The voice pipes into the studio from the control room: "That sounds a bit weird this time." It's a Wednesday afternoon in November, and Jon Cleary is working with his back-up band, the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, on an instrumental inside Piety Street Recording studio in Bywater. The song, co-written by Cleary and guitarist Derwin "Big D" Perkins, is called "Ain't Nuttin' Nice," from one of the burly guitarist's cachet of favorite phrases.
The song is moving along nicely enough, introduced by bassist Cornell Williams' insinuating phrasing, and kicked into gear by drummer Raymond Weber thumping underneath Cleary's Roland XV-88 keyboard and Big D's stinging guitar phrasings. Guest percussionist Daniel Sadownick's congas further fuel the rhythm.
As good as it sounds, something's not quite right, hence the "weird" comment from Cleary's longtime producer, John Porter. The band finishes the version and returns to the control room, where Porter and engineer Erik Flettrich are manning the boards. "It sounded great, man!" blurts Weber, who punctuates almost every comment with one of those jolly, "heh, heh, heh" chuckles that sound like they came from a department-store Santa. "Yeah," Porter agrees, scratching his salt-and-pepper beard. "Just like Grover Washington."
Cleary is wearing one of his many trademark hats. He buys them from Baron California Hats in Burbank, which manufactures hats for the motion picture industry. He nods to Porter, the front of the brim popping up and exposing Cleary's scruffy beard and prodigious British nose.
"What do you think?" Cleary asks underneath the hat.
"It sounds a bit polite to me," Porter concludes in the British accent he shares with his fellow countryman and old friend. "It's not very dirty. Not like the demo."
Cleary nods. "I think we've got to bring the tempo down."
Weber agrees. "That's what the problem is."
They listen to the playback some more, and Cleary repeats the point as a question: "I dunno, you think we should down the tempo a bit?"
Porter smiles back. "I think it sounds good at any tempo." They laugh, but agree to not only slow it down a little; Weber also wants to try something different on the drums, maybe give it a little more resonance. "I might try that Zigaboo shit, more snare," Weber says. "Heh, heh, heh. Let's try this shit!"
While the band tries another take, Porter stares at his computer and explains the difference between the two takes: three beats per minute. "They're such good musicians," says Porter, "that you can just throw out a chord chart and they can play it. But sometimes it almost sounds like jazz musicians, and we don't want that."
The song comes over, slower, greasier, a bit more ragged. Porter smiles as he stares at the blips of beats popping from his computer screen. There are few times when he's not grinning at one thing or another, even when he's talking seriously. It's the third take. Porter smiles. "That's more like it."
And so Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen toss another tune in the can for the band's latest release, Pin Your Spin, recorded in five days at Piety Street but whittled down from 20 songs to 12 during a frenetic mixing session with Porter out in Los Angeles. They had to rush to meet a deadline so that Basin Street Records could include the album along with its unprecedented five other releases in time for Jazz Fest. The album hits stores next Tuesday, April 20.
Those three little beats per minute might not mean much to the untrained ear -- but they say everything about Cleary. Over nearly a quarter century in New Orleans (minus a few breaks), the 41-year-old has positioned himself not only as one of this city's best and most popular keyboard players but also one of its steadiest funk musicians. Go to a show featuring Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen -- whether it's at Tipitina's, The Howlin' Wolf, House of Blues' Parish Room, Mid City Lanes or their spiritual home, the Maple Leaf -- and you'll see and hear a study in contrasts.
One of New Orleans' tightest bands, Cleary's group also works to keep it loose -- he's constantly exhorting the rest of his band (all African Americans) to "keep it funky, y'all," without losing his almost stately British accent. He's a Brit mining New Orleans' rich R&B traditions, he's a white boy keeping it funky with a black supporting cast. He loves the band to take off on an extended jam, but not to the point where a song digresses into self-indulgence. He wants his music immaculate, yet lives like a self-confessed "slob." He's a visionary bandleader and a multi-instrumentalist who happens to be Bonnie Raitt's go-to keyboardist. But most importantly, he's a perfectionist of a musician who has a very firm idea about what he wants -- but knows that the charm of funk, like New Orleans itself, lies in its grit.
