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JON CLEARY Mo Hippa FHQ003 (2008)

From sideman to centre stage is often a harder journey to make than most imagine. In Jon Cleary's case it is perhaps all too easy to forget that he paid his dues in the unforgiving bars and clubs of the late 70's London circuit long before he was reborn as a stellar pianist and authentic New Orleans performer.

And aside from his considerable chops the main reason for his ascent and acceptance in the deep south and the American blues market as a whole, lies in the combination of both his love of the musical history he explores so interestingly and perhaps more importantly his own ability as a song writer.

And if ever a case was needed to be made for the international appeal of the funky end of New Orleans music look no further than this live album.

Recorded at the Vanguard Jazz Club in Australia, Jon Cleary and The Absolute Monster Gentlemen build their own momentum on the back of a well chosen mix of self penned material and covers given a new twist.

At several key magical moments the band take a groove in different directions giving the set a restless and imaginative energy that finds its resolution in Cleary fluid playing and the band's climactic funky grooves. Cleary had clearly picked the band of his choice to best showcase the music he loves.

And while the trademark Professor Longhair style piano lines are never very far from centre of things, there's a radical shift to a funky approach that comes to dominate things.

Cleary contributes six of the ten tracks including his own classic 'Cheatin on You' and two excellent soulful outings 'Help Me Somebody' and 'When U Get Back'. The latter has one eye on some serious commercial possibilities and it could well happen for him as the hook is very radio friendly and tops an impeccable funky groove.

Perhaps the key to this album is the intuitive interplay between Jon's flighty expressive keyboard runs and his lived in rootsy voice with a band who push him to the limit. The only slight reservation is the rather obvious choice of covers, though after playing standards such as 'Tipitina' for nearly three decades, Cleary is as entitled as anyone is to dig into the New Orleans heritage and bring it back to life. He's apparently been living there for 28 years and in between stints with Bonnie Raitt and learning his full apprenticeship with Taj Mahal, this album does indeed suggest both he and his splendid band (The Absolute Monster Gentlemen) are as near as damn it the best thing cooking in any venue in N'Orleans at present.

On 'Port Mean Blues' Cleary's piano lines are delightful and the band's peerless interplay peaks on the aptly titled 'Groove Me'. And by the time of the deep funky grooves of the closing title track the Aussie audience have cottoned on and give the band their due reward.


Review by Pete Feenstra

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***** Out of this world | **** Pretty damn fine |
*** OK, approach with caution unless you are a fan |
** Instant bargain bin fodder | * Ugly. Just ugly

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