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Published: 2015/12/02
by Matt Inman

John Scofield and Jon Cleary’s Abiding Piety

This month, guitarist John Scofield is teaming up with longtime friend and pianist Jon Cleary for a tour that will see the two delve into the R&B traditions that both musicians hold dear. Seemingly a disparate duo—Cleary, England-born but New Orleans-based in every sense, and Scofield, steeped in modern improvisational jazz fusion—the two have found common ground in the music of legends like Professor Longhair, Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Little Willie John.

Cleary doesn’t claim to be a jazz expert (“I don’t know where these notes come from, but I love it,” he says of Scofield’s playing) and Scofield has nothing but praise for Cleary’s style, saying playing with him “is like playing with the whole band.” Together, they make it work. Below, the two studied and accomplished musicians go back and forth about how they first met over 20 years ago, their current project and why their styles match up so well onstage.

How did the two of you meet initially and then start playing together?

Jon Cleary: Well, I met Scofield through a mutual friend and was invited round to his house for Thanksgiving, around 1991 I suppose. And I knew very little about him, and he knew actually nothing about me. But we chatted, and I just thought he was a very friendly guy. I liked him straight away. I was aware that he was a very famous jazz guitar player, but to be honest with you I never actually heard any of his records. I was into New Orleans R&B, not jazz fusion. But I liked him—very down to earth. And then we’d sort bump into each other at festivals or in airport lounges, and he was always very cordial.

John Scofield: And I have been a fan of his since then. We stayed in touch over the years, and then when I made this Piety Street record—he’s like the main guy on that record. He sang most of the lead stuff, he played keyboards on everything. Then we toured for a couple of years, we did a bunch of gigs together as the Piety Street Project. So we got pretty tight doing that.

JC: I got a call one day to see if I could come down to the studio. He had come down to New Orleans and was just inviting local musicians down to play. I think he was just trying to feel out the scene—he wanted to cut something in New Orleans, he wanted to do a gospel record. And then I’d been out of town and I think I was flying in about an hour before he was flying out, and so we had about twenty minutes and went straight to the studio. It was nice to see him, and we sat down and played. He said, “Well, you want to come do this, you want to make a record?” And then we did the sessions and did the record, went out and did some touring. Toured for about two years and played all over the world and got to know each other better. He’s really just a down-to-earth, very friendly guy—as well as being a brilliant musician.

How did this duo project start up?

JS: The way this started was—you know Soulive, the band? They have a thing they do at Brooklyn Bowl every year. They invited us—I guess it was two years ago now—they invited both me and Cleary to be guests. One of the things we did on that show was we played a tune just the two of us, just me and Jon. And it really worked out great, so I thought, “Man, we gotta play more,” because playing with Jon Cleary is like playing with the whole band, the way he plays the piano. And the Soulive show was kind of a reunion for us, and that’s when I thought, “Wow, we should really try doing this duo.” It’s a different thing, just playing just guitar and piano—it really becomes a concert. You can’t slam it like you do with a rhythm section. But again, Jon Cleary’s piano covers the bass and the drums and everything—that’s all in there. So for me, it feels like we’re a whole band.

And what do you have in store for the upcoming tour?

JS: So we’d done a tour six months ago or something, we did a month in Europe, and worked out this repertoire. And it’s really fun because it’s just the two of us and we can really kind of wing it. But the material that we’re doing is primarily old R&B tunes—like kind of from the fifties, that really fit Jon’s thing, which is that he’s a great keeper-of-the-flame of New Orleans piano, traditional R&B. And he’s singing his ass off—his singing’s incredible. So we do tunes by Little Willie John—one of his and my favorites—and some Professor Longhair music for sure—real New Orleans stuff. A couple of Johnny “Guitar” Watson things and, you know, some blues. It’s definitely more in that area than in the other bands I have. It’s been a blast.

JC: We had one rehearsal about a year ago—it lasted us about two hours and then we went off to get a po’ boy or oysters or something. We’re still working off that rehearsal, basically. I mean, different things come in, you know—it’s never the same show twice. It’s just an interesting combination. [Even though] we exist in different musical worlds, there is this big overlap—that’s the area we work in, and it works really well. It seems to, anyway. We enjoy it, and the audience seems to enjoy it too.

So what is it like, John, doing something like this that might be a bit bit less jazzy than the stuff you usually do?

JS: It’s definitely more out of the R&B area, but you know, the old R&B, especially from New Orleans and stuff, that all is so jazz-related. It comes from a time when R&B music was coming from mainstream swing, you know? And that’s the New Orleans story. That’s why that R&B that came out of New Orleans would swing so hard, because New Orleans musicians were from the city that invented jazz. So I’ve always been able to play in that area, you know? As a jazz musician, it’s always felt like home to me. Plus, I really started out with blues guitar—B.B. King and that whole thing—before I got into progressive jazz, so it feels good to me. There’s probably some stuff that I wouldn’t try doing with Jon that I do when I play in a jazz context, but I never miss that. At the end of the night I always feel like, “Wow, this is great.” Plus, the blues-funk quotient goes up, and that just excites the hell out of me.

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