"I WAS FACED WITH AN ENORMOUS PROBLEM," Cleary says of his preparations for Pin Your Spin. "I had a European tour with Bonnie Raitt, and a recording date coming up, and what I'd initially wanted was to have my band play all these songs live for several months before going into the studio. The initial idea being making it a similar record to the previous one, with new material, and songs would evolve, and the arrangements would take on a life of their own, especially with this band."
That all changed when regular drummer Jeffrey "Jellybean" Alexander left the band to remain available for more in-town gigs. His departure cannot be overstated -- in a band featuring supreme musicianship from top to bottom, Alexander was as crucial as any other member. His syncopation is uncanny, and Cleary still marvels at how Alexander would push him onstage, like a "Rolls Royce engine."
Cleary considered two options as potential replacements: drummers who were available to record but couldn't tour, or drummers available to tour but not experienced enough in the studio to complete Cleary's vision on a recording. He discovered Mac Carto while he and Big D were catching a Davell Crawford gig at Snug Harbor, but Carto had a series of dates in Brazil and wouldn't be available in the studio. (Carto is now with the band.)
For the session, Cleary chose Raymond Weber, who has played with everyone including the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and spent time in the '90s with Harry Connick Jr.'s big band. (Cleary and Weber even ran into each other when Raitt's and Connick's tours crossed paths in Australia.)
"First and foremost, I just like him. He's just a great guy," Cleary says. "Everybody loves Raymond. He's got a great attitude, he's completely professional without being cynical, bitter and twisted. He has an uncanny sense of time -- which was essential for this project -- and an attention to detail, which I like. He really listens and he's quick, which is something you find in most musicians who have studio experience, who can achieve the desired result without too much messing about. We didn't muck about.
"And he was a joy to be around in the studio. It was like a ray of sunshine when he'd walk into a room, walking through and bursting out laughing or something, the whole place would crack up. Plus, I think we have a little mutual admiration society. I think he digs the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, he loves the band."
Weber also loves Cleary's approach in the studio. "With a cat like this, there ain't no such thing as a demo," says Weber. "When he does something at the house, that's the record. He's good, man, he's talented. Once you listen to the demos he's done, you don't want to get away from that. You want to try to create the same sound. Because he has a vibe on all this stuff."
Weber's presence made it a little easier for Cleary to realize his vision of balancing his appreciation for strong production value and the need to keep his music funky and gritty. "One lesson I learned fairly early on from those people in my family who were musicians was a kind of healthy disdain for stuff that they would call 'twiddly-widdly,'" says Cleary. His musically inclined family includes a grandmother who was a professional singer, a father who played guitar in a skiffle band, and an uncle who lived for years in New Orleans. "There's always been a disdain in my family for professional session players or jazz musicians who approached the music with too much of an academic perspective. And I was at the right age when all the punk rock stuff came out, which was a complete reaction against bands like Fleetwood Mac and Genesis or Pink Floyd who were perceived to have their heads up their backsides and spent a year in the studio, spending fortunes, and thought that to be gritty and grainy. And that was drilled into me fairly early on.
"It's better to hear one person who could only play a few notes playing with a whole lot of soul than it is to hear somebody who can trot off a million scales and look like he's thinking what he's going to have for dinner tomorrow. But I think if you try to dumb down your playing in order to sound gritty, then that's just as stupid as leaving the funk out in order to achieve perfection. So I guess in a way you have to find some kind of middle ground.
"If you can achieve both of those and find some marriage between the two, then I think you've really accomplished something."
IN 1991, JON CLEARY WAS LIVING IN NEW YORK CITY, taking advantage of an offer for an affordable apartment. He'd formed a band that included percussionist Daniel Sadownick. Then Cleary reluctantly accepted an invitation from a friend to attend a Fourth of July barbecue at Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards' estate in Connecticut. Not one to schmooze with celebrities, Cleary hesitated, "but somebody said I'd be foolish not to go, so I thought why not? It's a party. I thought it would be full of sycophantic hangers-on, and there were indeed a lot of them."
