This week, we remember the wit and wisdom of Mose Allison, a jazz and blues pianist and singer who passed away November 15, 2016 at age 89. Allison was a musician who could not be easily categorized: he combined the angular and mysterious bop stylings of Thelonious Monk, with the sage wisdom of an old southern bluesman, and the sardonic detachment of a punk rocker. Mose Allison was a jazz original, and we’ll explore his 50-year career in this hour.
The Jazz Sage Of Tippo
It’s hard to pin down an artist like Mose Allison: he sits somewhere in the nexus between jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, and folk music. He was an incredible bop pianist with a distinctly sparse and economical style. But he also possessed the soul of a wise old southern blues man, and the ironic attitude of a punk rocker. Yet Allison seemed to have the biggest influence on British invasion rock artists.
Allison was born in the tiny hamlet of Tippo, Mississippi in 1927, and raised on a disparate collection of musical genres, including stride piano, blues singers like Tampa Red, and the King Cole Trio. After attending college at both Louisiana State University and Ole Miss, Allison moved to New York in 1956 to begin working as a jazz pianist, recording with many big name musicians, like saxophonists Al Cohn and Stan Getz.
In New York, it became clear to Allison that he was a unique force in the jazz world. In a 1958 interview with DownBeat, Allison said “in the South, I’m considered an advanced bebop type. In New York, I’m considered a country blues-folk type. Actually, I don’t think I’m either. Maybe I’m a little of both.” Not long before this interview, Mose Allison recorded his first album as a leader, titled Back Country Suite for the Prestige label. The suite that makes up most of the album serves as Allison’s mission statement: several short pieces strung together that sound as if Thelonious Monk recorded interpretations of southern folk tunes.
Young Man Mose
Tucked away with this suite is an introduction to Allison’s unique vocal and songwriting style on an original song simply titled “Blues,” which he later renamed “Young Man’s Blues.” Allison’s voice was flippant and unaffected, and his lyrics, dry and sardonic. The song is about a young man’s lament on his treatment in the real world, a kind of precursor to The Who’s “My Generation.” In fact, The Who later covered “Young Man’s Blues” in their live sets, and recorded it in 1970 on Live In Leeds.
Allison’s next five records over the next few years were all for Prestige. On each, Allison tried roughly the same formula: a record featuring mostly instrumentals by his trio, with Allison himself on piano and occasionally on the trumpet. And into this mix of instrumentals, Allison would add the one or two vocal tracks.
Since he was primarily a jazz performer, most of the vocal tracks that Allison recorded were jazz standards. Although, these standards usually leaned towards the blues end of the spectrum, and away from the stuff that Sinatra or Mel Tormé would record, like Duke Ellington's "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me."
In addition to jazz standards, Allison was also known for recording blues covers by old bluesmen like Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon, and Muddy Waters, including songs like "Parchman Farm" (which he rewrote the words and music to) and "Rollin' Stone." This is probably one of the reasons he appealed so much to British Invasion rock stars in the 1960s: they both were plumbing the same depths of rare blues songs to cover. Plus Allison, born and raised in Mississippi, had that southern blues authenticity that British blues singers like Roger Daltrey and John Mayall lacked.
I Don't Worry About A Thing
Mose Allison spent about a year on the Columbia label in 1960, but his big break came in 1962 when he was signed to Atlantic Records, a label that better knew how to market someone who wasn’t quite jazz, but wasn’t quite rhythm and blues either (Atlantic had already made a star of a similarly chameleon-like artist Ray Charles).
Allison’s first record with Atlantic, I Don’t Worry About A Thing, marked a turning point, where Allison focused more on his original songs and his unique, wryly funny outlook on life. Many of Allison’s songs could be self-deprecating, but as a songwriter he also excelled in a wry form of insult comedy. He was a keen observing of the human condition, namely, when someone else was making a fool of themselves, like in his classic song "Your Mind Is On Vacation."
While Mose Allison recorded almost an album a year for the first 10 years of his career, in the 1970s and 80s, his rate of output declined. Many of these albums he recorded later in his career were live albums, showcasing among other things, Allison’s improvisational skills at the piano.
Allison eventually became as well known for his songs as he did for his performances. His music was covered by dozens of artists, mostly British invasion rock groups, like the Yardbirds, the Who, and Manfred Mann, but also other artists like Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt and Jimi Hendrix. In 1996, artists Van Morrison, Georgie Fame, and Ben Sidran came together to produce an album of Allison’s most well-known songs called Tell Me Something: The Songs Of Mose Allison. They each took turns performing the songs, and Allison himself even makes a guest appearance.
As his recordings became more sparse in the later decades, Mose Allison’s music remained incredibly consistent. His 2010 album The Way Of The World sounds slightly weathered, but otherwise remarkably similar to his albums from the late 1950s, and that’s to his credit. If anything, his wit and wisdom became sharper in his later years, while his piano playing and voice retained the same spark and punch.