Solo Gigging with Jon Cleary

Walking into Chickie Wah Wah, it was plain that Jon Cleary was right there on the tiny stage in front of us, playing a vintage-looking upright piano not 20 feet away from the bar. But it also seemed obvious that Jon Cleary himself was quite far off, perhaps even out in high orbit, certainly somewhere beyond the here and now of the club’s four walls.

By the time I’d ordered a glass of wine, the R&B piano man was back down among us here on earth, and in fact he was amiably chatting over his shoulder to someone sitting just a little closer up. After a few minutes more, though, he was back up and out of the room, flying, whirling wherever this virtuoso wanted to go as some familiar-sounding blues number rolled into progressively wider-ranging abstractions, musical arabesques, song fragments and momentary tributes. 

It was early on a Monday night, and that meant Cleary was playing what has lately been a more or less regular gig at Chickie Wah Wah, the club along Canal Street in the middle of Mid-City. Born and raised in England, Cleary learned New Orleans-style piano here in New Orleans. He discovered his style, and in turn discovered himself, playing at the Maple Leaf Bar. Now a respected bandleader and an in-demand player for session work, we usually we see him fronting his band the Absolute Monster Gentlemen or else backing up Bonnie Raitt and other big names on their own touring schedules.

But lately Cleary has been playing some extraordinarily mellow, intimate, revealing solo piano gigs around New Orleans, and there are a few more dates to catch him coming up this month, including Monday shows at Chickie Wah Wah and Thursday shows across town at d.b.a.

These shows seem less about performance and more about percolation. The sets are obviously not scripted out, and it seems as though Cleary is working through something or working toward something. For those who love blues piano, the experience might be akin to a Who Dat watching a Saints training session. There’s a voyeuristic, behind-the-curtain quality to it, and I half expected him to pencil down some notes or mark up a chart along the way as things came to together during a number.

On another level, as a simple night out, the recent Monday show I caught at Chickie Wah Wah could not have been more pleasant or entertaining. To begin, Chickie Wah Wah is a musicians’ music hall. The acoustics under its wood-lined ceiling are superb, and the house sound system is for real. The show started early (8 p.m.) and ended early enough (9:30 p.m.), and the venue is nonsmoking. There’s actually a serviceable by-the-glass wine list, which isn’t restaurant grade but is certainly much better than that offered at most music clubs around town. The food served from the small walk-up kitchen window was indeed restaurant grade, however. Mussels stuffed with rice and pecorino cheese, grilled sheepshead tostadas and fries cooked in duck fat made an unexpectedly impressive spread on our corner of the bar.

But this was just the setting. Everyone in the room seemed fixated on Cleary and his music. A table lamp sat atop the piano lid, casting a small, warm glow, and there was a respectful hush around the room. He was the only one on stage, and by following the music, by trying to trace along after the path his rolls and riffs and nods and allusions were making, it was easy to feel like somehow he intended it just for you.

Jon Cleary’s Chickie Wah Wah solo shows begin at 8 p.m., and he’s on the calendar there for Feb. 14 (yes, Valentine’s Day) and Feb. 21. His Thursday solo gigs at d.b.a. start at 7 p.m. and are scheduled for Feb. 10 and Feb. 17.

Chickie Wah Wah
2828 Canal St., New Orleans, 504-304-4714

618 Frenchmen St., New Orleans, 504-942-3731

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