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Jon Cleary, New Orleans R&B Piano Master, Makes Rare Visit

Jon Cleary, New Orleans R&B Piano Master, Makes Rare Visit
Rick Olivier

The last time Rocks Off saw Jon Cleary, he was hammering his piano like a blacksmith at the Big Easy, totally surrounded by adoring blues fans - so many, in fact, that it was difficult to even get a glimpse of the British-born pianist from the rear of the crowd.

Cleary and his band, the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, gave us a lesson in old school Fats Domino rock and roll with plenty of emphasis on the roll (the lack of which is what makes most of today's "rock" suck). We enjoyed the show so much we included it in our list of the best shows of 2010.

Cleary returns to the scene of the crime solo Friday night, and indicated in a phone interview Wednesday that he won't be playing the same set again.

Rocks Off: What can people look forward to in a solo set versus the rocking set you played last time you were here?

Jon Cleary: I just grab whatever moves me on these solo gigs. No set list, so I'm free to just go with my mood and pull from as deep in my repertoire as I feel like. Cuban stuff, jazz, blues, whatever I feel like or whatever I sense the crowd is into. And that's a format I very much enjoy.

RO: Not many people play the Fats Domino style anymore, but the last time you were here it almost seemed like a clinic in that particular New Orleans style.

JC: Well, I love Fats and his music. And one shouldn't think that Fats is one-dimensional. His music always had numerous elements in it, interesting Caribbean beats, things like that.

RO: How is he doing these days?

JC: He's fine. I go out and visit him when I'm in town. He's been living in a gated community since Katrina, and I think he misses his old friends and his old scene. So I go out and play piano for him. But he's doing well, stays upbeat. He's just a beautiful guy.

RO: To be only six hours away and to have drawn such a huge crowd the last time you played here, is there some reason you don't play Houston more often than you do?

JC: I don't really have an answer for that. I suppose I should play Houston a bit more often. But I can't say there is a particular reason that I haven't.

 

RO: When you aren't on the road, do you like to sit in with other people and play informally, or do you prefer to just hole up?

JC: I'm honestly on the road so much I really value my down time at home, so I don't go out and play with other people when I'm here. I like to spend time in my studio, which is where I am right now.

RO: You haven't had an album of new material since 2004. Then you had the live album three years ago. When will there be a new Jon Cleary album?

JC: Actually I've just finished my next project. It's an entire album of Allen Toussaint songs.

RO: When will that be coming out?

JC: I'll probably spend a little time seeing if a label will take it or whether I should release it myself. But my best guess is it will be just a few months.

RO: Would you categorize it as a blues record, or jazz or something else?

JC: Well, Allen's work lends itself to interpretation, so I've reworked all but a couple of the songs, just done them in my style. But it's actually a very mixed bag of sounds. Allen is so prolific and he's all over the place, so there's some blues, some jazzy stuff, even some treatments that are somewhat poppy.

RO: Is this a solo record?

JC: It's a mix. I've got the Absolute Monster Gentlemen on a few tracks. And I've got Dr. John on guitar and Bonnie Raitt singing on a track, a very obscure deep New Orleans song of Allen's called "Get Low Down."

RO: What a great lineup and what a great title.

JC [laughs]: Yeah. Hmmm... maybe that should be the album title.

8 p.m. tomorrow at The Big Easy Social & Pleasure Club, 5731 Kirby. $10.


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