By Neil Ferguson for Glide Magazine
Jon Cleary is a walking encyclopedia of New Orleans music history. Lucky for us, he also happens to be one of the preeminent translators and torchbearers of the city’s rich legacy of piano players. Cleary has spent the better part of four decades immersed in New Orleans piano, funk, R&B and jazz, and in the process, he has managed to forge an impressive career in his own right to take his place alongside the greats. He is often on the road with his tight band the Monster Gentleman, but Cleary recently embarked on a solo piano tour, and on Saturday, October 1st, he shared his wealth of musical knowledge with fans at Portland, Oregon’s Polaris Hall.
Taking the stage looking dapper as ever in his white hat and sunglasses, Cleary sat down at his piano and commenced a performance that would shift from laidback and funky to passionate and soulful, to slow and bluesy, all while showcasing his masterful skills on the keys. Throughout the night, he would mix covers and originals while putting his own distinct touch on everything. Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was played in a swamp pop barroom style, while Johnny Watson’s “Cuttin’ In” was given the R&B treatment, and his take on Sweet Emma Barrett’s “Whenever You’re Lonesome” was sweet and charming. Before playing another New Orleans staple – “Stack-A-Lee” – Cleary shared the story of a piano player who went by the name Archibald who wrote the tune and played it in the Old Absinthe House. He would take it back to some of his own material with the modern R&B-meets-jazz-tango “When You Get Back” and the title track off his debut album Porch Street Blues, which conjured images of a romantic and bygone New Orleans.
Cleary would demonstrate his impressive skills at holding down the rhythm and the lead on piano throughout the evening, wavering from subtle beauty to more impressive craftsmanship. Songs like the lesser-known Dr. John tune “Sonata Rag” and the Cuban song “Chrysanthemum” found his piano skills to be sharper than ever, while “Fools Game” dipped into that sweet funk and was contrasted by Cleary introducing Jelly Roll Morton’s “The Crave” as a “hundred-year-old funk tune.” It was this part of the set where things got a little looser as Cleary happily accepted requests from the crowd, indulging them with some of the most obvious offerings for a New Orleans piano player. Of course, he put his own spin on songs like Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina” with an extended piano intro, presenting Allen Toussaint’s sweeping soul tune “What Do You Want the Girl to Do?” in a raw and stripped-down light, and sharing his own wild tale of encountering James Booker around New Orleans before dipping into a boogieing version of the eccentric piano player’s “Pop’s Dilemma.”
As much a history lesson as it was a performance, Jon Cleary’s presence in Portland was a true stroll through the music of New Orleans. Though it was just him and his standup piano, Cleary delivered a ninety-minute set with class and ease, showcasing his ability to capture the attention of a room and turn everyone into attentive listeners. There are few acts out there these days who are so proudly waving the flag for piano music like this, and this is especially true the farther you get from New Orleans. In that regard, Cleary is a gem and a living legend, and his presence in Portland was one to be savored.