The musician Mose Allison, who has died aged 89, could count the Who, the Clash, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison and Georgie Fame among the fans of his acerbic songs. His scalpel-sharp lyrics were underpinned by assiduous researches of a line that went all the way back to the earliest roots of the blues.
Allison always managed to sound cool and in a hurry at the same time. Needing nothing more than a piano, a microphone and a rhythm section to fire off his own biting updates on country-blues, he would hustle through his repertoire of laconic social commentary, and the classic songs of Tampa Red, Willie Dixon and many others, as if trying to squeeze a Delta discography into a single set.
Rarely pausing for banter or biographical musings about himself or his heroes, the spare, faintly donnish Allison would clatter into the opening of a song when the last syllable of its namecheck was barely out of his mouth. The restless urban urgency of his methods brought a modernity (via bebop) to the earthy materials of the Delta, and a sophisticated irony to the direct and often accusatory themes of the blues.
The pianist, singer and occasional trumpeter never adapted his light, southern-inflected conversational voice to the spine-tingling hollers or the muscular laments of traditional blues. He used it instead as an almost rap-like, rhythmic monotone – the dynamics sometimes varied by an explosive, sustained sound, but more usually echoing a drummer’s busy, preoccupied mutter.
In his early years, he was a piano accompanist and not a singer, working for various top saxophonists, and his keyboard playing retained a delightful eccentricity throughout his career, an uncategorisable style of whirling runs and marching left-hand countermelodies that was his alone.
And though the lyrics of Allison’s best songs became well known, his performances could always produce freshly disconcerting versions of the devastating one-liners that included “your mind’s on vacation but your mouth’s working overtime”, “I’m nobody today but I was somebody last night” and “ever since the world ended, I don’t go out so much”. “Mose, you got a good thing goin’,” Sonny Boy Williamson said to him. Dixon called him “a beautiful musician”.
Allison was born on his grandfather’s farm, near the village of Tippo, just inside the eastern rim of the Mississippi Delta. His father took over the business, and his mother taught at the local school – a connection that gave the boy a lifelong love of literature that significantly influenced his resources as a songwriter. Allison’s father was a good stride-style pianist and, at the age of five, the boy was sent for formal piano lessons. But it was the blues, boogie-woogie music and jazz he heard on the jukeboxes that really turned his head.
In a predominantly black corner of the US’s cotton-farming country in the 1930s, Allison recollected that 60% of the jukebox fare would be country blues, and the remainder the big-band bravura of Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey – and he loved both. A gifted natural improviser, he was also attracted to the trumpet by the music of Louis Armstrong, studying the instrument in high school and performing with it in local marching bands and dance bands.
But family caution rather than the lure of jazz and blues determined Allison’s next step and he went to the University of Mississippi to study chemical engineering. Army bands allowed him to return to the trumpet and piano during a year of military service, however, and in 1947 he returned to college (this time as an economics major) but also became the leader of a jazz trio and a composer/arranger for the college band. He pulled out of full-time education a second time, to take a six-nights-a-week job playing piano and singing in a cocktail lounge near Lake Charles, Indiana, then moved to Louisiana State University to study English and philosophy, graduating in 1952.
But Allison’s career was beginning to roll by now. He began working all over the south-east and as far north as Denver, then went to New York to sample the frenetic modern jazz and bebop scene in 1956. He played piano with the saxists Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan, but the invigorating New York scene encouraged him to draw together all the disparate influences in his musical sensibilities: the relaxed swing piano of Nat King Cole and Erroll Garner, the various angles on bebop adopted by Thelonious Monk, John Lewis and Al Haig, and, of course, the distant childhood sounds of the blues singers.
Like Miles Davis in the same period, Allison was finding that bop could become a mechanical, formulaic exercise, and he was looking for something else. In 1957, Allison made Back Country Suite for the Prestige label, and, the following year, an Allison trio made its debut at the Café Bohemia in New York – with a young drummer, Paul Motian, who was later to become a star.
Allison’s interweaving of swing’s elegance and his own eccentrically bumpy, bop-influenced rhythmic sense marked the arrival of a significant new force. He brought together a mix of jazz and country sounds new to 50s east coast hipsters, and on a single sung track (simply called Blues) he seemed to be opening up possibilities for a white voice exploring black material creatively rather than as pastiche that anticipated the white R&B boom of the decade still to come.
