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."
The ethic of "I Don't Worry" was part of Allison's upbringing. "You get that from rural Mississippi," comments Allison. "I grew up there during the Depression. There were a lot of sharecroppers around. That stoicism and irony and what a lot of people think is cynicism--I don't think it's cynicism at all because most of it has a humorous side."
"Hallelujah anyhow," a phrase originally coined by the American poet Kenneth Patchen, is one that Allison offers by way of explanation. "You express the bad side," he continues. "You don't try to ignore it. You admit that it's there, but you try to have a few grooves anyhow." Though he's not a particularly religious fellow, Allison compares the blues to religion. "It's survival music, and that's what religion is," he says. "People are religious because they're afraid of dying. They think it's gonna give them eternal life. The blues is just a little more realistic. It's dealing with everyday life, and it's a way of surviving a bad situation, which a lot of the blues singers were in."
It's more than likely that Allison further refined his worldview while at Louisiana State University, where he studied English and philosophy. Though he missed the graduation ceremony due to a nightclub engagement in Jackson, Mississippi, his academic experience did inform his musical course as he prepared to jump into jazz and follow his destiny in New York City.
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"I realized when I studied aesthetics that I could use the music that I grew up with, and it would be okay," he recalls. "That was sort of where I was before I even went to New York. I wanted to get the flavor of the stuff I grew up with and still try to be inventive, still try to play jazz."
Despite his septuagenarian status, Allison seems to be thriving rather than merely surviving. Blue Note, the label that released Gimcracks and Gewgaws, wants another live record. And he's performing about 125 gigs a year. "I enjoy the playing just as much as I ever did," he says. "It's just as much of a challenge, and I'm learning all the time."
The Sage of Tippo is currently taking a hiatus from songwriting, but he has his own reasons for that. "I don't want to just keep repeating myself, and I don't want to do anything that I don't feel an empathy for. So I'm just letting it rest for a while." Allison adds with a laugh, "I think I've covered most of my basic attitudes, anyhow."
Mose Allison. 5:00 p.m. Sunday, August 15, Jazz in the Sangres, Westcliffe, Colorado, $27.50 festival day pass, 303-794-4170.