Jon Cleary Headlines the 40th Telluride Jazz Fest alongside Kermit Ruffins, Lisa Fischer
Jon Cleary was the Guest of Honor with his Absolute Monster Gentlemen (consisting of New Orleans natives Derwin “Big D” Perkins on guitar, Cornell C. Williams on bass and A.J. Hall on drums) at this year’s 40th Annual Telluride Jazz Festival (TJF), August 5-7, 2016. The Grammy-winning veteran New Orleans keyboardist/songwriter/singer led his band on the Jon Cleary main stage in Telluride Town Park and in the Sheridan Opera House where he also hosted a workshop on Louisiana music and fielded audience questions.
“I started out as a guitar player,” the 54 year old Cleary commented, “But when I first came to New Orleans [as a teenager who emigrated from England], I wasn’t able to bring my guitar with me, and the place I stayed in happened to have a piano. I soon discovered that I could do things musically on that instrument which I couldn’t do on guitar, so I worked on learning the keyboard. I also found out that piano is much more prominent in New Orleans music than is the guitar—although there is plenty of fine guitar playing in New Orleans.”
John Scofield, the famed guitar master and another 2016 TJF headliner, both performed in a jazzy duo with Cleary and sat in on Cleary’s question session, where he quipped, “and Jon’s a fine guitar player too,” drawing out one of Cleary’s characteristic grins.
Cleary reminisced with words and musical illustrations, recalling the seminal influence of Champion Jack Dupree’s “Junker’s Blues” on New Orleans music, and the stylistic explorations and extensions of Professor Longhair and so many others which contributed to the music that he continues to revel in and share with audiences worldwide in concerts, on record, and in his home-town Big Easy venues. “Come on down to New Orleans and see us,” Cleary smiled to his Telluride audience.
That audience endured, and notably enjoyed, a cool, rainy long weekend of outdoor and indoor music shows in the high Rocky Mountains box canyon that is the Telluride Jazz Festival setting—rainbows abounded and spirits remained high, not unassisted by the ready availability of legal recreational cannabis and fine craft brews in nearby establishments. The weekend began Thursday with a joyous free preview performance by Dwayne Dopsie’s dynamic zydeco band in Telluride Mountain Village plaza, a short but thrilling enclosed tram ride from Telluride proper. While dancing to the Dopsie band’s propulsive accordion, guitar and rub board driven set, this reporter fondly recalled Dwayne Dopsie’s triumphant appearance at the September 2005 Telluride Blues and Brews Fest, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
In a weekend of stellar performances which also included Marcus Miller, Jeff Coffin and the Mu’tet, the sizzling Nigel Hall Band, the sultry Veronica Swift and Eric Gunnison Trio,Cuba’s fiery Sobredosis Del Sabor, Galactic, Caleb Chapman’s Crescent Super Band with Jeff Coffin, the Kevin McCarthy Trio, the Stillwater All Stars, the USAF Academy Band Falconaires and the astounding Telluride Student All-Stars Jazz Ensemble, three other acts also stood out alongside Jon Cleary’s and John Scofield’s varied sets.
They were Kermit Ruffins and his BBQ All-Stars, Rebirth Brass Band and Lisa Fischer with Grand Baton. Ms. Fischer, the former back-ground singer of four decades experience behind The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross and a standout star of the Oscar-winning documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom, absolutely stunned Telluride’s Friday night audience with her magnificent set which included a brilliant re-visioned take on The Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” which transformed that bleak anthem of apocalypse into a dazzlingly hopeful song! Truly amazing.
Rebirth gave us a marvelous main stage set—briefly interrupted by an approaching lightning storm and temporary audience evacuation to shelter but then resumed in celebratory style—and also led the annual Telluride New Orleans Day Parade down main street during a break in the clouds as feathered, bead-decked and Mardi Gras- masked revelers danced along in the brilliant mountain sun.
Kermit Ruffins, who starred—as himself— in the great HBO New Orleans series Treme—gave two fabulous performances: in the Sheridan Opera House Saturday night and on the main Jon Cleary Stage on New Orleans Sunday afternoon. Both were grand tours of the best of New Orleans music, ranging from old time Dixieland and blues styles to hip hop, and all graced by Kermit Ruffins’s signature musical grace and knowing good humor. The man is a treasure, rarely seen outside his beloved Crescent City, and it was a fine treat to see and hear him and his tightly in-sync, joy-filled BBQ All-Stars in person at the 40th Annual Telluride Jazz Festival.