Albums such as Local Color (1957) and Autumn Song (1959) followed, with the first briefly featuring Allison’s muted trumpet and a haunting examination of Duke Ellington’s Don’t Ever Say Goodbye, and the second including more vocals, and some straight bop piano on one of the idiom’s classics, Groovin’ High. But he still saw himself as a pianist at least as much as a singer in this period, continuing to work with Getz intermittently – including a month-long engagement at the Montmartre club, Copenhagen, where the two performed as a duo.
Allison’s best songs surfaced ever more prolifically in the period between 1960 and 1964, with I Don’t Worry About a Thing, Your Mind Is on Vacation and Don’t Forget to Smile appearing on an impeccable series of albums for Atlantic. He began to tour internationally through the 60s and 70s, and his bluesy vocals and the enthusiasm of such influential fans as Morrison helped him avoid the effects of the rock-driven downturn in jazz’s fortunes in that period.
Allison appeared in Jeff Stein’s 1979 rock documentary The Kids Are Alright, about the Who, who covered his Young Man Blues. Regularly working with the bassist Mel Graves and drummer George Marsh, Allison toured steadily, and moved to the Elektra and then Blue Note labels in the 80s. The latter company sought to rebrand him through collaborations with various guests – from the New Orleans band on My Backyard (1989) to contemporary jazz stars including the trumpeter Randy Brecker, saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist John Scofield on The Earth Wants You in 1994.
But Allison never sounded better than when left to himself and he confirmed that the acuity of his observational powers was undimmed in beginning to turn his muse toward the insights and ironies of senior citizenship. The influence of long-gone southlands guitarists on his piano technique would always be audible under classic songs such as What’s Your Movie?, he would typically impart a defiant rather than romantic air to a standard ballad such as You Are My Sunshine, and the original How Much Truth (Can a Man Stand?), delivered without an iota of reproof, could always tingle the spine.
At the PizzaExpress jazz club in London, which he took to visiting twice a year in the 90s and early 2000s, Allison would sometimes seem to be in a fascinating private reverie, in which stomping bluesy figures would wrestle with swirling, wind-in-trees melodies, or turn into a jerky clatter like a silent-movie soundtrack. Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues, Trouble in Mind and Knock on Wood might hurtle by in a blur.
The pungency and vigour of Allison’s work with local sidemen at the PizzaExpress was admirably caught on a fine collection by Blue Note Records in 2000 – The Mose Chronicles: Live in London Volumes 1 & 2. But after 1998, suspicious of studios and record companies, he avoided them until the producer Joe Henry tempted him back for the LA label Anti in 2008.
The result, a mix of covers and originals entitled The Way of the World and featuring a duet with his daughter, Amy, revealed the octogenarian to be to be just as sardonic, incisive, and vocally and instrumentally quirky as ever. In 2013, Allison was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, and performed his song Was at the ceremony, with Amy accompanying him.
Back in the memorable days of Allison’s London visits, he would sometimes intone his 1982 album title “Just another middle-class white boy trying to have some fun,” as the piano notes flew by. That childhood pastime went on to work its inimitable magic for almost six decades.
Allison is survived by his wife, Audre Mae, and four children, Alissa, Amy, John and Janine. (by theguardian.com)
And this is a beautiful and rare concert recording … and you´ll hear the magic of good old Mose Allison !
Recorded live at the Jazzfest, Musik-Instrumenten-Museum
Berlin, Germany; November 27, 1992
Very good satellite radio show
Mose Allison (piano, vocals)
Sigi Busch (bass)
Jerry Granelli (drums)
01. Indian Love Call (Friml)/Power House (Allison)/City Home (Allison) 15.48
02. When You’re Going To The City (Allison) 3.03
03. Tell Me Something (Allison) 2.36
04. Your Molecular Structure (Allison) 3.29
05. Announcement 0.09
06. Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me (Ellington/Russell) 2.57
07. I Feel So Good (Allison) 3.26
08. Announcement 0.09
09. Trouble In Mind (Jones) 2.56
10. Gettin’ There (Allison) 3.03
11. I Don’t Want Much (Allison) 2.33
12. Ever Since The World Ended (Allison) 3.54
13. Announcement 0.06
14. I Love The Life I Live (Dixon) 4.45
(11 November 1927 – November 2016)
REST IN PEACE !