But there were two people there, he says, whom he could call down-to-earth: Keith Richards and John Porter, who also had been invited to the barbecue.
Cleary and Porter had taken different paths to that party. Cleary, who'd been carrying on a long-distance love affair with New Orleans music while growing up in Cranbrook, a tiny village in the south of England, moved to the city when he was 17 and immediately immersed himself in Crescent City music. An accomplished guitarist, Cleary spent two years seeing the music first-hand, and after a trip home returned to New Orleans and eventually landed a job with Walter "Wolfman" Washington. At the time, Washington's now-legendary gigs with Johnny Adams at Dorothy's Medallion Lounge served as a springboard to bookings throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. (Washington also shared Cleary's love of Johnny "Guitar" Watson, whom Cleary heard listening to John Peel's show on the BBC back in England -- and turned Cleary onto Tyrone Davis.)
Cleary became known as a reliable sideman who could play New Orleans R&B classics. He eventually assembled a band that included George Porter Jr. on bass, Bunchie Johnson on drums and Doc Paulin on trombone for 1990's Alligator Lips and Dirty Rice, a mix of originals and standards such as "Big Chief" and "Groove Me."
But Cleary was getting restless. "As much as I loved playing old New Orleans R&B," he recalls, "I realized I was getting pigeon-holed as someone who just copied old songs, and there were several other piano players who probably did a better job of that than I did." He'd met two members of a modern gospel group the Fellow Travelers -- guitarist Derwin "Big D" Perkins and bassist Cornell Williams -- before moving to New York City in 1989 to front his own band, but kept in touch with the pair during trips back to New Orleans. He knew he wanted to return to New Orleans and lead his own band, and kept them in mind.
Porter was a more visible presence at Keith Richards' barbecue party. Porter was one of the original members of one of England's great early art-rock bands, Roxy Music, which counted among its members Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno. He had left the group early on, turning mostly to producing, and had been behind the control board for some of the Smiths' early albums.
Porter had always had a love of American roots music, particularly the blues and New Orleans rhythm and blues, but was tagged as an alternative rock producer. During the 1990s, he says, "there wasn't a lot of the kind of music that I was really interested in in England." It wasn't until he'd produced Buddy Guy's Grammy-winning album, 1997's Damn Right I've Got the Blues, that he shook off the tag. "People perceived I could do more than just record people from Manchester who couldn't sing in tune. After that I did a lot of blues records, which is fine because I do know a bit about it. Otis Rush, Taj Mahal, stuff like that. So the pendulum swung in the other direction."
The only problem was the pendulum swung too far. After albums with John Mayall, Lucky Peterson and R.L. Burnside, Porter says, the rallying cry became "if any octogenarian needed to make a record, 'Let's call Porter. He's good with old guys!' People thought that's all I wanted to do, which is not true."
Standing in the backyard of Keith Richards' house, Jon Cleary and John Porter introduced themselves to each other. "It was inevitable," Porter says, "our paths would cross."
"We had a lot of things in common," Cleary recalls. "We had mutual friends in London, we had similar experiences, and similar tastes in music, and in literature, and a similar approach to life, really. We sat around the table in the garden, he and Keith Richards and somebody else. And we were just talking about music. At some point I found a piano in the basement in one of the rooms, and sort of sneaked away. And I can remember playing 'Tipitina' on Keith Richards' out-of-tune Steinway upright piano." Ricky Fataar, Bonnie Raitt's drummer, poked his head in and joined Cleary and Porter.
Porter and Cleary exchanged phone numbers. Cleary sent Porter a copy of his Alligator Lips and Dirty Rice album and Porter responded with a copy of Taj Mahal's latest. Eventually, Porter helped recruit Cleary for some session work with Taj Mahal, which led to the gig with Bonnie Raitt.
"She's so generous with allowing me just to be myself and do what I do," Cleary says of Raitt, who will perform at Jazz Fest this year and who included two of Cleary's songs -- "Fool's Game" and Pin Your Spin's "Monkey Business" on her 2002 Silver Lining release. "I don't feel I have to play anything I don't like, or I don't have to try to play in a style I don't care for. I think I can be an honest musician. She knows what she likes and she gives direction if there's something that I'm not doing. And it's great, I welcome that. But generally I enjoy it because I can be myself musically."
