From Cranbrook to the Crescent City and beyond

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 July, 2004, 12:00am

A few years ago at the Jazz Club, singer Maria Muldaur paused half way through a set she was performing with only one accompanist, Jon Cleary on piano. Spontaneously, she decided to drop the song she'd intended to sing and said: 'Let's hear Jon. Play Big Chief for me'.

Cleary obliged with a rendition of the Professor Longhair classic that got perhaps the biggest round of applause of the night after Midnight at the Oasis. Muldaur watched him with rapt attention and an expression that suggested that, although she'd heard this many times before, she still couldn't quite believe her ears.

Nowadays, Cleary plays piano for Bonnie Raitt, on whom he has a similar effect. Raitt says she watches from the wings and wonders why she isn't supporting him.

Most people with an interest in New Orleans music, and the tradition of piano playing that stretches back through distinguished exponents such as Dr John and Professor Longhair to Jelly Roll Morton and the roots of jazz, agree that Cleary is one of the best living keyboard men working in that area.

This is a paradox. To play in that style convincingly, you have to tap directly into the soul of the city that gave it birth - and, generally speaking, that means having been born there.

But Cleary isn't a native son, and there are few places less like New Orleans than Cranbrook, a village in Kent, southeast England, where he spent his childhood and teenage years. I know this because, although I'm about three years older than him, we both attended Cranbrook School, and I knew him slightly as a precociously talented electric guitarist with a taste for punk rock.

It wasn't all he had a taste for. After one brush too many with the local police over dope possession, Cleary was invited to discontinue his formal education early. At the age of 17, guitar in hand, he headed for the Crescent City and the sound he'd been listening to in between the Clash and the Sex Pistols.

He got the city into his system the hard way. He turned up more or less broke and was willing to take any work he could get. What he found was a job painting a bar, which happened to be where the legendary James Booker was playing the piano.

Up to that point mostly a guitarist who occasionally fooled around on piano, Cleary started to take the instrument more seriously and absorbed everything he could from Booker and the other great keyboard players who worked the city's bars and clubs. Before long, the scruffy Englishman was working with Walter 'Wolfman' Washington and had become part of the town's extended family of hot players.

He and Dr John - another guitarist turned piano player - began performing occasionally as a guitar and piano duo, swapping instruments during the set. When Cleary recorded his debut CD, Alligator Lips and Dirty Rice, the cream of the city's musicians, including Meters bassist George Porter Junior turned out to help.

Since then, Cleary has managed to balance a busy career as a sideman on the road and in the studio with a solo career that's seen him develop a highly personal line in New Orleans blues funk with a strong Caribbean influence.

He has also emerged as a noteworthy songwriter. Artists who employ his formidable keyboard skills tend to find themselves cutting a few of his tunes. As a blues-based lyricist chronicling the down and dirty side of romance, his only equal now is Robert Cray.

He first worked with his regular producer John Porter, a fellow Brit with a similar liking for American roots music, on Taj Mahal's wonderful Phantom Blues album, contributing two of the best songs, Cheatin' on You and Fanning the Flames.

Raitt has also recorded Cleary compositions Fool's Game and Monkey Business, both of which appear on the Silver Lining album, on which his keyboard work also features prominently.

Now we have Cleary's own version of the latter song on his latest solo outing, backed by the formidable Absolute Monster Gentlemen, a group of seasoned New Orleans players who share his taste for funk and Cuban grooves - mixed up musical gumbo style in the best New Orleans tradition - with easy swing meeting rock'n'roll attitude. The playing is tight and the songs are for the most part short and to the point.

He's a perfectionist and has given neither himself nor his band an easy ride. This is more of a produced album than some of his earlier 'live in the studio' recordings, but it allows the compositions to shine. Got to be More Careful, Is it Any Wonder and Zulu Strut are vintage Cleary, which means they're very good, indeed.

He should be bigger than he is, and, given time, perhaps he will be. In the meantime, check this out.