Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen

Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen


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.


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


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.

Set List