Categorize Mose Allison? Not if he can help it.
“People have been trying for years,” quips the pianist. “I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve never seen me.”
Allison’s recording career, which began in 1957, encompasses more than 30 solo releases along with countless appearances with the likes of Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Bob Brookmeyer, and Stan Getz. His songs have been covered by artists as diverse as The Who, Bonnie Raitt, and Leon Russell, to name a few. A youthful 74, Allison still plays more than 150 dates a year, including one at the Blue Heron in Missoula this Thursday.
Born in 1927 in Tippo, Miss., Allison purportedly was told by a piano teacher early in his childhood that he lacked the work ethic to get anywhere as a musician. Asked whether there was a turning point that made him get serious, Allison says, no, not really.
“I just never wanted to do anything else,” he says. “I figured as long as I could play, I would do it.” One of the last living bluesmen to have actually plowed a cotton field, Allison began playing the piano and writing songs early on.
“When I was 12 years old, I wrote a couple songs and I used to play ‘em at parties around the county,” he recalls. “But then I got into playing jazz and all that, and I didn’t try to write much until I got out of college.” It wasn’t long after college—at Louisiana State in Baton Rouge—that the 19-year-old Allison moved to New York and began recording records for the Prestige label. His early albums drew upon the influences of his native Mississippi for inspiration.
“When I was in college I heard a Bartók thing based on Hungarian folk music,” he says. “And I thought, look, I can do that with the music I grew up with, you know. That was the inspiration for Back Country Suite, which was my first album.”
The “local color” phase ended soon thereafter, according to Allison, but the spirit remained. That he defies easy categorization has become something of a cliché among music reviewers, but it is his folk/blues roots that give his songs a unique tangibility. So, was Mose a jazz musician all along? “Yeah, I was playing jazz all along, but in my early jobs I had to play for dancing a lot, so I had to play danceable jazz. But I’ve always felt that swing was an essential part of it. If you swing, you know, you can get dances.”
Allison’s self-described “on-the-job training” continued into the ‘60s, when he signed with Atlantic Records and recorded That’s Jazz in 1962. From then on he recorded at least one album a year until 1976, when he ended his tenure at the label.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard a few of Allison’s songs (maybe by the artists who covered them), and want to check out more, but you’re unsure which records to start with. Who better to ask than the artist himself?
“I always prefer [live performances] in a way,” the piano man says, “because they have more momentum, but there’s a couple of studio albums that I like. One of them was done in New Orleans, My Backyard [Blue Note, 1989], and the other was done in New York, Gimcracks and Gewgaws [Blue Note, 1997].”
But if it’s live you crave, fear not: Allison’s latest two albums, The Mose Chronicles Vols. 1 and 2 [Blue Note, 2001, 2002], were recorded live. “The two most current releases were recorded here in London, and I’m fairly satisfied with them,” Allison explains. “I needed to do a live album. I hadn’t done one in a while and we had been getting real good results here, and so I decided to do it here.”
I asked him how his style has developed throughout his career. “I’ve just learned more about [music-making],” he replies. “And I’ve probably gotten a little more facile. And I’ve acquired a few little technical things of my own. At one point a few years ago somebody came up to me and said ‘Hey, man. You’ve had an attack of virtuosity.’”
Allison’s visit to Missoula will be a return to familiar territory. “I’ve played all over Montana,” he recalls. “I’ve played Missoula, Bozeman, Billings, Butte, and it’s been a few years, but I’ve played there a couple of times.”
It is a rare event that Missoula hosts a concert by a jazz musician this talented and prolific (hell, a concert by any jazz musician…), and I, for one, plan to check it out.
Pianist Mose Allison plays the Blue Heron Thursday, Aug. 1 at 9:30 PM and the Kalispell Eagles Club at 8 PM on Friday, Aug. 9. Tickets to both shows are $20. For more information, call 543-2525 or 277-1197.