Jon Cleary – Occapella!

January 01, 1970

(FHQ Records)


It’s impressive enough that Jon Cleary was born & raised
in England and managed to
become one of the most prominent New
Orleans piano players of the past couple decades. But
for his new album, Occapella!, Cleary
plays piano, guitar, bass, and drums, and arranges a dozen Allen Toussaint
numbers into completely fresh, invigorating performances that stand alongside
the original classics of New Orleans r’n’b.


To audiences outside of New Orleans, Cleary has popped up now and
again in various contexts. He played keyboards in Bonnie Raitt’s band for a
long time, he worked with jazz guitarist Jon Scofield and bluesman Taj Mahal,
and he made a couple of brief appearances in the TV series Treme. But down in the Crescent City,
Cleary has been a fixture for a long time, carving out for himself a position
as one of the top club draws and session players in town. He’s released five
albums of his own compositions backed by some pretty darned good musicians.


None of which prepared us for the joys of Occapella! It’s no insult to Cleary’s
writing to say that Allen Toussaint songs are better. Toussaint wrote so many
brilliant songs spanning the era of crooning doo wop into dynamic funk that he
had to put different names, most notably Naomi Neville, to them to fool disc
jockeys into thinking he wasn’t quite the dominating force that he was. So,
yes, the songs are ridiculously good on this record. Some of them are quite
famous – “Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky,” “Southern Nights,” “Fortune Teller” –
and some are unfairly obscure – “Occapella,” “Wrong Number,” “What Do You Want
the Girl to Do.”


But it’s the open space in the arrangements, the attention
to detail making sure every piano lick, every syncopated drum and percussion
sound, every guitar chord, every vocal part adds up to a beautiful and
precisely delineated whole. Working with bandmates in the past, Cleary
obviously had to allow others to show off more; playing all the instruments himself
allows for an unexpected ego-free performance.


“Southern Nights,” for example, is an exquisite, delicate,
fibrous jewel of a recording. With gentle guitar lines and a quiet upper
register piano take on the classic riff, Cleary sets the mood for his vocal,
which slides across the melody without dominating it. It’s a lovely new way to
hear a song that, thanks to Glen Campbell’s smash hit in the 70s, seems to have
been forgotten for over-familiarity. Or “Popcorn Pop Pop,” a minor hit by
Jessie Hill from 1965, which Cleary, aided by a couple guest vocalists, turns
into a romp of funky delights, setting the stomach to rumbling every time it’s
heard as if the popper was going off in the other room. The solo piano version
of “Fortune Teller” is a baroque-funk turn of pure genius.


Delightful vocal performances by Dr. John and Bonnie Raitt
on “Let’s Get Low Down” aside, this is Cleary’s show, and it’s the kind of
record which could make him far better known outside the town where these songs
were born. Whether you know the songs or not, whether you are familiar with
Cleary or not, Occapella! is 12 songs
of pure pleasure.


DOWNLOAD: “Popcorn
Pop Pop,” “Southern Nights,” “Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky,” “Fortune Teller”

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