Anyone who knows what it means to miss New Orleans would have been cheered by Jon Cleary and the Philthy Phew’s jubilant performance at the Hamilton on Monday night. Seated at a gleaming grand piano, the British-born, Crescent City-bred singer-keyboardist was delighted to be playing in such a cushy setting. And why not? He told the crowd he recently performed at an aquarium where penguins outnumbered people.
Fortunately, the odds were now stacked in his favor. After discovering that a lot of folks in the posh downtown club had just returned from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Cleary happily offered “another taste.” Supported by bassist Cornell Williams and drummer Doug Belote, he sketched out a long timeline, even pausing at one point to document Jelly Roll Morton’s fascination with habanera rhythm.
Vibrantly arranged trio and solo piano performances, personal recollections and musical illustrations that shed light on the evolution of New Orleans R&B filled out the show. The 49-year-old Cleary arrived in New Orleans as a young R&B disciple and has since become a formidable pianist with a flair for conjuring Professor Longhair’s intensely syncopated propulsion. With his husky, soulful voice, Cleary also has no difficulty delivering a rousing blues, as he demonstrated when reviving Earl King’s “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights.” Still, it was Cleary’s percussive keyboard attack and Belote’s tumbling, crackling polyrhythms that enticed some fans to dance in front of the stage.
“Occapella!,” Cleary’s new album, is devoted to Allen Toussaint tunes, and it was a treat to hear the pianist reach deep enough into the composer’s songbook to retrieve the gem “What Do You Want The Girl To Do?” As for Cleary’s own “Frenchmen Street Blues,” the elegiac ballad he performed on HBO’s “Treme,” perhaps he dropped it in favor of something to keep the dancers coming. You could scarcely blame him.
Joyce is a freelance writer.