They say deaths come in three, and the death of Mose Allison on November 15 at the age of 89 might be offered as evidence to prove the point. Mose’s death closely followed the deaths of Leonard Cohen on November 7 and Leon Russell on November 13. I want to seize the occasion to draw attention to his work.
Allison pursued a long and almost unbelievably productive career as a singer, songwriter and musician that extended from the 1950’s into the twenty-first century. His final album was released in 2010. Nate Chinen’s New York Times obituary lays out the basics. I’m still catching up with his work.
Born in Tippo, Mississippi, Mose arrived in New York in time to take advantage of its lively 1950’s jazz scene. He started out accompanying jazz greats such as Zoot Sims and Stan Getz on piano. He quickly moved on to front his own groups and perform his own sardonic, blues-influenced compositions.
Listeners of a certain age may have first been exposed to Mose via the Who’s rendition of “Young Man Blues” on Live at Leeds in 1970. His body of work is so vast that it is difficult to get a handle on it. I can only encourage you to check it out for yourselves.
Van Morrison got together with Georgie Fame, Ben Sidran and Mose himself to produce the 1996 tribute album Tell Me Something, with an ear to later and lesser known compositions. I recommend it highly. It’s a benign gateway drug.
In an interview to promote the tribute album Sidran characterized Mose as a jazz version of Bob Dylan. Asked about that, Van Morrison objected. He said that a jazz version of Lenny Bruce was more like it. You get the feeling that Allison couldn’t help being witty if not funny.
It’s the wit embedded in the Cosmic American Musical setting that I prize the most, but he has more on offer in his vast body of work. Chinen turns to Allison to convey a sense of it: “Mr. Allison grouped his material into three categories: slapstick, social comment and personal crisis. ‘Sometimes,’ he added, ‘all three of those elements wind up in a tune.’ Many of his songs inhabit an air of wry amusement or exasperated skepticism, often pivoting on a single phrase.”
PBS’s Soundstage series caught up with Mose in 1975. Below he performs “Your Mind Is on Vacation” in a trio setting. Once you hear the title line, you will find many uses for it.
His sardonic sene of humor is prominently on display in “I Don’t Worry About a Thing.” The performance below is also from Soundstage
Mose worked as an opening act for Bonnie Raitt early in her career. Raitt picked up Mose’s “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy” for her Takin’ My Time album. It seems to me that this is a cover of a good song in which the performer not only makes it her own, but also shows its depths. (That’s Taj Mahal on harmonica.)
Van Morrison helped me hear what Mose had on offer as well. Below is the title song from Tell Me Something.