Raitt appreciates what she calls the depth and breadth of Cleary's musical knowledge. "The music that we love is R&B, and he's got a sophistication but also a rootsy, funky range," she says. "He's really discerning, and is probably the most erudite musician I know. He's as intellectually curious as he is musically accomplished. I love the fact that he plays all those instruments; he writes those parts himself so that when he brings in the other guys, he's laid the template down and then leaves room for everyone else."
DURING ROUGHLY THE SAME PERIOD, CLEARY AND PORTER wanted to get into the studio and make an album together, but there were problems. First, Cleary's visa ran out and he returned to England for a couple years, intermittently visiting New Orleans. Plus, as Porter notes, Cleary wasn't an easy sell to record labels. "I tried to get him a record deal, which took forever. People in the music business are just not that interested in music, basically," Porter says. Still, Porter was able to finagle a small sum from Virgin's Pointblank label -- or, as Porter now calls it, "Pointless."
For 1999's Moonburn, Porter and Cleary decided to focus all their energies on the studio, resulting in an album that was solid but did little to convey the band's energy onstage. Moonburn does lay down a pretty accurate template for Cleary's music, though. There is the Tyrone Davis-influenced crooning in "Help Me Somebody" and "Who's in There With You," and the loose funk of "Fool's Game" and "Unnecessarily Mercenary," the latter with a beat that is reminiscent of Tony! Toni! Tone!'s classic, "If I Had No Loot." "Port Street Blues" pays homage to Cleary's previous digs, inside the old Bird's Grocery at Port and Chartres streets. The album closes out with the title track featuring an identical intro and outtro that almost feels like the band's calling card.
"Most of the stuff, whether we used it or not, was really pretty good," Porter says. "But I know he felt that in some cases we recorded the songs before he was quite satisfied with the arrangements. And in some cases we put the cart before the horse. It suffered because it wasn't arranged like he wanted to do. But I think it's a f--king great record and I enjoy it tremendously."
Cleary learned several lessons from that experience, which served him well when the band went back into the studio for 2002's self-titled release. Cleary, a confessed Luddite, took Porter's advice and tried to get over his aversion to computers, working on the arrangements on a ProTools software program in advance of the recording session. They all agreed to make the album as live-sounding as possible. In fact, without Cleary's knowledge, Porter let the tape keep rolling while they were jamming on a version of the Meters' classic (and Cleary live-set staple) "Just Kissed My Baby." (Raitt added some guitar licks to the track, and back-up vocals on "Been and Gone.") Stretching to eight minutes, the song would break Cleary's unspoken rule of never letting a recorded tune exceed six minutes.
"I thought the tape had finished rolling, and the fellas just wouldn't stop playing," Cleary remembers. "There were several points where we were about to stop and Jellybean just kept playing, saying, 'We ain't finished yet!' I found out afterwards they'd recorded the whole. That was only supposed to be a three-minute tune and ended up being eight minutes. And I laughed and said, 'We'll just fade it out early.' But it actually worked. It's hard to get away with an eight-minute jam."
Looking back, Cleary laughs at the moment, partly because of his disdain for the current "jam band" trend.
"Most of my attitude toward that was formulated probably at the age of 15. Where I grew up, in England, that was complete anathema," he explains. "You did not do that. The punk rockers set out to destroy hippy jamming -- that self-indulgent, boring, twiddly-widdly nonsense that would just go on for ages and ages. And so, rightly or wrongly, that was sort of an inherited attitude. I like old three-minute R&B songs. One thing I love about old rock 'n' roll and R&B records is you get to the end, you're not done yet, you want to hear it again. I think I'd much rather have that than be fully sated at the end of a jam session."
The song is filled with killer originals as well, including the equally funky "More Hipper" (with the band demanding, "Let the Gentlemen do their thang!"). "A Little Satisfaction" reprises of "So Damn Good," and "Moonburn" is recast as a more up-tempo instrumental titled "Too Damn Hot."
