Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen
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Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen

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"Glide Magazine"

It’s been a long cold snowy winter up here in the Northeast. The birds stopped singing, the sun sank low in a gray sky and the TV commercials constantly played videos of tropical climates in the sunny south. When I first heard this album it was like the birds were finally singing and the skies were sunny again. Thank God for good old fashion, New Orleans funk.

You’ve probably heard Jon Cleary play - even if you don’t know it - in his role as Bonnie Raitt’s keyboard player. He is also a sought after New Orleans studio musician and has played with a wide range of talented musicians, from B.B. King to Taj Mahal. He also appeared in the PBS series “The Blues” and he’s a standard bearer of New Orleans funky jazz piano, a member of a long lineage that began far back in the beginnings of jazz history with Jelly Roll Morton.

Quite a resume, but of course, this music is more than just the New Orleans Blues. When I first heard Jon Clearly, he was actually billed as Jazz. But I would hesitate on that stamp, unless you lean to acid jazz. Or most certainly the funk side, which is the case with this album - filled with that wah wah, waka waka funk rhythm that just keeps the groove rolling along. Cleary provides both rhythm and color, as is customary, and most comes across at medium tempo, more Parliament than James Brown, heavily fortified with vitamin groove.

Cleary is a fine musician and songsmith, seldom showy, especially on smooth ballads like “Oh No No No” and “Smile in a While.” Completely funky, almost syrupy, even on the slow tunes, the band proves they can jam as well as lay a groove. “Got to Be More Careful” stretches out, and “Zulu Strut” strays equally as far. Though, for the most part, it’s straight ahead, consistent as a metronome, steady beat, medium tempo funk. And like all good funk, it just keeps rolling along.

Even with all of that tradition there are shades of the new. The beats are a little more modern than you might expect, offering a distinctly current feeling. Both drums (Raymond Weber) and Percussion (Daniel Sadownick) are present here, but the rhythm is so in step it feels more like a single drummer with four arms, or some kind of precise drum machine. That makes it easy for Cleary to place his funk on top. It is astounding to me when Cleary is thumping along, in some deep funky groove, and he slips in a solo that has a bit of Cuban flavor - which seems like it might be out of context, but it’s not - and then he slips right back in as if nothing happened. Even to the unfamiliar, it’s pretty clear that he’s a mighty player, without a flaunt, and he lets the band groove alongside. The music benefits from his humility, because it provides subtlety in what could easily become very, in you face, music. If there’s a stutter, it’s the almost completely vocal “Best Ain’t Good Enough,” which just doesn’t work very well. But one bad song does not make a bad album, especially in the world of instant CD access.

This is the best of the New Orleans jazz funk scene today, and it’s pretty damn good. I’m not saying that people will be talking about Cleary like Jelly Roll Morton a hundred years from now, but even if it’s nothing really new, it’s something from the best of an old school style. Even so, as the weather turns warmer and the beers turn lighter, I long for happy blues and New Orleans style jazz, and this is a fine example. It’s happy, it’s warm, and it’s finally getting to be summer.

So thank God for spring time, sunny warm weather and good old fashion new Orleans Funk. It was invented long before I was born and as long as great musicians like Cleary keep cranking it out, it will continue long after I die. It’s good to know that there is something constant in the world, besides war and chaos, and it’s good to know you can always find it in New Orleans. - June 2004


Erstwhile member of the Bonnie Raitt Band, John Cleary is an artist of supreme quality in his own rite and Pin Your Spin is an excellent introduction to his music and that of the Absolute Monster Gentlemen. The title track opens what can only be described as the funkiest album that I have heard in some time. It has heavy bass as its spine and it has an almost sleazy feel as it oozes over you. Agent 00 Funk demands that you move to it. There are some Latin touches in the introduction of this slow grinder.

Oh No No No is more sophisticated than the opening two but, again, has that Latin feel although the chorus is all New Orleans. There's some more strong bass on Ain't Nuttin Nice but it's the crashing drums that are to the fore on this thumping instrumental. The piano also gets a good going over as the song reaches a cacophony of sound by the end.

