Mose Allison @ Jazz Standard, 9/3/10

Since his first album in 1957, Mississippi-born Mose Allison has been equal parts pianist and sociologist.  While working within simple, blues-based song constructions, Allison favored complex wordplay, with off-kilter rhymes and oft-humorous musings about the human condition.  Even though his recorded legacy leans heavily on jazzy, acoustic piano trio work, Allison’s fame came through raucous covers by a host of ’60s rockers: the Who (“Young Man Blues”), Blue Cheer (“Parchman Farm”), the Yardbirds (“I’m Not Talkin’ “).  His vocal delivery was a clear influence on Van Morrison and Randy Newman, and his heady lyrics led Frank Black to pen the tribute “Allison” on Bossanova.

At a recent show at Jazz Standard, though, Allison firmly placed himself squarely between the iconic and the ironic.  Much like Bob Dorough, another heavily-sampled pianist whose work lives somewhere on the same spectrum, Allison is important for his playing as much as his playfulness.  However, at 83, the former is far less on display than the latter.  That’s not to say it doesn’t make for an enjoyable show – all three sets were sold out – but you have to appreciate what you’re getting for what it is.  Allison’s few instrumental breaks (including meandering intro and outro vamps) were missing the gritty funk of his early playing.  Similarly, his voice, while still retaining its signature rasp, is wispy and, at times, tuneless.  Still, playing over a hundred dates a year is wearing on even the youngest of performers, so an octogenarian gets a bit of a pass, especially when the content remains unparalleled.

Allison’s trio (with Ratzo Harris on bass and Tom Whaley on drums) played through respectable versions of high-caliber tunes from his five decade career like “Your Molecular Structure,” “What’s Your Movie,” “Dr. Jekell and Mr. Hyde,” and “You Can’t Push People Around.”  In one of the set’s rare covers – fellow Mississippian Percy Mayfield’s “Stranger In My Own Home” – Harris delivered a show-stopping, double-stop bass solo, but otherwise, it seemed as if he and Whaley were trying their best not to overpower their leader’s weakly sung lyrics, which was wise, since that’s the crux of Allison’s appeal.

Despite tepid playing, the audience hung on Allison’s words as if they would reveal new truths when heard live.  “Certified Senior Citizen,” with lines like “Ride the bus/Every day there’s more of us” hit home with the mostly age-appropriate audience, while his late-80s nugget “Ever Since The World Ended” retains its poignant message today, and Allison brought some sunshine into the aching, minor-key melody.  The other cover, of Nat King Cole’s “No Particular Time,” seemed especially resonant, as if Allison himself were in no rush to get through the set, ambling over the keys with only the lightest of touch, never really committing to chords or a lead line.  But during the clever “Tell Me Something” (which is also the title of Van Morrison’s Mose tribute album), the piano livened up a bit, as if the glib, jaunty lyrics lit a brief fire in Allison’s playing.  What remained evident was the composer’s knack for connecting with human nature in only a few short lines; the philosopher in him has only grown deeper, and his lyrics are as sharp as ever, even if he is less able to command a room than he once was.

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About Alex Stimmel

Educator, musician, writer. Teach K-8 music in an East Harlem PS; guitarist/songwriter for Apothecary Hymns (Locust); have written for Mojo, NY Times Mag, Rolling Stone, Resonance & more.
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