Jon Cleary- Occapella CD Review
April 17, 2012
By Grant Britt
“Whatsomeover I play, it’s got to be funky,” James Brown said in 1971, spreading the godfather’s doctrine of funk worldwide from his New York headquarters with his hit “Make It Funky.” At the same time, a little further down south in New Orleans, Allen Toussaint was adding a hefty dose of funk to the Crescent City’s second line riddims, arranging and producing Dr. John and the Meters. And a lot farther to the East, in England, Jon Cleary was discovering the funk of Toussaint through artists like Robert Palmer and Scottish funkateer Frankie Miller. Moving to New Orleans in his early 20s, Cleary soaked up the sound in clubs like The Maple Leaf, honing his own fonk for a decade on the road with Bonnie Raitt before starting his own group, the Absolute Monster Gentlemen. His latest group is the Philthy Phew,a power trio with bassist James Singleton, drummer Terence Higgins, and Cleary on acoustic piano.
So it’s appropriate that Occapella, Cleary’s homage to Toussaint, includes “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky.” The track just crackles with deep-fried funk,backed by a struttin’ second line that makes you want to sashay down Bourbon Street shakin’ a leg and wavin’ a hanky.
Just to set things straight, Ocapella is the name of a song, not a description of what’s going on here, with one notable exception. The cut “Ocapella” is done a-capella,with some vocal help from the Absolute Monster Gents: Jellybean, Big D and Cornell Williams. “A little ol’ soul beat, and there’s dancin’ ev’rywhere,” Cleary croaks with crusty soul, as the Gents surround him with syncopated soulful grunts. “I would tell the whole world, tell ’em if I could/To add a little song into each life/ Oh, it’s finger-snappin’ good.”
Cleary is the sole provider of musicality on most of the cuts, playing every instrument on the record with the exception of the opener, “Lets Get Low Down” which features the Philty Phew’s instrumentation with some vocal and guitar help from Dr. John and vocals from Bonnie Raitt. Cleary and company sound like something Huey Piano Smith and the Clowns would roll around with in the late ’50s, funk before it knew what to call itself.
“Popcorn Pop Pop” is carnival-funk-soul with an beat that gives you an itch only percolatin’ down the street second linin’ will scratch.
“Southern Nights” would seem out of place amid all this funk, but Cleary’s low key, jazz/funk arrangement, a late night cabaret feel, makes it fit right in.
“Wrong Number” was also covered recently by Paul Thorn on his latest release of covers, What the Hell Is Goin On? Both versions are great remakes on a song that sounds like something that fell out of John Hiatt’s head and rolled out of Toussaint McCall’s mouth.
“What Do You Want The Girl To Do” is much smoother than Boz Scagg’s famous ’76 cover, with Cleary sounding like a world-weary James Taylor with a bit more soul.
Cleary has done a masterful job here of rearranging, retaining Toussaint’s essence while still allowing his own fine, funky self to shine through. Now its your turn – put it on, and get down.