An interview with Jon Cleary: The soul aspect is crucial, and that’s an intangible thing that you either have or you don’t have


Jon Cleary is one cool cat. The British-born piano prodigy made it his mission to bring New Orleans Rhythm & Blues piano back into the spotlight and he’s continued to breathe new life into the genre for over two decades.

Beyond the keyboard Cleary is a rich soulful vocalist, a songwriter who seamlessly blends wit and storytelling, and a true performer who brings sass and class to stages across the world.

Back on Australian shores for the first time in five years with The Absolute Monster Gentlemen by his side (A.J. Hall, Cornell Williams, and Pedro Segundo) I caught up with the multi-instrumentalist before his headline set at Blues on Broadbeach to talk his latest single, the new album to follow, being in Dr. John’s band, the importance of soul in music, the unlikely influence of a Dickey Betts solo, the ‘Darwinian process of evolution’ his songs go through, and more.

You just released a brand-new single, “Zulu Coconuts,” and there are certainly some naughty innuendos in there! Tell us about the song and the meaning behind it.

“Zulu Coconuts” is a silly song that is a Mardi Gras tune, and everyone in New Orleans will know exactly what it’s about. People on the outside will probably be a little bit surprised. You see, it’s an innuendo if you’re not from New Orleans, but in New Orleans there’s no question! It’s all about Zulu Coconuts which are thrown from the Zulu parade – a parade that rolls on Mardi Gras morning in certain parts of town.

All the parades in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras have big floats in different parts of the city and they throw things out, trinkets that people can catch like beads. So the Zulus throw out beads, but they also throw out a limited number of decorated coconuts. That’s what a Zulu Coconut is. If you catch one of the Zulu coconuts when they throw them out people fight for them. If you get one it’s like “YES!” And it’s a big thing, so in people’s houses in New Orleans you can often see the Zulu Coconuts they’ve won over the years as part of the decoration.

You released your latest album, So Swell, in 2023. Can you talk us through the writing and recording process? What was the inspiration behind the album?

I got an offer to do a very cheap record for a vinyl only label in New York, and ordinarily I wouldn’t do that. Most of my stuff I do on my own label, but it appealed to me the fact that it was quick and in and out, and I wouldn’t have to do anything other than show up and play. With the records on my label there’s a lot of other stuff involved, too.

Because we only had two days I decided to basically record like they used to in the old days – live in the studio, and with different musicians, guys that I used to play with a lot, old cats in New Orleans. It allowed me the chance at a different repertoire; usually with my own records I write a lot of material. This was going to be a limited thing, and I got to do some covers of old songs that I liked, so it was going to be an easy fun project and it was.

Amazing. So, you’ve collaborated with some incredible people over the years. Bonnie Raitt, BB King, Taj Mahal etc. Are there any special memories you can tell us about?

Well, one that comes to mind is when we were jamming between takes in a studio in New York with D’Angelo one day on a BB King session, and we got to hang out and play some Johnny “Guitar” Watson. And that was pretty cool!

Speaking of Johnny “Guitar” Watson, he inspired The Absolute Monster Gentlemen name. Can you tell us about that?

Cornell and I were at one of his shows in New Orleans and he introduced his band members to the audience as “the absolute monster gentlemen” and that’s when I said, “That’s the name of the band right there!” We had tried all kinds of different names out and nothing was right, and I thought that was perfect since Johnny is also my absolute favorite musician, so I knew that was it!

You’re a British man but have such a deep connection to American music. Where did that love for New Orleans’ music come from?

It came from the older generations of my family who loved music, all kinds of music, but New Orleans jazz was music from my mum’s teenage years. New Orleans rhythm and blues was a favorite of my uncle who lived in New Orleans when I was a kid. He would send me letters from New Orleans about the city and the music, and it sparked my imagination. I just loved that side of piano playing. I grew up playing the blues on guitar, more like Chicago blues. Then I started dabbling with piano, and I realized the piano had a much wider range than any instrument and it’s a percussion instrument. I’ve got a real affinity for syncopated music, and piano is really a great percussion instrument.

