Jon Cleary has become a well-respected interpreter of the New Orleans sound. (Jesse Hiatt )
NEW ORLEANS — Pianist Jon Cleary has lived in this city all of his life: Even when he didn't. Long before he saw it. And even when he was in forced exile from it.
A musician by trade, a storyteller by consequence, Cleary has deeply absorbed New Orleans' pace and idiosyncrasies and, over time, its distinctive stories and sound. "My ambition," he says, "has always been to come to New Orleans."
Cleary, whose genre-bending style is steeped in early traditional New Orleans R&B, soul and funk, is not a household name but he's recorded and toured with marquee artists such as Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt (with whom he worked for more than a decade). However, over the past three decades he's become a keeper of the city's traditions and its unique musical history, traveling the world, conveying New Orleans' elusive character in song.
He will be doing a little New Orleans evangelizing in a rare appearance in Los Angeles with his trio the Philthy Phew, opening for soul-singing powerhouse Bettye LaVette at UCLA Live on Saturday. The show coincides with a new album, "Occapella," featuring the music of one of his piano influences, Allen Toussaint, with cameos by Raitt andDr. John.
His sound is rooted deep in these old neighborhoods, deep in New Orleans' DNA — a bright, rollicking tumble that blends the city's sorrow and pleasure into one sound. Since he can remember, "That was the music that pressed all the buttons," he says, sitting at a sidewalk table at the Sound Cafe amid the faded Creole cottages in the Upper 9th Ward. "So it's what I pursued with a zeal."
Born in London, raised in Kent, England, Cleary, 49, arrived in New Orleans at 17, for what was to be a vacation. "My gap year before I went off to university," he says, but Cleary never left. "I got dropped right in the deep end," he says, "I was like a detective on a mission."
New Orleanians are particular about their story and who tells it. That role, Cleary knows, comes with expectations — even more for someone who didn't spring from the ground here. But he's found a place within the city's long piano-playing lineage, mostly by putting himself in the right places to learn, often from the sources themselves.
With musicians here, the measure is simple, " 'Can he play or can he not?'" says Ben Sandmel, a New Orleans-based journalist and musician, and author of "Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans. "He has his own style. And in a city full of musicians, he's very well respected."
He's a solid fixture of the city's club circuit and a staple on the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival lineup often featuring him and his band — the Absolute Monster Gentlemen — known for its deep-funk sets that braid together strains of New Orleans music such as jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, R&B with the flow of the Caribbean and a full charge of '70s funk.
"He's the world's best-kept secret," says Raitt, who hired him after an L.A. recording session in 1999 impressed with his fluidity and depth. "He brought in all these styles, just pulled them out of the ether. But he deepened our forays into those various influences, because he speaks those [musical] languages very well. And what he's learned, he learned by osmosis."
It was New Orleans' sound that first got deep under his skin. His uncle John, a musician and painter who traveled the world, would send notes from the road: "It wouldn't be a normal letter," Cleary recalls, "but a big piece of paper folded into little bits with illustrations — talking about Professor Longhair and Mardi Gras and Indians and the Zulu Parade." Then came the records, 45s his uncle brought back in suitcase. "He'd point out the solos." Cleary who'd picked up the guitar by then, wanted to know all of it.
When he landed in New Orleans in 1980 with $100 in his pocket, somewhere between hearing Earl King sing at the Maple Leaf Bar and dropping half his money in a rare-record store, he realized he wasn't leaving.
His master class ended up being the Maple Leaf, where he picked up odd jobs and a rotation of players slinked through: "The blues pianist Roosevelt Sykes used to hang out ... with his suit on and his big hat, tinkling away," he recalls. "And James Booker happened to be living upstairs. So I'd be painting, and this piano music would be wafting [through] ..." he recalls. "That's when I became a piano player."
New Orleans isn't just a way of life, he quickly learned, it's its own atmosphere. And in those many months coaxing out musicians' stories, watching them play — he'd severely overstayed his welcome. Not with players, but with the government when his visa expired after several extensions. "I was unceremoniously sent back and told I couldn't come back. It was like going from color to black and white."
Eventually, the promise of work (and "thousands and thousands of dollars of lawyers' fees") returned him stateside. The time away only underscored his early intuition: "New Orleans music is like an accent. You can tell when it's not quite right," he explains. "To really convey it properly, you have to live here. You have to drink the water and eat red beans on Monday and know what it means. To know what it means to bounce down the road with your belly full of beer on your way to a second line [procession]."
It's about being caught in the swirl of it — not just telling the story, but being part of it: "New Orleans music is really about three things: Good songs, good funk and a good time."