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pic Jason Rosewarne

He may have been born a Brit but singer, songwriter and ivories tinkler, Jon Cleary has become as much a fixture of New Orleans as cajun cooking, bayous and Lagniappe. For the last 35 years, Cleary has performed with and earned the respect of many music legends such as Bonnie Raitt, BB King, Taj Mahal and Ryan Adams to name a few. He has also entertained audiences worldwide with his own brand of good-time New Orleans funk, along with his band The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, releasing 8 albums, with a 9th due to drop soon. Cleary is no stranger to Australia, having toured many times before. He’s currently back in our country playing a mixture of festival gigs and smaller clubs, including a 3 night stint at Melbourne’s Birds Basement (Nov 14-16). When Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips spoke to him on the phone this week, the amiable Cleary was somewhere between Melbourne and Wangaratta on the road, “where I spend most of my life… between the hotel and the gig to his next gig,” he exclaimed.

Cleary’s memories of his first Australian tour are fond, mainly due to meeting the late great local bass player Jackie Orszaczky and also because of the subtle similarities between Australia, England and his adopted home of New Orleans. “It was a long time ago but the first night I was in Australia, I went to see Jackie Orszaczky, a bass player from Sydney who has since died,” Jon recalls. “He had a really good funky band, we got off on the right footing and we ended up being really good friends. He played on some tours with me and came to stay with me in New Orleans. I really dug Australia. It seemed to me to be an interesting cross between England and New Orleans in a way. I was born in England but grew up in New Orleans and I think Australia has elements of both. Obviously there’s the legacy of England but Sydney is about as south of the equator as New Orleans is north of the equator, so there’s a sub-tropical climate. There’s some similar architecture, houses with wrought iron balconies, so you can take advantage of the weather… tropical plants. Australia and the Unites States are relatively new countries in the grand scheme of things so there is that freshness, a youthful freshness to both places that I like.”

Jon Cleary is carrying on a long standing legacy of great piano players who have come out of New Orleans. Music history tells us that many of the great American guitar players have originated from Texan cities or Chicago, whereas New Orleans has provided us with keyboard legends such as Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Dr John, James Booker, Fats Domino, and Jelly Roll Morton. It’s a phenomenon that Cleary is well aware of and also has theories on why that is.
“Well, New Orleans is really a horn town and a percussion town,” he states as he begins to give me a music history lesson. “New Orleans has always had a lot of music. The people there are a mixture of Africa, Spain and France, so you have everything from the European classical tradition to drums and chorus singing from Africa. It was traditionally part of the Caribbean world, the centre was Savannah. New Orleans didn’t become part of the United States until very, very late, so culturally it virtually has nothing in common with anywhere else in the South or in the states. Mississippi has guitar blues, Texas has guitar blues, Chicago and that cultural world comes from an entirely different place. Percussion is very important to New Orleans and horn playing too. Most New Orleans music is in the piano keys not the horn keys. Whereas if you go to Chicago, as a piano player you’re playing with bands that are led by guitars, so you are playing in guitar keys, which correspond with the open strings of the guitar. So you’d be playing in E or A. In New Orleans you are playing in the flat keys because the horns are based in E flat, B flat, F, composite C and in those keys, when you are playing on the piano, the minor 3rd always lands on a black note. When you place your index finger on a black note, you can slide it off to the white notes, so you can transition from a minor 3rd to a major 3rd, which is really the essence of jazz and blues. To do that same thing in guitar keys, requires two fingers … entirely different fingering and it is clumsy and difficult to do. That’s why piano players like Otis Span from Chicago had a real raw sound and why piano players from New Orleans like James Booker and Mac Rebbenack (Dr John) have this gentle, complicated sound. The way your fingers are shaped on the keyboard means that certain things will be more prominent if you are a New Orleans piano player. The piano is a percussion instrument and played like one and the fingering is different.”

