A collection of New Orleans R&B that spans different tempos and styles.
Jon Cleary, the English pianist and singer who fell in love with New Orleans as a teen and moved there in 1980, mixes Crescent City funk and harmonic sophistication as well as anyone in the city. On his new Dyna-Mite, Cleary presents 10 originals, and they cover a hip array of styles, all rooted in the kind of R&B that has made New Orleans one of the critical cities in American music for a century.
As a pianist, Cleary grounds all his music in the kind of blues-drenched but slick keyboard style that we associate with Professor Longhair, Dr. John, or Allen Toussaint. Dyna-Mite marries these piano (and occasionally organ or clavinet) grooves to lean horn arrangements, a funky rhythm section of NOLA natives and a vocal style that manages to be soulful but original, never seeming like mimicry of natives of the city. Cleary’s resume includes a long stint as the pianist in Bonnie Raitt’s band as well as work with Taj Mahal, jazz guitarist John Scofield, and Dr. John himself. And Cleary’s work reflects both that focus (roots-based music grounded in the blues) and a pop diversity. It’s a party, to be sure, but one shot through with romance as well as dancing.
So, a tune like “Frenchman Street Blues” is a harmonically sly ballad for the rhythm section only, all slippery organ and Wurlitzer electric piano running like a stream beneath Cleary’s minimal and hip acoustic piano. The vocal melody runs in a long, blues-inflected arc over a set of chords that are stamped as much by Tin Pan Alley as the blues. The lyrics tell a tale of romantic complexity set along the sidewalks of the city that Cleary loves. And, listening to it, you realize the tune could have been a fine vehicle for Ray Charles or Tom Waits. Similarly, “21st Century Gypsy Singing Lover Man,” while set to a more insistent backbeat, is built on a soulful set of chord changes that burst into a sunshine chorus, with horns powering it all with a Memphis punch, as if Al Green were lurking around a corner somewhere.
Cleary also specializes in tunes that are built primarily on a simple, funking rhythm. “Hit, Git, Quit, Split” is a stuttering little groover built around a playful verse that runs up into a chorus using the title words in a jabbering back-and-forth pattern with lead vocal, background singing, and horns. It’s no Joni Mitchell song, sure, but it gets the back side moving. Similarly, the title tune is built on a simple but funky conceit: “Some say Dyna-do/ Some say Dyna-don’t/ Some say Dyna-will/ Others say Dyna-won’t” but of course . . . “Dyna-might.” Silly, sure, but the clave-based New Orleans groove, with its shifting polyrhythms in the drumming and rolling piano figures, and the four-up/four-down horn part setting up the stop-time vocals are all dead serious. That the song also features a funereal half-time horn part on the bridge just makes its NOLA heritage more wonderfully apparent.
Other songs sit in the middle of these poles. “Unputdownable” has a funky-as-shit bass line that syncs up with the horn line and drums to get you grooving against your will. The vocal vamp on the end, just Cleary singing and the rhythm section churning on one chord, is perfect. But the song is also driven by compelling harmonies and a melody line that keeps surging. Similarly, “Skin in the Game” uses a hip minor theme that descends over a subtle harmonic form. The groove, however, is propelled by a pattern of swung eighth notes on the hi-hat that is set forward in the mix so that it rivals Cleary’s vocal tale of romantic longing and second thoughts.
Some of the most New Orleans-y tracks are the least distinctive while still fun. “Big Greasy” is a near-reggae workout on a guitar pattern and organ lick—a tune that must feel great live but that doesn’t play to Cleary’s lyrical strength on a recording. “All Good Things” is the last track (“All good things/ Must come to an end”) and is similarly fun, built around a cowbell groove on the intro and a rubbery bass line during the verse. But these kinds of party tunes mix wonderfully into the whole.
Among the strengths of Dyna-Mite is its strong construction as an album, a collection of New Orleans R&B that spans different tempos and styles. Cleary gives you the gamut, he gives you horns, he gives you the vocal/percussion breakdowns, he gives you some romance, he gives you nonsense that puts your hips in motion. He gives you piano playing that understands its way around a glorious tradition (including a piano-only coda to “All Good Things” that gets in final licks). Just as you might have him figured out, the album changes things up—through unified sound but a shifting of how Cleary chooses to emphasize the various elements of his NOLA adoration. And with excellent production of a tight band, he gives you a great sound.
This is a collection that may not stand as a classic but that understands so many classics and feeds them back to you through the filter of Cleary’s own voice. Which makes it one of the soul groovers of 2018.