"It was a complete change from what I was doing, which was playing a lot of obscure New Orleans tunes with different rhythm sections, without rehearsing," remembers Cleary. "I wanted to have a group that played my songs, and it was time to make the break. So we rehearsed all these songs, with complicated arrangements, and it was quite a risk to take. The Jazz Fest gig was hard; we were all nervous and it felt like there was a lot of pressure.
"Then we had a Maple Leaf gig that night, and it felt like the pressure was off, and that was one of the most exciting musical nights of my life," continues Cleary. "There was this deep wellspring of musical ideas, where the bucket was being plunged deeper and deeper. We'd rehearsed 40 minutes of material, and now we had to fill out four hours. It was remarkable. We made stuff up, calling out chord changes, and it was pure improvisation. Any musician will tell you that's when they're most inspired. We still talk about that night."
Eight years later, the spark between Cleary and his band -- guitarist Derwin "Big D" Perkins, bassist Cornell Williams and drummer Jeffrey "Jellybean" Alexander -- has grown exponentially, making them one of the most electrifying bands in New Orleans. The four musicians apply their blend of deep pocket-funk, gospel harmonies, '70s soul, New Orleans R&B and Caribbean rhythms to Cleary's superb original songs and inspired cover selections, often in marathon shows stretching toward daylight.
Having a band of this caliber is a rare gift for a bandleader, which made Cleary's 2000 CD, Moonburn, a somewhat puzzling album. Live rhythm tracks were cut for Moonburn, but Cleary opted for labor-intensive studio programming with loops and effects, resulting in an album that felt calculated and sterile in spots. Artistic decisions aside, the CD (recorded for Pointblank, a subsidiary of Virgin Records) was a commercial disappointment, a classic case of an album lost in the major-label ether. The process left Cleary determined to take a different path for his new album, Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen.
"I wanted to present the other half of the musical picture to Moonburn," he says. "Moonburn was a studio record, which I was very proud of, but this is a live record with a band that's played the songs for a while, and the arrangements had time to settle down. We had plenty of time to play these quite sophisticated tunes, with complex harmonies and arrangements, in a live setting before recording them."
The proof is in the grooves. On Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, deep funk tunes like "More Hipper" and a scalding, eight-minute version of the Meters' "Just Kissed My Baby" crackle with the immediacy of lightning strikes, while the sweet soul of "Sometimes I Wonder" effortlessly floats on the band's soaring vocal parts. Cleary's blues and R&B roots shine on a full-throttle shuffle recasting of the Little Willie John ballad "Take My Love," and his immersion in Cuban rhythms flourishes in the syncopated piano breaks of "When You Get Back."
It's an album that truly captures Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen's diverse musical tastes and prowess -- and seems to have a legitimate chance to finally break Cleary to a wider audience. It's being released on New Orleans' Basin Street Records, the tireless local label that's helped bring the sounds of Los Hombres Calientes to a national audience. Then there are the benefits that come from Cleary's other job, as keyboardist in Bonnie Raitt's band. (Raitt recorded two Cleary songs, "Fools Game" and "Monkey Business," on her new album, Silver Lining.) Raitt has a full slate of summer tour dates booked, and Cleary and the band are opening a number of shows. And positive early reaction to Raitt's current tour and album have opened the possibility of the tour extending into December.
"To be given this rare opportunity is pretty amazing," says Cleary. "Bonnie's plucked me out of relative obscurity, from playing within fairly funky confines to being presented with a great P.A. and sound system in front of 5, 6,000 people. So far, the band's been going down fantastically. We're getting standing ovations and encores, and the response has been really encouraging."
When Raitt's tour does end, Cleary has his fingers crossed that he'll finally have the chance to do some extensive road work of his own. "I hope that we'll be able to play nationally and internationally, and get out there and do what we do -- and give people some great New Orleans music."