Smile In A While is reminiscent of Benny & The Jets in its execution with piano and bass pounding. I've not yet mentioned Cleary's voice so far but this is not deliberate. He has a sweet and sour tone to his vocal that is just so easy to listen to. More funky R&B on Doin Bad Feelin Good although this one doesn't seem to go anywhere. There's more direction on Best Ain't Good Enuff. This is a cappella, simple and well sung.

The title says it all on Funky Munky Biznis, a festival of funk with gritty vocals and great guitar fills. Is It Any Wonder is blues influenced and its slow, soulful delivery is very relaxing. Back to the funk again with Got To Be More Careful and this grooves along very nicely, thank you very much. The Monster Gentlemen are a tight band, shown perfectly on Caught Red Handed, which is much in the same vein as the rest of the album.

Zulu Strut finishes off the album but there's more of a South American feel to this than the suggested African. It's a fun way to finish and showcases Cleary's excellent piano work. Special mention has to go to producer John Porter and if you want to put your backbone out then add this to your collection.

-David Blue - Fall 2004

"Old school funk with a Big Easy twist"

This album, released nationally in late April, is funkier and more soulful than almost anything listeners will find on the national charts. In fact, there are beats and hooks here that knowledgeable hip-hop producers could mine for years.

Cleary's great piano playing, smooth vocals and catchy songwriting let us know that this British resident of New Orleans is ready to make his mark in a city where there is certainly no dearth of super-talented players.

One of my favorite songs illustrates Cleary and his bandmates at their best: the propulsive but somehow laid-back "Agent 00 Funk," with its gimmicky hook and snazzy playing from Jon (keyboards, guitar, bass) and his posse (Berwin Perkins/vocals, guitar; Cornell Williams/vocals, bass; Daniel Sadownick/percussion; Raymond Weber/drums and producer John Porter).

This one really isn't an album we'd pick for frequent listening; but when the mood strikes, it would be, as the band name sort of goes, an absolute monster.

Cleary is an in-demand sideman who still works with Bonnie Raitt regularly, but these gentlemen bring out his best. The sweet ballad, "Got To Be More Careful," illustrates that Jon is not just a funkmeister, as does the doo-wop of "Best Ain't Good Enough."

If you like old school funk with a Big Easy twist, Jon and the AMG are a good bet. See below for online ordering info on this, Jon Cleary's second Basin Street Records release.

"Dancing In The Sky," Dr. Michael White (Basin Street Records,

This release harkens back further than the above disc; in fact, much of the clarinet-driven swing here brought back fond memories of the music behind those somewhat goofy Merrie Melodies cartoons that appeared on TV during my childhood.

This is Dr. White's third BSR release. His band swings as his clarinet sings. Dr. White's clarinet sometimes leads, sometimes supports Nicholas Payton/trumpet, Travis Clark/vocals, Gregory Stratford/trumpet and vocals, Michael Braud/trumpet, Lucien Barbarin/trombone, and Detroit Brooks/banjo and guitar. Steven Pistorius' piano and the rhythm base of drummer Herman Labeaux and bassist/tuba player Kerry Lewis round out the band.

These are all top-shelf players, and the music reflects that in a strong but often unassuming way. Just listen to their evocative version of "Amazing Grace," which brought tears to my eyes. There are some interesting original songs here, too.

The album creates a mood, an ambience, of being in a smoky little jazz club in the Crescent City. The playing is tasty, the band is tighter than spandex bicycle shorts and the traditional New Orleans jazz flows like a fountain.

