Freestyle: Cleary brings the funk
BY ELIZABETH KIESZKOWSKI / firstname.lastname@example.org
“Let’s get low down, way down low…”
The first thing you hear on Jon Cleary’s 2012 album, “Occapella,” is the rolling piano of a classic New Orleans jam, taking you on a ride from Professor Longhair on through Dr. John and up to the present day.
With Delta Spirit, Jon Cleary and Anuhea
» Where: Nuuanu Ave. between Chaplain Ln. and S. King St.; Pauahi St. between Nuuanu and Bethel St.; and Hotel St. between Nuuanu and Smith St.
The next thing you hear is Cleary’s voice, warm and sweet with just a touch of rough, like tea with honey and whiskey.
“Now baby get dirty, dirty to the depths…”
Cleary has the knack, and his music combines spice, sweetness and kick. It’s just what you’d expect from a British musician who’s adopted New Orleans, an equally complicated cultural melange, as his home city.
I spoke to him by phone last week, just a day or two after he’d returned to the Big Easy from a jet lag-plagued tour through England, France and Belgium and Switzerland. “I could easily close my eyes and fall into a deep sleep right now,” he confessed.
Instead, though, he was engaged and cheery, looking forward to a Maui visit and a headlining slot at Hallowbaloo on Saturday, Oct. 27, sharing his definition of “funk” and his love for New Orleans with a British accent that hasn’t faded over 30-plus years in the States.
Cleary’s scheduled to appear from 6:45 to 7:45 p.m. Saturday on the Lolloweeny Stage, Nuuanu Avenue at Chaplain Lane. For more on Hallowbaloo, check out this week’s TGIF cover story.
“OCCAPELLA,” Cleary’s latest album, reinterprets songs by the king of smooth Louisiana funk, Alan Toussaint, a proliferous composer whose work has been widely interpreted by musical artists including Glen Campbell (“Southern Nights”), the Pointer Sisters (“Yes We Can Can”) and Ernie K-Doe (“Mother-in-Law”). In a video interview with musicians on the album, drummer Terence Higgins talks about achieving a “slinky, lazy New Orleans feel.” Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that idea!
When Cleary sings the New Orleans classic, “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky,” he makes you glad of that.
So I asked him: What is funky?
“Oh geez, how many hours you got?” Cleary responded. “Funk — it used to mean something that smelt bad. And it was started to be used as an adjective for a particular way of playing dissonant notes on a musical scale that technically are out of tune, but if applied with a great deal of good taste and skill, can be very, very exciting. That’s the essence of jazz.”
And jazz, if you didn’t know it, was born in New Orleans.
“In musical terms, when you play a minor third against a major third, or when you break up the four beats of a bar into all the odd, accented rhythms, then that’s when it starts sounding funky,” Cleary said. “And the place where they first did that was right here in New Orleans.”
New Orleans, he says, “is a magical city, a very special place.” And while he tours often, routinely with Bonnie Raitt and with Dr. John in spring 2012, as well as on his own, he calls the city his own.
“Musical tradition goes hand in hand with elements of the culture here,” he said. “The fact that it’s pretty remote, that it’s historically and culturally distinct from everywhere else in the United States, appeals to me — it’s a city of outsiders, of round pegs that refuse to fit into square holes.
“I always think of New Orleans as a city of refugees, really, from the United States,” he said, busting out a hearty laugh.
“People that are born and raised here are funky because of the environment they grow up in. People that move here are predisposed to that kind of funky, so they’re already on the same page.”
After taking a few days in Hawaii, Cleary will be off to Australia for solo shows.
IF YOU watch “House,” you may have heard Cleary’s “Got To Be More Careful” on the show. The musician and his music have also been featured on HBO’s “Treme.”
Cleary calls working for TV “interesting,” which doesn’t imply that it’s all that exciting. But “Treme,” in particular, stands as an archive or who’s who of Louisiana musicians.
While he’s become a respected figure in New Orleans music (and his new album was a top seller at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival), he’s out of town as much as he’s home these days.
“It’s very encouraging to travel outside of New Orleans and find people who do like the music,” Cleary said. “The beauty of a solo gig is that it allows you to go off on a complete tangent. I try not to prepare too much of what I’m going to do in advance.”
Elizabeth Kieszkowski is editor of TGIF, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s weekly arts and entertainment section. Reach her via email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter.