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Mose Allison: Back in the (Studio) Saddle


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Mose Allison, the singer/songwriter blues/jazz man from the Mississippi Delta, has reached the age of 82. He's packed into that lifetime some 60 years in the music business and on the road. He's still playing more than 100 club and concert dates a year, from New York to California, across the pond in England and elsewhere.

He's recorded steadily during those years, his albums all well received in the jazz community by critics and fans alike. But over the last decade or so, Allison became disenchanted with the recording industry and pretty much blew the whole thing off. In 2001, live recordings taped at the Pizza Express in London were released—The Mose Allison Chronicles: Live in London, volumes 1 and 2 (Blue Note)—that are outstanding representations of what you might hear from him in a nightclub. But studio work was out the window. Didn't care much, didn't need it.

Like the lyric in his song "Gettin' There":

I'm not disillusioned
I am not disillusioned
I'm not disillusioned ... but I'm gettin' there.

But that's changed. Enter Joe Henry, a singer/songwriter who is also a noted producer. (Ramblin' Jack Elliott's A Stranger Here just won the 2010 Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album, and Allen Toussaint's The Bright Mississippi earned a 2010 nomination.) Henry's a fan of Allison and the two spent time together a few years ago when they shared a bill at a concert in Dusseldorf, Germany. It was then that Henry began to feel he could pull something more out of the deep well of talent that is Mose Allison.

It took e-mails, some phone calls, and a lot of persistence on Henry's part. But persistence was justified and paid off. The result is The Way of the World, to be released on the Anti-label in March. It's a strong addition to the Allison library that provides backgrounds different from the norm. Henry doesn't alter Allison himself, but puts him in some new and agreeable contexts. Allison comes through it with flying colors.

"He kept at it. I finally said, why not?" says Allison in his succinct style of answering questions, with a slight drawl that comes from his hometown of Tipton, Mississippi, even though he left the Delta for New York in 1956. "I had 50 albums out on the market, includin' reissues and revamped stuff. None of them were sellin,' according to the statements I get from the record companies. So I figured, why not go with a producer and let him handle it and see what happens?

"I heard a lot of people recommendin' him. They said he was a good producer and all his records had sold. I figured I'll make one and see if he can sell that," adds Allison with a warm chuckle.

The recording took place over five days in July 2009 in California. The musicians weren't known to Allison, except for bassist David Piltch, who at the age of 16 was recruited to play a gig with him in Toronto years ago. Song selections were a mixture of familiar and obscure. But the familiar are very different versions. A couple of first collaborations include a song written by his daughter, Amy Allison, a New York City-based songwriter. He also sings a duet with her on another selection. (First collaboration on a Mose record, that is. He played piano on his own "Monsters of the Id" on Amy's Sheffield Streets album (Urban Myth, 2009), which Amy and Elvis Costello sang as a duet.)

On The Way of the World, "I did one of her tunes, 'Everybody Thinks You're an Angel,'" says Mose. "And she was glad I did it in waltz time. That's the way she did it. She was thinking I would go to 4/4 on it. But I did it the way she did it ... She's been doin' it a long time. She's been working jobs for 10 or 15 years. She writes real good songs. She's always writin' songs. ... We also sang a duet together. I've been lookin' for that tune, 'This New Situation,' for years. We finally found it. I knew that Buddy Johnson did it, but I didn't know that he wrote it. It's a good tune and it's got unique lines, as far as the two vocalists go. It went quite well. She did hers after I did mine. We did it the same afternoon, but I did my part and then she did her part."

Says Mose, "I did my thing and Joe Henry did his thing. We'll see what happens."

What happened includes the song "My Brain," a delightful reworking of an old gospel number called "This Train," which was reworked by Willie Dixon into the blues-rock hit "My Babe." It includes tasty acoustic slide guitar work by Greg Leisz, not in the vein of, say, Barney Kessel that one might expect on Allison's jazz, and not in a Reverend Gary Davis blues vein. It's a little country, weaving with Allison's bouncy two-handed piano. A good choice by Henry. The lyric is typically clever.

"I Know You Didn't Mean It" is an Allison tune with a clip-clop, shuffle beat and a honky-tonk feel. A funky, wobbly sax solo adds to the flavor. "Let It Come Down" has been recorded before, but this version is darker, with a heavy bass and rolling tom-toms, no snare drum and not much cymbal work. Again, a nice change of landscape. "Crush" is an instrumental with Allison at his best, in the swinging style we've all come to know. In a standard, "Once in a While," unhurried and tranquil, is Allison is at his expressive best. The title cut, music by Mose and lyrics by Henry, is a bluesy ballad, backed by guitars and a nice soft, almost Ben Webster sax solo.