If you dig that sound, and there are a lot of readers that do, grab this disc. Local stores probably have at least some of these Spring/Summer Basin Street releases (like Theresa Andersson's "Shine," reviewed April 8). For online purchasing or more investigation into special deals, visit

-- Ricky Flake - Sun Herald

"Jon Cleary: On the Road With Bonnie Raitt"

Royalty in the music business is reserved to those few artists whose unique style and talent set them apart from all others. We have “the king of pop,” the “queen of soul,” and simply “the king.” With her soulful vocals and wicked bottle-neck slide guitar, Bonnie Raitt has earned her title as “The Queen of the Blues.” Building on a career encompassing three decades, 16 albums and nine Grammy® awards, Bonnie is back out on the road in support of her latest record, Silver Lining. In fact, “the road” was a big part of this record, with Bonnie taking her touring band into the studio for the first time. “The thing that most excites me about Silver Lining is that we finally get all the punch and the funk into the studio that we’ve gotten live,” Raitt explains. “The band and I have toured together so much, and we have so much combined versatility under our belts, that doing this album was more like play than work.”

One of the key musicians on Silver Lining was piano man Jon Cleary, who not only played on the record but penned a number of songs as well. And now that the record’s a wrap, Bonnie, Jon and the rest of the band are out once again playing to die-hard fans across the U.S. So how did the daughter of a celebrated roadway singer end up sharing the same stage as an Englishman who grew up hearing stories about New Orleans? The answer is a near reverence for the most American of artforms—the blues.

For Bonnie Raitt, it was a Christmas present of a Stella guitar at age eight, the 1963 recording Blues at Newport, and the good fortune of attending Harvard/Ratcliffe in Woodstock-era New England that ignited her passion. “I couldn’t wait to get back to where there were folkies and the anti-war civil rights movement,” she says. “There were so many great music and political scenes going on in the late ‘60s.” However, college was a temporary diversion for Raitt, who soon left to enter the biggest music school around—the performing stage. Raitt soon found herself opening up for many of the same blues giants she’d listened to as a child. Seeing and hearing Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace, Son House, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker night-in and night-out was a dream come true for a young red-haired girl with an old Fender Strat and a bottle neck-slide on her finger.

“I’m certain that it was an incredible gift for me to not only be friends with some of the greatest blues people who’ve ever lived, but to learn how they played, how they sang, how they lived their lives…” she says. “I was especially lucky as so many of them are no longer with us.” It wasn’t long before the blues fans who came to see the legends of the genre came away talking about Bonnie’s unique style. In 1971, Warner Bros. took notice and her debut album, Bonnie Raitt, soon followed. While Raitt was quickly building a fan-base and respect in the blues community—a unique achievement for a female singer/guitarist—it was 1977’s Sweet Forgiveness and the hit single “Runaway,” a bluesy remake of the Del Shannon hit, that put Bonnie Raitt on the map.

By the ‘80s Raitt had three Grammy® nominations under her belt and had clearly established herself as the “Queen of the Blues.” And just as importantly she’d kept her “’60s consciousness” and was now using her fame to support numerous causes including the Sun City anti-apartheid project, the 1980 No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden and many other projects supporting the environment and the rights of women and Native Americans.

In 1989, Capitol Records wanted to add another super-star to their roster, and signed Bonnie Raitt to a multi-album deal. The records Nick of Time and Luck of the Draw added six Grammy awards to her shelf and produced the singles “Something to Talk About” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” 1993’s Longing in Their Hearts was honored with a Grammy for Best Pop Album—proving that Bonnie Raitt was one of those rare artists who could cross over without losing her die-hard fan base and her roots in the blues. Capping off a career that’s far from slowing down Bonnie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in June of this year. Now this hall-of-famer is again in familiar territory on the road in support of Silver Lining. And right behind her, playing an assortment of Roland keys and electronic percussion—along with a venerable vintage Hammond® organ, of course—is keyboardist and songwriter Jon Cleary.

