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Mose Allison: Substance and Style

R.J. DeLuke By

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The music of Mose Allison, the slick hipster from the Mississippi delta, never fails to get at least a wry, knowing smile from listeners, if not outright laughter—on CD or live in a nightclub.

Those that know his work—and that audience is growing, he says—are attracted to his simple, bluesy style as well as his witty, observational way with a lyric. He has a warm, deep tone that doesn't have a lot of range, but don't worry about it. It's meant for story telling, not arias. It invites you in. Pull up a chair.

Is it jazz, blues, country blues, folksy jazz?

Who cares? Maybe it's all of that.

Some in the industry have an obsessive need to know exactly what box a product must be squeezed into. They spend time sweating such things. But the issue doesn't concern Mose Allison, who's been doing what he does for half a century now.

"People have been tryin' to do that [categorize him] for years. I have no idea what I'm doin.' I've never seen me," he says good-naturedly.

So how DO you describe his style?

"I wouldn't," he says with a warm Southern chortle.

But he can push the jester in him aside.

"I just have a lot off different influences. I'm just tryin' to play jazz, which is improvised music, and I'm tryin' to write the songs that I write and they express a certain point of view, a certain temperament.

"I just try to do as good job with the material as I can and play some jazz as well, some improvised music, and do that every night. Just see where it goes."

Not a bad gig for someone who'll be 74 this fall.

If you only knew
what can happen to a man for tellin' the truth
If you only knew
All the scruples that go down in gin and vermouth


Mose Allison isn't anywhere near a wild man on the loose or primate on the prowl. Nor is he a natural born malcontent. He's unassuming; even self-effacing. He's a southern gentleman, who still maintains a gentle drawl even though he makes his home on New York's Long Island. He's calm and jovial at the same time.

"I'm playin' the music I like. I'm playin' music for a certain type of person. Fortunately, there are more and more of us. At least there are more comin' to see me than there were 30 years ago or so."

It's true that despite the up and down cycles jazz goes through, Mose continues to play, record, work steadily.

The New Yorker has called him a national treasure and British bluesman John Mayall once said everyone he knows in England was raised on his music. Legions of other musicians—like Bonnie Raitt, Peter Townshend, Van Morrison (dig his album of all-Mose material)—sing his praises.

All that from a man who was once given a rather dim vision of the future by his childhood piano teacher.

"The idea was I'd never amount to anything in music," he says. "The theme there was that I was talented, but I wouldn't work hard enough to do anything with it."

More irony there than in a Mose Allison lyric. Well—close, anyway. Not only is he known as a fine pianist, but he's called a cynic, satirist, even sage for his musings about the world around him and the people in it. His songs often strike a familiar chord, some shrouded with an ironic twist and others cutting right to the chase in particularly wry fashion.

And when it comes to interpreting his songs, everyone should lighten up, this Mississippi bard contends.

I've been doin' some thinkin'
'bout the nature of the universe.
Found out things are gettin' better.
It's people that are gettin' worse


"These people that think I'm cynical, I wish they'd come to see my shows these days because I've turned into a comedian, practically," he says, chuckling. "I get laughs all the time now. The songs they used to think were cynical, now they're laughin' at 'em, which is what was intended in the first place. The cynical thing was just a superficial appraisal. They didn't really get it.

"There's a few tunes of mine that don't have jokes, but most of them have a joke and they have a humorous point of view somewhere," he says. "You got to laugh. What else can you do?"

"There's an American poet, Kenneth Pachen, that I like a lot," Mose adds. "He had a phrase that he used: 'Halleluiah, anyhow.' That's kind of my philosophy. There's a lot of terrible things goin' on all the time, but you gotta try and have some fun in the end."

And fun is just what he has, through the hard work it takes traveling from place to place and trying to put on a quality performance each night. He brings with him a disarming sense of humor. And while some artists play for a long time before they hit a stride or find that direction they were meant to pursue, Mose had his humor and his singing way back when.

"I sang and wrote songs when I was 12 years old. I wrote a song called 'The 14-Day Palmolive Plan' when I was about 13, and I used to play it at parties all over the place. It was about radio commercials. That was the first song I remember writing. I wrote some others about that time," says Mose.

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