When he’s not playing piano for Bonnie Raitt’s band on the road, or doing session work with such other musical luminaries as B.B. King and Taj Mahal, New Orleans’ Jon Cleary tries to put a modern spin on the works of such great keyboardists as James Booker, Dr. John, and Professor Longhair. A transplant from England, Cleary, like many, fell in love with New Orleans during a visit, stayed a while, moved back, and then returned in 1990, and has been burning up local nightclubs since.
This time, Cleary breathes his fire into his second release, which is a tempting survey of the funk, rhythm and blues, and gospel music that is impossible to ignore in this city. Despite some limitations that you’d never hear in a live Cleary performance, Moonburn succeeds in bridging the past and present. It doesn’t hurt that he has a superb backup group in the Absolute Monster Gentlemen: bassist Cornell Williams, drummer Jeffrey “Jellybean” Alexander, and massive guitarist Derwin Perkins. They lay down a funky groove that would make the Meters proud, while lending backup vocals that provide just the right gospel touch.
The help doesn’t end there. The legendary Wardell Quezergue lends his arrangement wizardry to the horns on the jaunty opening track, “Fools Game,” and the snakey “Port Street Blues.” R&B legend Ernie K-Doe, whose club, the Mother-in-Law Lounge, served as host for a recent CD-release party, even guests on the title track. And on the absolutely churchified “Gettin’ Crazy Up in There,” the Arc Singers don’t just back Cleary up; they carry him around as if he’s on a cloud while opening his playing up and taking it to its needed heights.
While Cleary has the right ideas on his vocals, he’s obviously limited. He is still a stranger to the nuances of soul singing, like vibrato and extension, instead hoping to rely on his inherent passion for his material. In the studio, those weaknesses show, though like you’re too busy being caught up in his phenomenal fingerwork to care. The man absolutely burns, and you’d do well to catch his fire.