(Jazz Cafe, NW1, 29th June 2011. Part of Bluesfest London. Review by Rod Fogg.)
Born in Kent, Jon Cleary played gigs on the London circuit before heading to New Orleans early on in his career to soak up some of that authentic Louisiana jazz, funk, blues and soul. This is a guy who worked hard, paid his dues, sat at the feet of the masters and in time became a master himself. He does not do pastiche, he is the genuine article, and in his playing you can hear a direct connection to Jelly Roll Morton, through Professor Longhair and on to contemporaries like Dr John.
Cleary's main vehicle at the moment is the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, a full-size band including horns, guitar and organ; but on this outing we were treated to the stripped down sounds of Cleary on acoustic grand piano supported by authentic Louisiana natives Doug Belote on drums and Matt Perrine on acoustic double bass. As Cleary himself remarked, this is one hip rhythm section from the city with the hippest rhythm sections.
Some of the material came from the Absolute Monster Gentlemen album, including the funky pop tune "When You Get Back" which was way more fun given the piano bass and drum treatment. There was a selection of New Orleans classics, "Blow Winds Blow", "Tipitina" and "Alberta", together with some jazz standards like "The Very Thought of You" and "Stardust", played in 12/8 time Fats Domino style (think "Blueberry Hill"). Other originals included "Come on Second Line" from his first CD Alligator Lips and Dirty Rice, and "So Damn Good", the standout track on the new album.
Jon Cleary is a man in demand, currently playing in John Scofield's Piety Street Band and with a long, long list of credits. He has a powerful but warm blues voice and plays great piano. He doesn't just play in that classic rolling New Orleans style, but is happy with boogie-woogie and out and out jazz too. Pretty much every song is taken on a journey, starting in New Orleans before touching bases with calypso, tango, rock 'n' roll and jazz. At first, this sense of musical freedom was something truly wonderful, with a telepathic connection between the band members only found in the very best ensembles.
Later in the gig I found myself wishing they would just play it straight sometimes and nail the groove for five minutes flat - it was such a good groove, after all. But maybe it's best to go with the flow, as the quiet moments and playful jazz phrasing just made the big dynamics this small band can handle all the more amazing. My ears loved it, my feet loved it and it was fascinating brain food too. So much great music and a kind of New Orleans jazz piano history lesson thrown in as well, it was one to remember for a long time. Come home again soon, Jon.