummer Wilbert “Junkyard Dog” Albert, was first dubbed the Solar System band and then became, suitably, the Roadmasters.
“Can you imagine how happy I was?” Cleary asks with the amazement of his incredible good fortune on being on the road—more accurately on the Chitlin’ Circuit—with Washington still in his voice. “I learned so much even from the jukeboxes in these places. Blues lovers in England were listening to John Lee Hooker and B.B. King. I was looking at the jukeboxes in these little joints and they had Johnnie Taylor, Denise LaSalle, Tyrone Davis—those were names I didn’t know. That really turned me onto Southern Soul. It was informed by the blues but it was more church-y and more musical to my ears.”
“New Orleans was always more sophisticated than the music that came out Texas or Mississippi. This is where jazz came out of, so the music had complicated changes. It’s always been a broader musical palette than three-chord blues.”
“I think I was hard-wired—or pre-wired—for certain things,” Cleary suggests. “It was almost like hearing something that I had to hear because my receiver was already tuned into that wavelength.” On listening to Dyna-Mite, or any of his recordings or live shows, those elements that perked up his ever-ready ears become apparent as they’ve become a part of him. Cleary was just a youngster when he was introduced to the power of vocalist/guitarist/composer Taj Mahal, who would later play a major role in his life. He offers a bow to the legendary bluesman by including a tune on Dyna-Mite that they wrote together, the swaying “21st Century Gypsy Singing Lover Man,” a lament on leaving a sweetheart when the road and music calls. The tune was on Mahal’s 1997 Señor Blues with Cleary on piano.
“I first heard Taj on record when I was a little kid at my grandma’s house and my uncle said, ‘Sit down, I want to play you something and I want you to really listen to it.’ So he put on a record called Recycling the Blues & Other Related Stuff. The song was a version of “Sweet Home Chicago” with the Pointer Sisters singing with him. I was mesmerized. It was the loveliest thing I ever heard. So over the years, I started getting everything I could by Taj.”
“When I left school, I got my first job as a laborer on a building site to save money to come to New Orleans,” Cleary continues. “I took my mom to see Taj with my first pay packet. That just fit me like an old comfortable jacket—I just dug it hugely.”
Years later when Cleary was in England and trying to get a visa to return to the States, he got a message from record producer John Porter, to whom he had previously sent rough cassette demos. As Cleary tells it, Porter said “I’m doing a record with Taj and I played him a few of your songs and would you mind if he did them on the record?” Naturally, Cleary was delighted and even more so when Porter called back and said, “You know what, Taj has asked if you could come play on the record.”
Cleary hit it big time with that offer. Not only would he be recording with Taj Mahal, who he had admired for so long, but it also enabled him to get the visa to return the U.S. and thus get back to New Orleans.
“I think he just dug the fact I that I had the same taste as him—and it wasn’t just limited to blues. There was Cuban music, Latin music, jazz and various aspects of R&B. As I said, a lot of my musicality was informed as a little kid by Taj records so I really knew his stuff very well.”
Cleary’s piano and vocals are at the heart of most of the material on Dyna-Mite, though he doesn’t often take center stage as a soloist. Perhaps that’s what makes it somewhat amusing that at the very end of the final cut, the lively and very catchy, “All Good Things,” he takes it out with a full-minute of solo piano. Cleary also takes full advantage of all the great singers in the band’s ranks. The harmonies really give the tune meat.
“It felt like the right thing to do,” says Cleary of the solo. “It somehow fit in with the sentiment of the song. I wrote that years ago and recorded it a couple of times. I think if a song has a hook that non-musicians can pick up on very easily, that, to me is a pop song. The best New Orleans tunes always have great hooks—Ernie K-Doe’s ‘T’aint It the Truth’ and Lee Dorsey’s tunes always had great hooks. Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s bad although a lot of stuff that is popular is crap. It doesn’t have to be corny. Toussaint’s tunes were clever, intelligent and well-produced. It’s good to aspire to do the same thing.”
Many Cleary fans might consider him already having achieved “classic” status for his song “When You Get Back” off his 2002 album with the Absolute Monster Gentlemen. “That really resonates with a lot of people—the ladies really like that one,” says Cleary with a laugh. “When they request it, some people say ‘Cha Cha All Night Long’ or ‘She Lied.’”
Cleary describes his recent touring schedule—which includes performances with longtime associate Bonnie Raitt both nationally and internationally—as being “a bit of a blur.” He’s been jumping from country to country and city to city playing barrooms with a capacity of approximately 60 patrons to being in front an audience of 60,000 at London’s Hyde Park. He describes performing in an over-2000-year-old amphitheater in Pompeii as totally mind-boggling.
It could be considered a lucky break that Cleary will be home in New Orleans long enough to do two shows in October. On Friday, October 5, he’ll celebrate Dyna-Mite’s release at the Maple Leaf at a gig dubbed “Jon Cleary & Friends.” Drummers Jamison Ross—who’s on the album though he no longer tours with Cleary as his solo career skyrocketed—and A.J. Hall will be on the scene, as well as bassist Cornell Williams. All of the horn players blowin’ on the disc are invited to jump onboard. The following day, Cleary and his trio head across the river to perform at the Algiers Fest with special guest Walter “Wolfman” Washington.
While Cleary might drink a cup of hot tea on a sweltering summer afternoon rather than an iced sweet tea, the British native speaks of this city and its music much like a native son.
“There have been a couple of occasions in the last century when New Orleans became fashionable,” says Cleary, who, in part, was certainly making reference to this city’s rhythm and blues heydays of the late 1950s and 1960s. “When the business goes away it’s not like people stop playing music down here. You do it anyway because it is an important part of the culture. If you’re a good musician and start playing music you don’t stop. You can do other things but you keep playing music.”
“Here it’s almost like a bodily function—it’s like breathing oxygen. You don’t think about it, you just play music. The hope is that you can do it well and surround yourself with other good players and have fun doing it. If you can make a living at it, even a meager living, that’s the icing on the cake. The evidence is that every time we play—and I take New Orleans musicians out around the world—by the time we’ve done our job, everybody walks out with big smiles on their faces. New Orleans music works every time. It’s medicine, it makes you feel good. The essence of New Orleans music is that they’ll still be doing it in 100 years.”
“One time I was with [Ernie] K-Doe outside of the Mother-in-Law [Lounge] on Claiborne and a car came past and all you could hear was the drums and the bass like some hip-hop thing coming out of huge woofers in the trunk. He said, ‘Hear that groove? That ain’t nothing new. We’ve been doing that for 100 years.’ And he was right. There was that street beat groove that is the essence of New Orleans music.”