I played guitar from when I was about five until I was about 10 or 11, and then the piano started to call to me. I moved to New Orleans when I was 18. I didn’t have a guitar there and that really became the focus then. It struck me as kind of obvious that if I wanted to have a career in music I had to try to do something a bit different, because millions of people are competing but there wasn’t anybody young that I could see coming up that was getting deep into New Orleans R&B piano. So I thought I might be able to get some work out of it.

Speaking of which, you’ve always had a very distinct style that’s stood out in the industry. Who inspired that?

So many people that I’d have to sit there with a pen and paper and think about it for days to name all of them. My dad and my uncle influenced my style, and I had two other uncles who were musicians who influenced my style. I think sometimes style is having an innate sense of preferences and that becomes your style. I thought, “I like that, I don’t like that, I want some of that, I’m not too bothered about that” and then you build up these things that you really like and you sort of internalize it and it becomes a part of you. You ingest all these different things and it goes through your processes, and when it comes out you hope that it sounds like you. It’s great to be able to have a sound that doesn’t sound like everyone else. 

Sometimes it’s the things you hear when you are young that inform your sound — there was a guitar solo Dickey Betts did on “Jelly, Jelly.” It was one of those records (Brothers and Sisters) that I just played over and over again. There was a record I bought at the record shop, and it was a compilation of Eric Clapton’s stuff from around the Bluesbreakers era from when I was about 12. I was trying to wrap my head around that stuff; that was good stuff to copy. When I was a little kid, I loved The Beatles and trying to learn their songs was a great education in the brevity and depth of harmony and chord structure and composition.

I like the R&B label, especially the New Orleans R&B label because it covers a multitude of sounds. That’s why I love Johnny “Guitar” Watson; blues was at the essence of him but he took that box of tools and made something new out of it. So, into that comes soul, jazz, any good classical music – Chopin and guys who took the piano in a different direction like James Booker in New Orleans. He was one of the guys I learned from. One of my favorite piano players is Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), and I got to play in his band when I was in my early 20s and then not long before he died so I learned from him.

The spirit comes from the gospel world. The soul aspect is crucial, and that’s an intangible thing that you either have or you don’t have. If you do have it you need to nurture it very carefully and find ways of selecting material and performing in a way where you can utilize that as a battery that drives you. That intangible feeling gives value to the notes. The notes themselves are just strung together in sequence, so to impart something of extra value to that when you perform or record — if you do it right people pick up on it and it never stops giving. You can always go back to those records that have soul and as soon as the needle hits the groove you’re getting an infusion, a soul infusion

Absolutely! So, what’s to come for Jon Cleary and The Absolute Monster Gentlemen? are there more releases on the horizon?

There’s a new album on the way; we’ve finished recording it and it’s being mixed as we speak in LA by John Porter. There will be some new songs, as well as one or two of our songs that we recorded before which I’ve changed and evolved. Even the brand-new songs are evolving before the record’s even released. That’s the thing with my band; I’ve got a great band, and we like to have fun with the arrangements. The arrangements are very important, and we spend a lot of time attending to all the details. Everyone in my band has to be able to sing. The vocal arrangements are very important.

Like all jazz music you basically have a framework that you work, and within that context everyone is expected to and required to improvise. So we all know our starts and we all know our endings, and at certain points in the songs we do certain things but within those parameters everybody is free to try something else out if they feel it. No two gigs and no two performances of a song are ever exactly the same. Sometimes somebody will do something, or I’ll call a change and we’ll go, “That’s really hip. Let’s do that for the next gig.”

It’s like a Darwinian process of evolution with the song arrangements. Sometimes we try out an idea and it doesn’t work, but we’ll try something else and the songs start to develop lives of their own. That’s what keeps it fun playing the same material. We have to play a lot of the same material when we’re on stage because people pay to hear it.

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