Deckle edge

Mose Allison
by Chris Flisher © 1993 /
(first published June 1993 Worcester Phoenix)

Mose Allison
Mose Allison may not be a household name, but his influence far outweighs his relative obscurity. Known for a distinct vocal style supported by wry, world-wise lyrics and a rhythmic piano signature, Allison's music effectively bridges the gap between blues and jazz, while reaching out to rock and country. His songs and style have been used by a wide variety of musicians including The Who, John Mayall , Bonnie Raitt, The Clash, Robert Palmer and most recently, Willie Nelson.

Although his primary instrument is piano, his laid-back blues-tinged vocal delivery remains his best known trademark. He successfully conveys a mood of hip reticence, one that evokes images of smoke-filled clubs, sunglasses at night, and beret-toting beatniks while blending the soulful emotion of the blues with the free spirit of jazz.

Allison commented on his music in a recent interview from his home on Long Island, "I just do my thing. My music has elements of blues and elements of jazz, but I do the same thing whether I'm playing to a jazz audience or a blues audience. For me it has always been a case of finding the right material and just trying to do it well. I had a lot of influences, but I never tried to imitate anybody, I just sang. I was always looking for my own sound."

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, before the Woodstock generation took over the airwaves, jazz was one of the most popular forms of music in the United States. It was during that time that Mose moved to New York city from the rural Mississippi delta. "I got to New York in '56, just in the middle of the jazz boom. There were about nine jazz clubs in the city, and some had three bands a night. There was a lot of work and a lot of recording."

It was during this time that he began to develop his distinct sound. After playing in numerous small combos, performing covers of country blues and rhythm and blues tunes he began to incorporate the more contemporary sounds of jazz into his music. After recording with saxophonists, Al Cohn, Stan Getz and others, Allison released his first solo album titled, Back Country Suite in 1957. Well received, the album helped establish him as a vocal and piano stylist representing a new voice of the South.

A self-taught musician, he initially developed his piano technique, fusing boogie-woogie while drawing on the approach of pianists Erroll Garner, John Lewis, and Thelonious Monk. However, after coming of age in the jazz era he became disenchanted with the limited repetitiveness of bee-bop and began to explore classical sonatas and the work of contemporary composers such as Bartok and Charles Ives. At the same time he developed a deeper regard for the blues. "I went back to college and studied philosophy and aesthetics. I developed a new view of the blues. I saw the poetry and the art of the music more clearly in the work of Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson." Together these influences have left him with an inimitable style.

Never fully jazz nor completely the blues, he has managed to please fans of both genres while extending his reach to rock audiences. "I play a little bit of everything. Back in the '60s I played a lot of jazz clubs, but when they started closing in the '70s I started playing in the rock and blues clubs," he continued. Aside form his vocal and piano style, Allison is also known for his dry humor and ability to coin memorable phrases which embody the wise-cracking sneer of rebellious youth. The phrase, "Your mind is on vacation but your mouth is working overtime," from his album Your Mind Is On Vacation, endeared him to rock audiences of the '70s.

Approaching his fifth decade in the music business he remains in a class by himself. "The American music business is pretty tight right now. They want to hear vocals," Allison offers. "You know there are thousands of terrific instrumentalists, but nobody is writing and singing my songs like me."

Because of his unusual niche in music, Allison has never had to go looking for an audience. After jazz took a back seat to rock, many musicians left this country to pursue appreciative European audiences. " I have many friends who would not have survived if it weren't for the Europeans and the jazz scene over there," recalled Allison.

While his ability to bridge musical genres has provided him longevity and an audience, it has also kept him out of the mainstream. "I have always been slightly off the main stage all through my career." But, he summarizes, "I have always had a loyal and supportive following."

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge