Mose Better Blues

Septuagenarian jazz poet laureate Mose Allison thrives on the blues.

After almost fifty years in the spotlight, Mose Allison remains a pianist, singer and songwriter with a dilemma. It seems that the blues roots of the Tippo, Mississippi, native clash with his current jazz edification to create something of a crisis of categorization. Though Gimcracks and Gewgaws, Allison's most recent release, beautifully exhibits his eloquent, endearing cross-stylings, fans may be hard-pressed to determine what record bin it's likely to be located in.

"They've never known where to put me," Allison says. "It's been hard to describe what I do. I haven't read any real convincing descriptions of my piano style--although some guys have come close--giving an indication of what it's like. It's been a merchandising problem, because I don't fit in any categories cleanly."

Of course, the silver lining to this troubling cloud lies in two important truths. First, Allison's songs transcend petty distinctions. Second, his career has been a grand success by any meaningful measure. Nevertheless, the difficult task of describing the joy, comfort and thoughtfulness of Allison's repertoire remains. Is he the consummate roots-dwelling blues songster? The avuncular Southern sage of bluesy jazz (or jazzy blues)? A wondrous, folksy bebop fabulist? The foremost American primitive sophisticate?

Words may not do justice to Allison--or his own way with them. Lyrically, Allison has been consistently peerless for decades. At the piano, he plays with a deceptively simple, linear freshness that allows him to either burn it up or just frame his thoughts tastefully. As a singer, he's not a crooner (think along the lines of a more mellifluous Bob Dorough rather than a Johnny Hartman), but his unmistakable country-blues warble immediately instills loyalty. Simply put, at the age of 71, with more than two dozen albums to his credit, the diversely talented Allison has been elevated to the status of an icon of jazz, or blues, or both.

If Allison isn't a household name, at least his influence will be felt for years through the admiration of his younger compatriots. Tell Me Something, a 1996 Allison tribute CD led by Van Morrison, is a case in point. So is the Who's "Young Man Blues," from 1970, which is actually a version of Allison's "Blues (A Young Man)." "The rock-and-rollers who've done my material in the last few years have helped me to survive," he says. "Just being a straight-out jazz player--I don't care how good you are--it's kinda hard to make a living. The fact that I have other avenues for fans other than just straight jazz has helped me to hang on. The only money I make in records, really, is when these people like Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello and Pete Townshend do my material."

Allison could arguably be declared a living national treasure for penning such tunes as "Your Mind Is On Vacation" ("If silence was golden/You couldn't raise a dime/Because your mind is on vacation/And your mouth is working overtime") and "Ever Since I Stole the Blues" ("Well the blues police from down in Dixieland/Tried to catch me with the goods on hand/They broke down my door but I was all smiles/I had already shipped 'em to the British Isles").

According to Allison, his tunes come in three varieties. "Slapstick" songs include good-natured insults, jocular personal anecdotes and witty retorts, like "Ever Since I Stole the Blues," directed at a journalist who insinuated that the Caucasian Allison did just that. In more familiar blues territory, "personal-crisis" numbers chronicle friends on the road to ruin, broken hearts and the like. Allison's opuses of "social commentary" take on everything from disrespect for the elderly in "Old Man Blues" to hypocrisy in "Everybody Cryin' Mercy" ("People runnin' round in circles/Don't know what they're headed for/Everybody's cryin' 'Peace on earth, just as soon as we win this war'").

Regardless of typology, Allison's pieces are sewn with the common threads of keen insight and able wordsmithing. It may be self-deprecating fun, as in his classic version of Percy Mayfield's "Lost Mind" ("If you would be so kind/To help me find my mind/I want to thank you in advance/Know this before you start/My soul's been torn apart/I lost my mind in a wild romance"). Or it could employ science in the name of a crush, as in "Your Molecular Structure" ("Your molecular structure/Is really something swell/A high frequency modulated Jezebel/Thermodynamically you're getting to me").

Allison is truly in his element, however, when he's embracing a healthy yet fatalistic view of society and the universe. His intellectual streak is at its peak in "I Don't Worry About a Thing" ("You know this world is one big trouble spot/Because some have plenty/And some have not/You know I used to be trouble/But I finally saw the light/Now I don't worry about a thing/Because nothing's gonna be all right"). This often-misunderstood embrace of the dark side comes from an unlikely source. To those with wrong-headed stereotypes of life in the Deep South, it's a particularly odd sentiment to hear delivered in Mose Allison's soft, warm drawl. (His accent is thick enough to eliminate the letter "r" from the word "governor" on Lessons in Living, a live album from 1983.) "There's a strong ironical streak that comes from rural America," says Allison. "It's not pessimistic, really, it's just dealing with a harsh reality."

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