The album rightly cemented Cleary's position in the music community as not only an accomplished piano player and band leader, but now as a man who could deliver in the studio. He presented a recorded testament of how good his band was live without recording a live-performance CD, which he loathes.
BACK ON PIETY STREET, DANNY SADOWNICK is fighting to suppress a nasty cough, punctuated by the occasional sniffle, while setting up his vast array of toys he's brought with him from New York to play on Pin Your Spin. Those instruments will provide the lagniappe that will make "Agent 00 Funk," a song co-written by Cleary and Big D, featuring the catch phrase "the secret agent with a license to chill." It's one of the album's best efforts.
Sadownick was barely able to squeeze in the trip to New Orleans in between a European tour with his regular band, the Screaming Headless Torsos, an avant-funk band, and is battling a head cold from the tour.
Sadownick met Cleary when Sadownick's band, the A-Kings, opened for Cleary at the nightclub Tramps. Before the last song, Sadownick noticed Cleary trying to get his attention from backstage. "And he said, 'Yo, man, I need to talk to you. Yo, man, come play with me,'" Sadownick recalls. "I didn't sit in with him that night -- I usually don't sit in with people when I don't know their music." Then Sadownick listened to Cleary's set, and was hooked.
"He's funky. He's just funky," says Sadownick, who also has performed with MeShell Ndegeocello and played on Nicholas Payton's Sonic Trance album last year. "[Cleary's] such a bad cat because he can play the piano, he has such great songs, and he has a great voice, and he plays wicked guitar, too. I remember the live gigs, we always had so much fun because we really got down to it to play. He's just got such a melange having been from the U.K. and living so much of his life in New Orleans."
Porter and engineer Flettrich are ready for Sadownick. He sets up in a side room and pulls out a vibra slap and sleigh bells, which will complement Big D's descending-scale guitar licks and Cleary's four simple keyboard notes recalling the classic James Bond theme. The song moves seamlessly along, with everyone in the booth marveling at the little details Sadownick fills in with the vibra slap and bells, adding new textures to the song.
Porter's thrilled with the take. "I think that's good. I think that was it." Cleary's not so sure: "I think there was one point where I could've played that for about four more bars." Cornell Williams just shakes his head, and jokes, "That nigga's ill, man." They all laugh, and congratulate Sadownick for his contributions. Sadownick breaks into an imitation of Williams on the bass, shuffling his feet, thumping an imaginary bass with curled fingers and jutting his head back and forth like a rooster. More laughter.
It's pushing noon, and there's a distinct scent of lunch catered by Surrey's wafting in from the break room. Porter says, "All right, let's go to the next one. What's next?" Cleary smiles: "Crawfish etouffee." They break up in laughter. Time for lunch.
JON CLEARY IS THE FIRST TO ADMITHIS INFLUENCES. He shouts them out at almost every gig he plays, in roll call fashion. "Professor Longhair! -- the funky Meters! Johnny 'Guitar' Watson!" And while he rarely includes them in the shout-out, there is also the unmistakable air of '70s soul singers like Tyrone Davis and Bobby Womack in Cleary's husky-voiced ballads. The influences on his music are so obvious that his music borders on the derivative, except that Cleary is so deft at blending them that he can make the sound all his own. It's the mark of an artist who's one part music geek, one part intuitive musician. Here is a man who has played with some of New Orleans' R&B legends -- Dr. John, Wolfman Washington and myriad others -- but also has his own way of doing things. That's why, at a Cleary gig, he can follow "Just Kissed My Baby" with an original composition and never lose the crowd.
"I think it's a bit more risky," Porter says. "That's a fine line that we've got to walk very carefully, between doing something that's fresh and doing something that's a rehash of an old style of music. Though I don't think that applies to Jon because he's creative. He's a real musician, and his musical sensibilities are stronger than his commercial sensibilities."
Cleary believes a musician cannot present his own efforts without showing his work. "All of the artists I admire, whether they're writers, musicians or artists, did not exist in a vacuum," he says. "They're all the product of their influences. Ever since I was a kid I was a sponge, I was eager to soak up music that got me excited. And when you amass a great deal of experience, you have a large musical vocabulary under your belt, and I think it's essential to have something to say.
