Jon Cleary, “Live at Chickie Wah Wah” (FHQ Records)

This is Jon Cleary’s first solo piano album. Since Jon is as good as anyone at performing the New Orleans R&B/funk songbook, people have been waiting eons for this. As wonderful as his band the Monster Gentlemen are the intimacy of a man and his piano is special.

The base of Cleary’s style is Mac Rebennack and, to a lesser extent, Professor Longhair. But he is in fact an encyclopedia of African-American music from the 1940s to (perhaps) the 1980s. His knowledge of R&B, funk, gospel, reggae, Cuban music—no one connects New Orleans to Cuba more suavely—and boogie-woogie is profound, leading to a splendid rhythmic freedom. And his fantastic voice, a more conventionally beautiful one than his idols’, is full of melismatic invention and fervor.

This CD is divided evenly between originals and covers. I’ve heard Jon over 100 times, I’m sure, but don’t recall tunes like Jessie Hill’s jolly “Sweet Jelly Roll,” nor “Guess Who?” or the achingly ferocious “My Baby’s in Love with Another Guy.” Among Jon’s originals are Cleary hits (if anyone in New Orleans has hits any longer) from earlier band albums: “Unnecessarily Mercenary,” “So Damn Good” and the ingenious “When You Get Back.”

My favorite track would have to be “The Very Thought of You,” a Great American Songbook standard from 1934. Usually played as a swing ballad, Jon’s R&B approach is eye-opening, and his vocals are just stupendous. I’d love to hear JC do a whole piano/vocal album of old standards (his “Stardust” is killer too), but will settle for anything he puts out. As a NOLA singer, pianist and songwriter he’s hard to match.