Gumbo on the King’s Road
Along with the Chelsea Potter, John Sandoe Books and Peter Jones, the Pheasantry is a rare reminder of how the King’s Road used to be before it was ruined by retail and food chains, a process that started in the 1970s. I hadn’t been there for many years until a couple of friends invited me to go with them to hear Jon Cleary on one of three sold-out nights this week.
It’s a Pizza Express now, and like the ones in Dean Street and Holborn it has a thriving music programme in the basement, taking over the cabaret function of the old Pizza on the Park. Cleary, the English-born singer and pianist who has lived in New Orleans for many years, was an ideal choice to perform solo on the club’s Steinway in the intimate, 70-seat environment.
To say he has metabolised the music of New Orleans during his decades in residence, and particularly that of its great pianists, is no exaggeration. In the first set, he started with Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and then mixed it all together in a great gumbo whose ingredients included Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Mac Rebennack and Allen Toussaint. He did the Booker thing of bringing Brahms to the boogie-woogie and the rumba to Rachmaninoff, wandering along the highways and byways of the keyboard to find lurid climaxes, crafty turnarounds and outrageous false endings that brought spontaneous cheers.
The second set was something else. This was about the songs. And not just the fine covers of “Lucille”, “Talk to Me, Talk to Me” and “Blueberry Hill” but his own compositions. One, the soulful “Frenchmen Street Blues”, was heard in season two of Treme. Another, a lovely wistful blues-ballad called “All Or Not At All”, is something he’s apparently been working on for years. A third, “When You Get Back”, is a strutting blue-eyed soul song that I can’t get out of my head. A very good night indeed.