In addition to touring and recording with Raitt, piano man Jon Cleary counts playing alongside the New Orleans blues greats he worshipped as a child among the highlights of his 22-year musical career. Legendary musicians like Earl King, Snooks Eaglin, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Johnny Adams, Ernie K-Doe, and Jesse Hill have all benefited from this lightning fingered English ex-pat who now calls New Orleans his home. “I’ve been blessed,” says Cleary of his incredible experiences. “You’re completely in awe of somebody, and the next minute you’re out there hanging - Roland Users Group

"Pin Your Spin - Review - April 9th, 2004"

Singer-pianist Jon Cleary is English by birth but Dixie by nature, with a low steamy croon and a pumping-
ivory drive as funky as the city he has long called home: New Orleans.

Cleary can be an absolute monster on his own; I’ve seen him pin a full house to the back wall at Tipitina’s with an explosive solo charge through Professor Longhair’s "Big Chief." But Cleary’s full combo R&B is as broad, deep and roiling as the Mississippi river, the combined swinging product of local keyboard tradition, Cleary’s vocal-songwriting flair for moody Seventies soul and the spunky- Meters roll of his Gentlemen. Pin Your Spin is fragrant with the mixed pepper of classic Stevie Wonder, vintage Allen Toussaint, Dr. John’s Gris-Gris, the Average White Band’s "Pick up the Pieces" and, in the closing instrumental "Zulu Strut," the energy and memory of the late piano god James Booker.
- Rolling Stone Magazine

"JC Jazz Times / Glide Magazine"

Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen

On one of the songs on Jon Cleary’s new album, the British-born, New Orleans-based keyboardist-vocalist-multi-instrumentalist declares, “You can’t make it truly funky if you ain’t playing with soul.” Judging from this album, Cleary and his band the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, know a lot about both. This prodigiously accomplished outfit—featuring drummer-vocalist Jeffrey “Jellybean” Alexander, guitarist-vocalist Derwin “Big D” Perkins and bassist-vocalist Cornell Williams—combines Crescent City R&B, gospel, blues, harmony-rich vocals, a hefty helping of funk and a whole lot of rousing high spirits to create an album that grooves infectiously with the unbridled energy of a late-night jam session. Simply put, this album is a delight from start to finish.

Bonnie Raitt, with whom Cleary has performed and toured, lends subtle but unmistakable slide guitar and vocal support to two tracks, the ferocious funk workout “Just Kissed My Baby” and the bluesy, horn-accented “Been and Gone.” Elsewhere, members of New Orleans’ Chosen Few Brass Band lend some spice to the slow-burn blues “Fanning the Flames.” Cleary and the band’s gospel roots show on “Take My Love,” and they close the album with the appropriately titles “Too Damn Hot,” a rollicking instrumental jam that’s all retro keyboards and pulsing funk rhythms.

- By Lucy Tauss

"Boston Herald"

Jon Cleary's got a specialty: funk-drenched New Orleans piano.

Bonnie Raitt heard him, loved him and hired him to play in her band, which performs tonight and tomorrow at the FleetBoston Pavilion. Lyle Lovett is also on the bill.

Raitt admires Cleary so much she has called him ``the ninth wonder of the world'' and said, ``Nobody since (Little Feat's) Lowell George has affected me like Jon.''

But Raitt sings more than Cleary's praises. She sings his songs. "Silver Lining,'' her latest album, kicks off with Cleary's hard-grooving "Fool's Game'' and reaches its sweatiest moment with the tight Crescent City funk of his "Monkey Business.''

Cleary also has his own band, the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, which he formed after years working with such New Orleans legends as Johnny Adams, Earl King and Snooks Eaglin. Their CD "Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen'' is a percolating modern funk set that includes two Raitt guest spots and extends a New Orleans funk style popularized by Dr. John and the Neville Brothers.

But what distinguishes Cleary from his New Orleans brethren is geography: He grew up in Kent, England.

"I was very lucky to grow up in a family of musicians and music lovers,'' Cleary says. "My mum loved New Orleans jazz. My old man liked Leadbelly and the skiffle stuff. My grandma liked Fats Waller. My aunt loved soul music and my uncle loved old New Orleans R & B. He traveled around the world and settled in (New Orleans') French Quarter at one point. He used to send me letters describing the place and that fired up my imagination.

