Jon Cleary is a big enough fan, and an accomplished enough musician, to mix it up on this forthcoming tribute record — which is smartly subtitled “Having Fun with the Songs of Allen Toussaint.”
The English-born Cleary, a New Orleans resident now for more than three decades, does it all on Occapella, save for a few choice guest appearances by the likes of Dr. John, Walter “Wolfman” Washington and Bonnie Raitt, for whom Cleary worked as a sideman and sometime songwriter for a decade before embarking on a solo career. So, in many ways, the album has the feel of an internal dialogue on one of Cleary’s most lasting musical influences. That means it will rise or fall based almost entirely on the multi-instrumentalist’s inventiveness and passion.
And rise, it most certainly does.
From the ecclesiastically funky joys of his opening take on “Lets Get Down Low” (featuring Raitt, Dr. John, and the soulful rhythmnists James Singleton and Terence Higgins on bass and drums, respectively), to the echoing reverie of his slow-cooked rendition of “Southern Nights,” Cleary brings a fearless creative spark to this project. He recreates “Occapella,” which Toussaint wrote for Lee Dorsey in the 1970s, as a stripped-down, vocal-only number. Just as interestingly, really, is his smart inclusion of forgotten gems nestled deep in Toussaint’s catalog: Songs like “I’m Gone,” a No. 2 R&B hit for Shirley and Lee in 1952; “Poor Boy Got to Move,” a B-side to Toussaint’s 1965 single “Go Back Home”; and “When the Party’s Over,” an album cut from 1975′s Southern Nights, are age-old but at the same time likely brand new to most ears.
Washington stops by for an appropriately crunchy update of “Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky,” another song made famous by Toussaint protege Lee Dorsey. Jeffrey “Jellybean” Alexander, Derwin “Big D” Perkins and Cornell Williams from Cleary’s regular working band the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, featured on the title track, also make saucy contributions singing backup on “Wrong Number” and “Popcorn Pop Pop.” Cleary adds a silky smooth, Boz Scaggs-ish sheen to “What Do You Want The Girl To Do,” then reenvisons the rumbling story-song “Fortune Teller” as a blues-soaked solo-piano rumination on finding love in the most unusual of places.
Co-produced by John Porter (B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Ryan Adams, R.L. Burnside) at Cleary’s home studio in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, Occapella — due April 17 on Cleary’s own FHQ label — is that rarest of tribute albums: It amplifies everything that made Allen Toussaint’s music so memorable, even as it adds frisky new shadings.
Best of all, in keeping with Cleary’s stated intentions, it’s a whole lot of fun.