Upon learning the news of Allen Toussaint’s passing on Nov. 10 at the age of 77, the first name that came to my mind was Jon Cleary, and not just because he is my favorite New Orleans piano player, or because I’d profiled him and the making of “Pin Your Spin” for Gambit Weekly back in 2004. It was, more appropriately, Cleary’s 2012 album, “Occapella,” a brilliant reimagining of some of Toussaint’s more popular (and some less popular) works.
Cleary is one of those special musicians who loves to deconstruct the creative and technical processes when he’s both making and discussing his work, and while he conceded early on that, basically, at the time he needed to put out some kind of record, and that friend John Scofield said tribute albums get easy media recognition, there was something special about digging into what made an Allen Toussaint song “work.””
Normally when I make a record I’m writing the songs as well, so there’s this other process where you’re agonizing over lyrics and arrangements, but the thing with Allan’s tunes is that the songs are good, the lyrics are good, and the arrangements have these key little signature things. My approach to it was identifying the most important elements, breaking the song down to its fundamentals and then building it back up again.
Hopefully I’ll have more of this interview, which also touched on Cleary’s general impressions on Toussaint’s musical legacy, but because he’s already said some of this, I thought it would be fun to hear his creative process on “Occapella” straight from his lips. Listen below.