Cleary may have made a name for himself playing piano but he came to New Orleans originally as a guitar player. While he may not be seen playing a guitar on stage, at home he frequently picks one up for a strum or to aid in the songwriting process. “The guitar is a beautiful instrument and I spent a good 10 or 12 years playing every day for hours and hours until I wrapped my head around the piano, which is when I moved to New Orleans,” he says. “Moving from the guitar to the piano was an interesting step up. All of a sudden you have a much bigger range of musical notes, the piano has a much wider range than any other instrument. The beauty of the piano is that you can solo with the right hand and accompany yourself with the left hand. It’s like playing two instruments at once. You’re performing two tasks with the same instrument and you can’t really do that with the guitar or any other instrument, certainly not monophonic instruments like horns. It’s like opening the gate to a much bigger playground when you’re a kid and having romped around in that big old field for so many years, when you do get back on the guitar, it feels like you’re range has been limited. It makes you play differently. There are things you can do on guitar that you can’t do on piano. The most important one is bending the strings, bending notes. Pitches on piano are fixed, on the guitar they are not so that is exciting. But you can make a bigger noise on a piano. It is a good instrument to direct a band with, it’s like a bigger steering wheel.”

On stage and in the studio Jon prefers a good upright or grand piano to tinker on, his use of digital pianos is more for practical purposes. Recently he’s been touring with both a Nord Electro and some kind of Roland digital piano such as the RD7000, usually they’re hired. I asked Jon about what sounds he’s extracting from each keyboard for his live show. “I always like the Wurlitzer electric piano, I like the tremolo effect and the little bit of distortion you get on it,” he explains. “The Nord has pretty good Wurlitzer sounds. With the Roland, I am just using the piano sounds. If you are a piano player and you are touring, you often end up playing a different instrument every night. Most guitarists and horn players spend years finding the instrument which suits them and they play that same instrument every night. It’s not like that with piano players. Often I will backline a Roland because it gets the job done. I don’t really like digital electric pianos but when you are touring, they offer an element of consistency. The Nord I use for Clavinet sounds and Wurlitzer sounds. I often tour with a trio and being able to play two different keyboard sounds at once, just gives me more colours to play with, increases the palette.”


On the current Australian tour, Jon will be performing with a four piece version of The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, which includes Cornell Williams on bass, AJ Hall on drums and multi-instrumentalist Nigel Hall.
“I’ve got this killer rhythm section,” Jon tells me enthusiastically. “Cornell on bass. We’ve been playing together for over 20 years. Cornell comes out of a gospel tradition in New Orleans where singing is really important. He’s got a lot of soul and draws a lot of energy on stage and with the church congregation, it’s the same thing. Those are some of the aspects of American music that I really love. AJ Hall on drums is one of the new up and coming guys on the New Orleans scene. He’s a phenomenal technical drummer and also someone who plays with a great deal of soul and sings great. Everybody in my band has to sing, otherwise we couldn’t do the show. AJ is also a great multi-instrumentalist, plays bass and has a very broad appreciation and understanding of current RnB and the RnB tradition. The 4th member, apart from me is someone I am just thrilled to share the stage with and his name is Nigel Hall, who is quite a star in his own right, band leader, songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist. We’ve become good friends since he moved to New Orleans from Washington about 5 years ago. We have so much in common musically. To share a stage with him every night is just a joy. He’s like all of your favourite RnB musicians rolled into one. It really is a killer band.”

Cleary made a name for himself playing residencies at small clubs in New Orleans but as his stature grew with his side guy roles to artists such as Bonnie Raitt, he found himself playing to much bigger crowds in theatres and at festivals. Of course these days he enjoys larger crowds worldwide for his own performances with The Absolute Monster Gentlemen too. Apart from playing the Wangaratta, Queenscliff and Mullum Music festivals while in Australia, he’ll also be performing more intimate gigs such as The Basement in Sydney and Bird’s Basement in Melbourne. While Jon admits to a soft spot for the smaller gigs, his approach never changes, irrespective of the size of the audience. “What we do doesn’t really change” he states. “It works well in either context. We’re working musicians and we get hired because people know we’ll get the job done. It doesn’t matter what the room is or who the audience is. We’ve been doing it a number of years and there’s kind of a Darwinian process which determines what material gets played and you just know from the audience response and doing gigs year after year, that there are certain things that you can do that will get a response, and they always do. There’s a difference of course between performing in a small venue and a large concert venue but it has more to do with the way you adjust your broadcasting equipment for want of a better analogy. The songs … if you do them right, will work equally well but you have to broadcast them in a different way. If you’re playing to thousands of people, you tend to spread it out on the stage. If you’re playing to close physical proximity to an audience, that’s actually my preference. But it’s our job, it’s what we do and we make it work in any context.”

Jon Cleary plays Birds Basement in Melbourne November 14, 15 and 16. Ticket info here
Check Jon’s website for more Australian dates

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