Hearing Jon Cleary’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 Cleary’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 Cleary’s first quest was to seek out songs from Toussaint’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, “Let’s Get Low Down,” 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 Cleary’s technically gifted Absolute Monster Gentlemen, Derwin “Big D” Perkins (guitar) and Cornell Williams (bass). Other voices include Jeffrey “Jellybean” Alexander, and Walter “Wolfman” 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, “Occapella” is a pitch perfect rendition of a song Toussaint had written for his long-time protege, Lee Dorsey. “Popcorn Pop Pop” and “What Do You Want the Girl to Do” are other examples of Cleary’s artful arrangements, the latter song made up of simple vocals with simple acoustic guitar. “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky” is reminiscent of The Staple Singers or “Working in a Coal Mine,” another Toussaint song performed by Dorsey.
Other numbers are notable for their instrumentation. Cleary’s keyboards—piano and organ—counterpoint each other on “When the Party’s Over.” “I’m Gone” is built on a stand-up bass foundation. Drums and Latin percussion spice up the reggae-flavored “Poor Boy Got to Move” and “Southern Nights” with jazz piano and beautiful acoustic guitar lines.
Cleary has fun with the bluesy “Viva La Money” and makes “Wrong Number”—also covered recently by the earthier Paul Thorn—sound like a classic drawn from the Great American Songbook. The album concludes with the extended performance piece, the piano instrumental “Fortune Teller.” It’s nothing like the Rolling Stones, you can be sure.
So what adjectives are left to describe Occapella? How about impressive, distinctive, intricate, tightly-woven, and surprising? Put away the beer. It’s time to go upscale tonight.