"When he came back to England,'' Cleary says with an accent more limey than Louisiana, "he had a suitcase of 45s. I liked nothing better than spending an evening with him mesmerized by the sound of Professor Longhair, Clifton Chenier and Clarence Henry.

"Then I discovered a whole world of funk listening to Radio Caroline. Robert Palmer doing `Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley,' and this song 'Brickyard Blues' by Frankie Miller just killed me. I didn't know they were written and produced by (New Orleans mainstay) Allen Toussaint and (New Orleans band) the Meters played on it. Eventually I figured out that this stuff was New Orleans funk and it came from the same place as Professor Longhair and Fats Domino.''

When Cleary turned 17, he took off for his city of dreams. He landed a job painting the Maple Leaf Bar, a hangout for New Orleans musicians including prodigiously talented pianist James Booker. Cleary, a self-taught guitarist, became inspired to start plinking away at a keyboard.

"I'd see Booker at the bar almost every day,'' Cleary, 39, says. "(Blues pianist) Roosevelt Sykes would come in, too. Through a process of osmosis, it just soaked in. The house I was living in had a piano and at night I'd go home and listen to my records and try to cop all the licks. I was in heaven.''

After two years listening and practicing, Cleary went back to England and put together a band to play pubs. When he returned to New Orleans two years after that, he was good enough to get a gig at the Maple Leaf as the replacement for Booker, who had died when Cleary was away. Soon he also had Professor Longhair's old job at another New Orleans' hot spot, Tipitina's.

"I got to play with all the guys I idolized in England,'' Cleary says. "I was getting hired as a sideman to play with my heroes at the same time I was getting jobs as a bandleader where I could hire all the musicians I'd listened to on my favorite records. I did that for years. But it got to the point that I wanted to have a regular band that could learn all the songs I was writing. So I went to the church and got some players who were young and hungry and became the Absolute Monster Gentlemen.''

Cleary's Gents appeared as the opening act on the first leg of Raitt's tour. He expects they'll embark on their own club tour when he finishes his current stint with Raitt. But his long-range ambitions extend beyond his role as the British-born ambassador of New Orleans funk - all the way to the other side of the Gulf of Mexico. "Ever since I was a kid I thought that Havana must be similar to New Orleans,'' he says.

"I started going to Cuba about 10 years ago. I'm fascinated by the links between New Orleans piano and the music in Cuba. It all comes from the same place, Africa, with Spanish and French thrown in the bargain.''

Would he like to make his own Cuban music album?

"Yes, definitely. I'd have to repeat the past 20 years and do what I did in New Orleans, which means going to live there.'' Cleary chuckles, clearly enchanted by the prospect. "But I've spent the past 15 years listening to Cuban stuff, so I'm already well down that path.''
- August 7th, 2002

"The Next New Orleans Piano Professor"

WASHINGTON — New Orleans piano men don't require advanced college degrees for fans to nickname them piano "professors."

"Professor" is a moniker that's been previously bestowed upon keyboard wizards Fats Domino, Dr. John, Henry Roeland Byrd aka "Professor Longhair," Art Neville and Allen Toussaint — all New Orleans piano giants.

They're given that title because their music is funky and original, adding spice to the unique gumbo that is New Orleans R & B.

And suddenly a new professor appears to have been awarded tenure — Jon Cleary, whose CD Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen outsold stiff competition at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in May. Critics are calling his sound a fresh Crescent City classic.

"It's not idle talk to call him 'professor.' No other New Orleans piano player has the same breadth and passion that Jon Cleary has right now," said Christopher Blagg of the New Orleans music monthly, Offbeat. "He uses all the vocabulary of the great New Orleans piano players and combines a fusion of paying tribute to the established sound while bringing in something totally new."

Cleary himself is a relative newcomer. Born in England, Cleary moved to New Orleans when he was 17 because he was fascinated by the music an uncle brought back from a visit to New Orleans.