"I'm pretty unashamed in that I do play covers, maybe because I love those songs so much. Sometimes, artistically, I feel I shouldn't be playing covers, but it's my own little extravagant chance to have some fun. And I've always felt performing 'Tipitina' live was a great way of demonstrating that connection between Caribbean and New Orleans. It's a bit like being a funk detective, searching for clues."
Pin Your Spin is Cleary's most ambitious album in more ways than one. The album did not benefit from the same preparation that spawned 2002's award-winning eponymous release on Basin Street Records. But it marks some stylistic shifts for Cleary, who wears his Latin and Caribbean influences more on his sleeves with the tunes "Oh No No No" and the Carnival-inspired instrumental "Zulu Strut." It also includes Cleary's first a cappella venture, the doo-wop "Best Ain't Good Enuff."
As Cleary points out, he's constantly revisiting his own work. "When you record a song, it's almost like a snapshot of a song at a certain time," he says. "With my band, the songs consistently evolve. In an ideal world, I'd make the same album three times over five years so people could watch the songs morph from the initial idea into an entirely different thing."
IT'S A SATURDAY MORNING AT THE Piety Street Recording studio, and everyone is looking pretty groggy. They'd stayed up until 3 a.m. working on percussion tracks, and suddenly the clock is ticking to finish up on this, their last day.
Still, the bleary-eyed Cleary is relentless: "We'll go until we pass out."
As they set up, Harry Villiers, an old friend from England who will design Pin Your Spin's CD artwork, brings Cleary some tea -- which he all but spits out.
"What is this?" he asks his friend.
"English Breakfast," Villiers replies.
Cleary winces. "What does that mean, 'English Breakfast'? Didn't you see that Pluckley tea?" Cleary turns and explains that a friend of his back in England has a hook-up with a tea company near his hometown, gets tons of the stuff for free and gives it to his mother, who brings it over.
Villiers returns with a cup of the Pluckley. Cleary turns to Big D, who's slouched in the control room's sofa. "Look at that tea, D," he says to the sleepy-eyed guitarist, brightening up. "There's a little red in it. Now that's a f--king cup of tea." Cleary laughs. "Just doing a little quality control."
Raymond Weber sizes Cleary up. It was a long night, and this day will probably also go into the wee hours. "So, Jon, you must be pretty wiped out by now."
"Yeah," Cleary replies, "I've been dealing with this for two months. It's essential for this album to be fantastic. There's been so much build-up for it, now, there's a sense of relief."
By the afternoon, they've recorded a couple more tracks, some of which will not make the album. That's typical for Cleary, who pulls out songs from as far back as 20 years and finally records them. He first thought up what would become the instrumental "Zulu Strut" (with Jamal Batiste on drums) back in 1985.
Porter turns to Cleary after playing back a song, and notes, "Well, Jon, you got some hard decisions to make now. You've got a lot of stuff to work with." "Yeah," Cleary replies, noodling on a Fender Stratocaster he keeps stroking like a security blanket. He has 20 songs that he'll eventually have to whittle down to 12 by a January deadline. Cleary thinks about it, and says with a bit of understatement, "I'm gonna have to do some prioritizing." He puts down the Fender, and they move on to the next song.
- Cleary with his back-up band, the Absolute Monster Gentlemen: guitarist Derwin "Big D' Perkins, bassist Cornell Williams, and drummer Jellybean Alexander, who left the band last summer.
- Jon Cleary joined Bonnie Raitt's band in time to jam with her onstage at the 1998 Jazz Fest, with Art Neville taking over on keyboards while Cleary showed off his guitar chops.
- Cleary's first CD, Alligator Lips and Dirty Rice, featured several covers. His most recent three albums -- Moonburn, an eponymous release and this year's Pin Your Spin -- keep getting closer to his musical vision.
- The Pin Your Spin crew: engineer Erik Flettrich, Jon Cleary (sitting), guitarist Derwin "Big D" Perkins, bassist Cornell Williams, percussionist Daniel Sadownick, drummer Raymond Weber and producer John Porter.