"All the early, classic jazz people who sang -- like Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole and Fats Waller and Louis Jordan -- most of them played blues as well," recalls pianist/singer/songwriter Mose Allison, who performs this week at Blind Willie's. "I just read an interview with Jay McShann, one of the classic Kansas City swingers, and he said, 'I always thought jazz and blues went together.' I always thought that, too."
Somewhere along the way, Allison says, the respective styles became isolated, largely to suit the marketing needs of the music industry. It's a distinction he avoids on the bandstand. "I've dealt with this over the years," Allison explains, with a notable Mississippi drawl. "Young musicians say, 'You want me to play jazz, or you want me to play blues?' I say, 'Look, man, just play.' "
Allison himself doesn't bother with what to call his music. "I have no idea what I'm doing. I've never seen me [play]," he says.
Perhaps the confusion of others as to where Allison fits stems from his ability to work effectively within the 12-bar blues format, while embracing an improvisational piano approach most associated with jazz. "Improvisation is like an infinite pursuit: You never arrive anywhere. There's always something that you can do different than [what] you've done," Allison says.
However his music gets tagged, Allison is an original. Born in 1927 just outside of Tippo, Miss. (population 200 or so), in the heart of Mississippi Delta cotton country, Allison's earliest influences included Tampa Red and Memphis Minnie, followed soon after by John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. He began taking some basic music lessons as a teen and started playing boogie-woogie piano, as well as the trumpet.
The pianist first took the stage in high school. He hoped for a career in music, but wasn't sure of his prospects, so he attended Louisiana State University, earning a bachelor of arts degree in English and a minor in philosophy. He says he did so "with the idea that if I couldn't do anything else, I could teach."
His ambition, though, was to make music his career. Relocating to New York in 1956, Allison signed with Prestige and earned a name for himself with such classic albums as Back Country Suite (1957) and Young Man Mose (1958). After a two-year stint with Columbia Records, he began a long association with Atlantic Records. Much of his Atlantic work is available on CD compilations, including Allison Wonderland: The Mose Allison Anthology (Rhino, 1994) and The Best of Mose Allison (Atlantic, 1988).
His early years in the business were "pretty lean," he recalls, but payment and notoriety improved after rock performers began recording his compositions, most notably The Who, which covered his "Young Man's Blues." "It was a complete surprise to me," Allison recalls of The Who cover. "When I got the first [royalty] check, I was stunned. I thought it was a mistake. I'd been getting checks for $20, and this was much more than that."
Allison's material also has been recorded by Irish rocker Van Morrison. Allison collaborated with Morrison and British keyboard great Georgie Fame on the 1996 Verve release, Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison.
At 73, Allison continues performing approximately 120 to 130 nights a year and just released The Mose Chronicles, Vol. 1, a live set taken from his yearly extended engagements in London. His personal stamina owes to good habits -- he became a serious runner at age 40 and still works out five to six days a week. His professional stamina -- that is, his healthy recording and performing status -- owes to the fact that his clever, often ironic songwriting may have been ahead of its time. Much of what he wrote in the 1950s still rings true today.
Consider, for example, the conciliatory wisdom of "I Don't Worry 'Bout a Thing," in which Allison wrote, "I used to be troubled, but I finally saw the light/Now I don't worry 'bout a thing, 'cause I know nothing's going to be all right."
Allison juxtaposes his tart lyricism with a musical setting, both vocally and instrumentally, that's light, clean-cut and inviting. "I'm just playing for people like me," Allison explains. "I have a certain temperament and fortunately there are a lot of other people who have that temperament, or else at least they can empathize with it. It seems to me that there are more of us all the time. I get reactions to [older] songs now that I didn't get a reaction to when I first did them. When I first started doing them, the audience just didn't seem to know how to take it, and now they do."
Mose Allison performs in a duo with Atlanta bassist Neal Starkey Wed. and Thurs., April 11 and 12, at Blind Willie's. Showtime is 9 p.m. Admission is $10. For more information, call 404-873-BLUE.
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