"I don't know who adapted to who," Mose said of the studio experience. "I let Joe Henry call the tunes and tell me how long the tunes would be and so forth. I did some new material that I had around for a while. I think most of 'em I'd done before or copyrighted them years ago. Some of them are tunes I haven't done much. Actually, I don't think I've done some of them ever." He added, "They sent me some stuff. They sent me the Roosevelt Sykes number ["Some Right, Some Wrong"] and I liked that. I wanted to do a Loudon Wainwright thing ["I'm Alright"]. He's one of my favorites."

Always humble about his own accomplishments, Allison quipped wryly about the recording, "I have no idea how it went. I don't like to listen to myself. I haven't really listened that much to the new record, so I don't know." Nonetheless, he adds, "I think it came out all right. I was a little surprised at first at some of the things. The slide guitarist, specifically, played good. I didn't figure on doin' that, but it worked out okay."

That could be construed as strong endorsement because it comes from someone who doesn't like to assess his own work. He prefers to move forward with his career, working in the here and now and letting others judge.

Allison is still as hip as ever. At a gig at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in October 2009, a few months after the recording sessions, he delighted the audience at the small but packed venue, playing with just a bassist, frequent collaborator Rich Syracuse. He went through a bevy of his great original tunes. Some songs by others have his personal stamp and are an indelible part of his arsenal, in many cases preferable to any other versions. His piano playing is strong. That night, it was augmented superbly by fluid and ever-creative statements from Syracuse's bass.

Allison remains active. "The traveling is getting to be more and more of a drag," he says. "The playin' is the same. It's the same challenge night after night. You have to make the music happen. That's just like it was the first night I played."

That beginning would be 1950 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, his first six-night gig. He eventually went from the Mississippi Delta to the west and southwest with a bassist, Taylor LaFargue, finding musicians in each town to round out the band. In 1956, he decided that if he was going to really make it, he had to move to New York. After a slow start there, he caught on, getting some playing time, Stan Getz, Al Cohn and others. But he kept up his own thing, singing all the while, and it caught on to the point where sideman gigs weren't necessary. His vocals just came naturally, as did his humorous point of view.

In 1957, Back Country Suite on Prestige Records hit it big and everything went up from there. His sarcastic take in his songs on issues or mores of the day caused the media to call him a philosopher, a cynic, or both. But Allison remained, and remains, unflappable and unconcerned with those appraisals.

"I've been doin' the same material for 50 years," he says. "People's reactions have changed. 'Monsters of the Id,' which I wrote 40 years ago, is hot right now. Everybody chuckles when I play that now. They used to think I was a cynic; now I'm a comedian."

Allison is pleased with the work he gets each year. While some musicians find it tough getting gigs, he moves along at a steady pace, traveling by himself. Everywhere he goes, he has drummers and bassists to call on. Saxophone is also used on some gigs. "I'm pretty well satisfied the way things are goin,' as long as I can keep playin' 100 nights a year, 120. That's good with me," he says.

He says he doesn't expect to be going into the studio again soon, preferring to see how things go in the fast-changing recording industry. A lot of what he hears on record these days, he adds, doesn't impress him much. "Everythin' I hear sounds the same. You can make anybody a star if they have the right promotion. So it's a weird situation."

Weird, perhaps, but for Allison it is not a concern. His audiences steady, his level of performance high, expect to see him carrying on. Business as usual. Musical as ever. And fun.

Selected Discography

Mose Allison, The Way of the World, (Anti-, 2010)
Mose Allison, Mose Allison Sings (Prestige, 2006)
Mose Allison, The Mose Allison Chronicles: Live in London, Vol. 2 (Blue Note, 2002)
Mose Allison, The Mose Allison Chronicles: Live in London, Vol. 1 (Blue Note, 2002)
Mose Allison, Allison Wonderland: The Mose Allison Anthology (Atlantic, 1994)
Mose Allison, The Earth Wants You (Blue Note, 1994)
Mose Allison, My Back Yard (Blue Note, 1990)
Mose Allison, Your Mind's On Vacation (Atlantic, 1976)
Mose Allison, Creek Bank (Prestige/Fantasy, 1975)
Mose Allison, Western Man (Atlantic, 1971)
Mose Allison, Hello There, Universe (Atlantic, 1970)
Mose Allison, I've Been Doin' Some Thinkin' (Atlantic, 1968)
Mose Allison, Wild Man on the Loose (Atlantic, 1965)
Mose Allison, Mose Alive! (Atlantic, 1965)
Mose Allison, The Word from Mose Allison (Atlantic, 1964)
Mose Allison, Swingin' Machine (Atlantic, 1962)
Mose Allison, Autumn Song (OJC, 1959)
Mose Allison, Back Country Suite (OJC, 1957)


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