Is there any living jazz artist so utterly, comprehensively American as Mose Allison? His melting-pot piano style, which seamlessly combines the sounds of back country and big city; his carefree, everyman way of singing; his sly cynicism these are all reflections of the national character, and the basis of his five decades of popularity.
Allison put both charm and chops on display for a midweek stint at Yoshi's jazz club in Oakland February 8-10, working in a trio setting. The first set of his Wednesday night show drew an appreciative if not energetic audience, just a few seats shy of a full house.
Allison does not waste time on stage. After setting the scene with a stormy instrumental number full of stop-breaks and some quasi-Asian touches in the riffs, Allison proceeded to barrel through 21 additional songs in little more than an hour, pausing only briefly to identify composers.
The breathless pace created some emotional distance at first; only later in the set, when Allison settled into more relaxed tempos, was the audience able to drink in his lyrics and sound the depths of his tunes.
Although Allison's songs all have a readily identifiable stamp, and most follow nearly identical stylistic scripts, they never seem tired or repetitive. The secret seems to lie in two places: First, Allison's witty wordplay and timeless social commentary. When has a line like "everybody's cryin' for peace on earth... just as soon as we win this war" not been relevant? But then this is combined with a piano style that can connect on a gut level with listeners from all backgrounds. At one moment evoking a spiritual or the Delta blues, at another a sideshow calliope or carnival ride, at yet another Gershwinesque penthouses and cocktails, Allison's playing seems fresh and lively no matter how many times one has heard it.
Allison's rhythm section was equally fluid. Mel Graves' bass work, particularly in the opener and Nat King Cole's "Meet Me at No Special Place," was akin to the antics of a playful cat, prowling and skittering, strutting and hiding, shifting gears with little warning but always keeping pace with Allison's mercurial piano lines. The same can be said of drummer George Marsh. Never content to simply keep time, Marsh continually shifted between ride cymbals, liberally "dropping bombs" on snare and bass drum as his rhythms tumbled through the tunes. The trio maintained cohesion even when throwing a tune deliberately off-balance, as in "No Special Place" or an inverted, dirge-like "You Are My Sunshine."
Allison scored his best hits of the night when playing up to the "blue-state" blues of the San Francisco Bay Area, which remains obsessed with the recent Presidential election. Dystopian ditties bemoaning the evil that powerful men do, like "Monsters of the Id" and "Ever Since the World Ended," got as strong a response from the mostly middle-aged crowd as did perennial chucklers like "You Call It Joggin' (But I Call It Runnin' Around)."
Age is a growing theme in Allison's recent work. In one of Allison's newer compositions, he complains that "an old man today ain't nothin' in the USA." Although he looks and sounds much younger than his 77 years, age was likely on the minds of many in attendance. The great jazz organist Jimmy Smith, Allison's junior by one year and booked to appear at Yoshi's the very next week, had passed away the day before, and the word was still getting out. This served as a reminder of how vital it is to catch an artist like Allison, a true American original, while we can.