"You couldn't find New Orleans records in England at that time," Cleary, 39, said in an interview while on tour in San Francisco. "So I had to move to New Orleans."

After living in the Big Easy for 22 years, Cleary has captured the soul of the city that inspires him. His songs don't reflect the city's touristy Bourbon Street T-shirt shops and striptease clubs, but rather the essence that locals enjoy — the po' boy shacks, the Uptown juke joints and sublime river breezes.

"Funk is the ethnic music of New Orleans, and there are a lot of talented musicians here in the church," Cleary said. "We've taken those genres and married it to strong music ideas and songwriting."

A sophisticated pen has led Cleary to write songs for others, among them blues superstars Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal. Currently, he's on tour with Raitt serving double duty: Cleary and the Gentlemen are the opening act, then Cleary plays with Raitt and her band. Several of the songs on Raitt's new CD Silver Lining are Cleary originals.

"Songwriting is what makes Jon Cleary special," said Blagg. "You hear his songs once and you can sing along right away — that's the sign of a well-written tune."

And Cleary seems to love songwriting as much as people love to hear his music.

"I really enjoy songwriting and hope to accomplish more with a break from touring," a road-worn Cleary said. "It's lovely to write a song and have somebody give it a new life of its own."

On his new CD, Cleary wrote most of the material, yet reworked "Just Kissed My Baby," a song written some 30 years ago by the fathers of New Orleans funk, the Meters. Cleary thought the song wouldn't be included on the CD but then spontaneous combustion occurred during the recording process, he said.

"It segued to another song and we kept adding little bits," Cleary said. "I thought we had turned the tape recorder off but we kept playing and it ended up being eight minutes long. It's one of those rare moments when the recorder is actually running when you hit some magic stuff."

And Meters drummer Joseph "Zig" Modeliste was happy to hear the tune revived.

"Zig called me and said, 'thanks for doing our song,'" Cleary said. "He was really pleased with what we did."

Words from a mentor mean a lot to Cleary, a longtime student who's become a "professor." He respects the music tradition that he's become a part of and likes to say that the music of his hometown is "more hipper" than any other city's indigenous sound.

"There are financial reasons to leave New Orleans for music towns like Los Angeles and Nashville," Cleary said. "But I play New Orleans music, so I will stay in New Orleans."
- FoxNews

"Estuary Funk"

ON LOCATION: the pianist in New Orleans is a 38-year-old from Kent. Nik Cohn likes the sound of him.

New Orleans has always been piano man’s heaven. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino, Archibald, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John – the list of gods goes on and on. Today, the tradition lives on through stalwarts such as Art Neville, Willie Tee, and the great Eddie Bo. But the most creative keyboardist in town, for my money, is Jon Cleary. The odd thing is, he’s English.

Commercially, he’s a well-kept secret, but other musicians revere him. He anchors Bonnie Raitt’s touring band and has recorded with the likes of Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, B.B. King and D’Angelo. His band, The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, are among the top funk groups on the South. And this year he’s release a cracking CD, Jon Cleary, by far the richest and most dynamic of his three albums to date.

I first met Cleary a few years back, wandering through the Faubourg Marigny one hot and sticky afternoon. As I passed a joint called Snug Harbor, I heard a solo piano improvising on Longhair’s Tipitina and, what’s more, playing the shit out of it. The sound was classic New Orleans; pure Ninth Ward. When I checked to see who was responsible, I found a bloke in an ancient tweed coat, with ginger stubble and a noble growth of a nose. “Hello, mate,” said Cleary. “Have a Guinness.”

I asked what had brought him to New Orleans; he said it was in his blood, more or less. The whole Cleary family was music-mad. His grandmother used to sing in the music halls, billed as Sweet Dolly Daydream; his dad was in skiffle groups in the ‘50s; and his uncle John, a guitarist and songwriter, became a wandering hippy in the ‘60s, lived in a cave in the Sahara, and then found his way to New Orleans. “He sent me a poster of JazzFest for my bedroom wall, and I thought of New Orleans as everything exotic and wild, the essence of excitement. When my uncle came home, he brought suitcases full of 45s, stuff that very few in England knew at the time – Clifton Chenier, The Meters, Longhair. I ate them all up.”

