Hearing Jon Clearyâ€™s Occapella for the first time, adjectives poured out of my head: sophisticated, smooth, slick, polished, original, striking, exquisite, and beautiful. Every track is a tour de force of performing virtuosity, and every arrangement is captivating and memorable. While Cleary has built his reputation for playing spicy New Orleans funk and R&B, Occapella transcends such labels.
The concept for Clearyâ€™s sixth solo album was to cover songs by a different composer than himself, and he chose the man who had most influenced his singing and piano playing: Allen Toussaint. So Clearyâ€™s first quest was to seek out songs from Toussaintâ€™s catalogue, both well-known and obscure, and then work out fresh musical settings for his choices.
One impressive aspect of the project is the fact that Cleary played the majority of the instruments himself, from his trademark piano to guitar, bass, drums, and a wide assortment of percussion instruments. Some tracks feature notable guests such as the barrel-house opening track, â€śLetâ€™s Get Low Down,â€ť which lives up to its title, where long-time kindred spirits Bonnie Raitt and Dr. John add vocals, the latter also providing some tasty guitar.
Throughout the selections, vocal harmonies are as top of the line as is humanly possible, featuring several members of Clearyâ€™s technically gifted Absolute Monster Gentlemen, Derwin â€śBig Dâ€ť Perkins (guitar) and Cornell Williams (bass). Other voices include Jeffrey â€śJellybeanâ€ť Alexander, and Walter â€śWolfmanâ€ť Washington.
Many of these harmonies sound a bit like what might have happened if a Philly group, say Kenny Vance and the Planetones, had grown up on Bourbon Street. For example, â€śOccapellaâ€ť is a pitch perfect rendition of a song Toussaint had written for his long-time protege, Lee Dorsey. â€śPopcorn Pop Popâ€ť and â€śWhat Do You Want the Girl to Doâ€ť are other examples of Clearyâ€™s artful arrangements, the latter song made up of simple vocals with simple acoustic guitar. â€śEverything I Do Gonh Be Funkyâ€ť is reminiscent of The Staple Singers or â€śWorking in a Coal Mine,â€ť another Toussaint song performed by Dorsey.