Okay, picture this. It’s been a hot day in New Orleans. You’re sitting 200 yards from the Mississipi River and you can feel the air start to cool around you as the evening rolls in.
For Jon Cleary, this is home. The city he bought a one-way ticket to as a fresh-faced 18-year-old pianist from Kent, and the place he returns to now for brief interludes in a touring schedule that sees him circling the globe several times a year.
“I was very lucky here,” he says. “I was sort of welcomed in. But I was quite realistic about it. I came here as a teenager; I’d been playing music since I was a baby. I spent two years here listening and learning.”
He spent his time in the city’s music halls and clubs, the places where the spirit of blues and jazz had seeped into the floorboards over decades of music.
“Breaking into the business takes a long time. I was never good at hustling. Us English are taught to be self-effacing. I was never good at selling myself to whoever was running the bandstand. I’d be a bit of a wallflower, just listening. I did my homework.
“In the end, you have to hustle. Be persistent. Do it in a way that’s comfortable for you. You have to handle your business and blow everybody away.
“People often ask me how it was being a white guy from England with black guys who invented this music and I think people expect me to say there were problems. They didn’t care. As long as you can play, you’re welcome.”
And play he can. Cleary and his four-piece band The Absolute Monster Gentlemen dish up a distinctly New Orleans blend of blues, funk and soul with grooves that get down to your very bones.
“Our job is to generate a lot of voltage from the stage. Think of gentle music played with intensity. New Orleans is a lazy town. You get to infuse that relaxed element into your playing. Even the slow songs are intense. You learn to hire musicians who play with a lot of focus and it lights up the room.”
Capturing that live energy on recordings can be challenging. It’s an inexact science, as Cleary puts it.
“A lot of New Orleans music involves a time before records. People here respond to music in a very vocal way. In church, the congregation makes as much noise as the band. They throw a lot of energy back at you, like the alternator of a car.”
I wanted to ask Cleary about one song in particular, a track called ‘Unputdownable’ from his 2018 album Dyna-Mite. Its groove is kind of like a lazy a half-time shuffle. It feels laid back, but with an intensity that just compels you to keep listening.
“That particular song, I played everything on the demo. We tried cutting it and it wasn’t quite working for me. In the end I just said ‘alright, f— it, let’s just play it without thinking. Forget everything we’ve just done. I’m just gonna play a groove and I’ll call out directions’.
“I think sometimes you have to do that. If somebody makes a mistake, you never let the groove stop.”
That energy lies at the heart of everything Jon Cleary and his band do. It’s an electrifying combination that’s seen him perform all around the world, and his history with Canberra goes back a ways.
“We used to play at a place called Tilley’s,” he says. “That was quite a while ago now. You know I tour so much it’s very hard to think back and distinguish one place from the next. Unless somebody dies – which has happened. Either that or the secret police come barging in which has happened as well.”
See Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentlemen live at The Playhouse on Wednesday 9 October. Tickets from $65 via canberratheatrecentre.com.au.