His early teens were spent playing guitar in punk bands, but funk was his great love, and he soon headed for New Orleans. His only contact there was a matchbook for the Maple Leaf Bar. When the taxi from the airport dropped him off there, he found himself outside a clapboard shanty with banana trees and a Laundromat in the back yard, and Earl King tuning up on the bandstand: “All I could think was, What took me so long?”

The owner gave him a job painting the bar – “$5 and hour, with free drinks while I worked, and half-price any other time. Classic New Orleans logic” – and he made sure it took him six months. James Booker was the house pianist on Tuesday nights. As often as not, Booker failed to show. So Cleary came crawling down his ladder, splattered with green paint, and deputized.

By the time Immigration caught up with him and kicked him back to England, he’d played with Wolfman Washington and George Porter of The Meters, and he couldn’t readjust to London’s rigors. One night, in a pub in Deptford, he found himself playing Going To The Mardi Gras, as the November gales lashed at the windows. Next morning, he bought a ticket back to New Orleans.

Basically, he’s been there ever since. When not on the road with Bonnie Raitt or making one of his periodic pilgrimages to Cuba, he is to be found in the French Quarter, where he rents the slave quarters to an old Spanish mansion that looks like the set for a remake of Pretty Baby. There, in the shade of a tea olive tree, he has fashioned his own shrine to funk, complete with the sleeves of countless vintage LP’s and a full-length mink coat, much the worse for wear, that once belonged to Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, his ultimate hero.

Sometimes a Monster Gentleman drops by. The band – Jellybean Alexander on drums, Cornell Williams on bass and the brilliant Big D Perkins on lead guitar – used to be a black gospel group called The Friendly Travelers. Like most of the young musicians in New Orleans these days, they knew nothing about their city’s musical heritage, and cared less (Big D, for one, is into hip hop and has his own rap label). So Cleary had to teach them funk from scratch: “Ironic,” he says. “An Englishman teaching homeboys about their own music.”

The lessons obviously paid off. The new album makes a perfect showcase for the band’s talents, and for Cleary in particular, as pianist, guitarist, arranger, composer, and sometime drummer. Apart from a scorching eight-minute reworking of The Meters’ Just Kissed My Baby, the tracks are mostly self-written, and their mood ranges wide, from Cuban-flavored ballads to second-line barn burners. Whatever Cleary touches is informed by innate musicality.

“Music to me has always been about problem-solving, an exercise in pure logic,” he says. “However hard you bring the fonk -


Jon Cleary releases his tough new album, Pin Your Spin (Basin Street Records), on April 20, 2004. Backed by his Absolute Monster Gentlemen band, Cleary will perform a number of headlining gigs to support his new release.

Pin Your Spin is Cleary’s fourth solo album, and his second on Basin Street Records. Produced by veteran John Porter, Pin your Spin soulfully displays Cleary’s outstanding musicianship and song-craft expertise. Cleary effortlessly dishes out a variety of musical dialects: tight-and-right funk, sophisticated balladry, and Big Easy-via-Cuba piano, reminding listeners why he is hailed as one of the very best of his field.



New Orleans’ Jon Cleary is a triple threat—with a salty-sweet voice, masterful piano skills, and a knack for stacking infectious grooves with melodic hooks and sharp lyrics. All of his talents are manifest on Pin Your Spin, his tough new Basin Street Records release, produced by John Porter. Backed by his Absolute Monster Gentlemen band, Cleary delivers a dozen original songs with cool conviction and expertise, and reminds us that soul can be spoken in a variety of dialects. Tight-and-right funk (“Got to Be More Careful,” “Funky Munky Biznis”), sophisticated balladry (“Smile in a While,” “Is It Any Wonder”), and Big Easy-via-Cuba piano (“Oh No No No,” “King Zulu Strut”)—all of these seem to be Cleary’s native tongue.

