New Orleans piano funk master Jon Cleary is living proof that you don’t have to be born to a thing to become its leading light. Whatever you want to be, you can just go out and (with a lot of work – and, yes, balls of steel) you can be whatever you want.

Twenty years ago, Cleary first got the NOLA bug almost 5,000 miles away, in Kent in the UK – the Englishman moved to The Crescent City to try his luck and is today one of the finest exponents of the New Orleans piano-vocal style.

I saw him a little over a year ago as part of the Legends of New Orleans Tour along with the wizard of the genre, Allen Toussaint. Cleary performed that tour with his turn-on-a-dime rhythm section, The Philthy Phew. Prior to that he had toured Australia with his immensely popular and genre-defining group, the wonderfully named Absolute Monster Gentlemen.

But tonight at Sydney’s Basement he was alone. Just him, a Steinway grand and a rapt audience, hanging on his every note. He emerged in cream suit and trademark big-brimmed hat (also cream) and explained that he had just come off a long, long flight and would it be cool if he played a little piano for us?

Yes, it was cool with us. Which was fortunate, because before he sang a note Jon Cleary treated the Basement audience to a master-class in New Orleans piano virtuosity. Like a roots-Rachmaninov, Cleary – unencumbered by the frameworks that even the most telepathic band has to adhere to – took free flight, moving in and out of time, in and out of key, suggesting a blues here, a sing-song melody there. The great charm of New Orleans music is that it is as virtuosic as any form of jazz but it never loses its groove – its feet are on the earth at all times, and they are usually dancing. It is Jazz, but jazz for everyone.

Cleary’s Steinway extemporisations gradually wound down enough for him to sing – it was his version of the murder ballad “Stagger Lee”, very freely done. When we finally got a chance to applaud, the place went wild.

But Cleary flew between songs, not taking much time for talk. He did however take time out to preface a Professor Longhair 8-bar blues which took in elements of the NOLA classic “Tipitina” – Cleary explained that the 8-bar blues can be ‘messed with’, which he did – and did some more. And then some more…

He reached into his back catalogue for the funk of “Help Me Somebody” and the bootie-roll of “I Feel So Damn Good (I’ll Be Glad When I Get the Blues)”. He also played a couple of selections from his new album “Occapella” – an album made up of only Allen Toussaint tunes. The reading of Toussaint’s knowing “What Do You Want The Girl To Do?” was particularly tender.

Jon Cleary’s command of this music is mind-bending – again and again taking a simple form and twisting and turning it, inside out and upside down, while miraculously never taking it too far above-the-waist. That is the genius of New Orleans music and the particular genius of the amazing Jon Cleary, the funkiest Englishman you are likely to meet.

Photos by Katja Liebing, Blue Moon Photography.

Published November 2012 on theorangepress.net

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