Pin Your Spin even includes a street-corner doo-wop workout, “Best Ain’t Good Enough.” Sung with Absolute Monster Gentlemen bandmates Derwin “Big D” Perkins and Cornell Williams, the gospel-flavored a cappella arrangement seems an ideal setting for the song—though Cleary admits that the treatment came years after the song’s genesis. “It was one of the first tunes we rehearsed when I put the band together ten years ago,” he says. “But after trying several drastically different arrangements, I dropped it.” The song was resurrected on a recent road trip to a gig in Mississippi. As he and the Gentlemen passed the travel time by singing doo-wop arrangements of gospel tunes, Cleary was struck with the idea of singing “Best Ain’t Good Enough” in the same vein. “We tried it out in the van,” says Cleary, “then cut a demo in my home studio a few weeks later to see if it would work.” It worked, indeed. That demo is the take that landed on Pin Your Spin. “I’d planned re-record it for the album,” Cleary adds, “but [producer] John Porter really dug it and felt that it should go on as it was.”

Cleary is a prolific writer, and he considered two- or three-dozen songs while he was assembling material for Pin Your Spin. He is as particular as he prolific, though, and he always strives to get his songs in top shape before bringing them into the studio. “I had a bunch of contenders for this record,” Cleary says, “some old and some new, in various stages of completion. With some of the songs, it was a matter of working on the lyrics. With others—like ‘Best Ain’t Good Enough’—it was a question of finding an arrangement that suited the song and suited the record as a whole.” Because Cleary is a busy musician—balancing time between fronting his own band and touring internationally as a key member of Bonnie Raitt’s band—putting the finishing touches on all of the songs was a real challenge. “In order to satisfactorily complete the lyrics to certain tunes, I’d sometimes have to wear my lyricist’s hat to the detriment of my arranger’s hat, or my piano player’s hat, or my producer’s hat.” Ultimately, he whittled his big batch of songs down to the 12 gems that comprise Pin Your Spin. “The others,” he says, “will sit on the back burner for the time being, until I can properly dedicate myself to getting them right.”

If setting such high musical standards means that Cleary’s songs take longer to complete, Pin Your Spin is evidence that the effort is justified. There’s no filler here—just smart lyrics, memorable melodies, and rock-solid grooves. Over the churning funk of the disc’s title track, he skewers the influence peddlers prevalent in today’s culture, beseeching “Don’t try to pin your spin on me.” In “Agent 00 Funk,” Cleary embodies a sly “secret agent” who has to “operate behind enemy lines” to make time with the object of his affection. He illustrates the flip side of this tale on “Got to Be More Careful”—getting “caught red handed at the scene of the crime.” With its irrepressible down-tempo bounce, yearning lyric, and Cleary’s seasoned-to-perfection voice, “Smile in a While” is a song for lovers with serious soul. “Is It Any Wonder” is a break-up song, with Cleary poetically telling it like it is. The jazz-tinged harmonies here help set the mood with subtle sway, demonstrating Cleary’s understanding of the power of self-restraint.

While Cleary is the prime motivator throughout, his Absolute Monster Gentlemen band does their fair share of the work to bring Cleary’s musical vision to life. “They work together very powerfully,” Cleary says emphatically. “There’s a very high standard of technical musicianship, but the key thing is that they also play with a lot of soul and spirit. These guys dig in and play with a lot of passion, and I think it’s that intangible element that seems to successfully move audiences everywhere we play.

“Living in New Orleans,” Cleary continues, “I’ve always been spoiled for choice with great rhythm sections.” Before assembling his band, he used to enjoy the challenge of putting together different rhythm sections for each gig, hiring Fats Domino’s guys one night, Professor Longhair’s band the next, members of the Meters on the next gig, and so on. “But one night, on my way home