Old Man’s Jazz Blues
“America is well represented here,” said iJamming! Pubber Jimmy B, who had joined me Saturday at the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival to see Mose Allison in concert. At first I didn’t get his drift but then, on looking around some more, I understood: the audience that had braved the thunderstorms to see the living unsung legend came from most – though not quite all – walks of American life. Black and white, young and old, they included a fair share of pony-tailed gray-hairs, a significant number of tattoo’d blues fans, some 20-something hipsters (three of whom engaged enthusiastically in well-practiced jazz dancing), a number of would-be beatniks sporting classic clothes from the 50s, older folks hanging out on lounge chairs – and one particularly bebop black woman sporting zebra spandex and six-inch nails.
The wide-ranging audience stood (and sat) as ample testimony to Mose Allison’s continued cult appeal. Like many of my generation, I first came across his name on The Who’s Live At Leeds LP, as the author of ‘Young Man Blues.’ I also became aware, I think, that it was Allison’s version of ‘Eyesight To The Blind (The Hawker)’ – not the original by Sonny Boy Williamson – which Pete Townshend had deigned to include as the lone cover version on the Tommy album. Allison remained something of a mystery to me for many years thereafter until 1996 and my fateful first weekend as a Park Slope resident, when I bought an older couple’s entire record collection at a stoop sale. In amongst the folk, blues, showtune and classical music releases were three mint Prestige albums by Mose Allison: 1958’s Young Man Mose, the following year’s Creek Bank, and the later,vocal compilation Seventh Son.
The music and imagery of these albums took me by surprise. Mose was white, for one thing. And though I’d always thought his music was rooted in the blues, it turned out to be equally ingrained in jazz. Not that he carried the air of a jazz musician: with his bushy moustache and collegiate clothes, he looked more like a piano teacher than a piano maestro. To compound it all, his jazz blues had much about it that was country, reflecting his Mississippi roots. His voice, meanwhile, was laid back to the point of seduction; there was none of the tortured young man in this man’s ‘Young Man Blues’ – the original version of which, it transpired, was entitled ‘A Young Man,’ all of 85 seconds long and more wry than you’d ever have known from The Who’s prototype heavy metal work-out. (When you think about it, ‘Young Man Blues’ has to be a piss-take: it was written in the late 1950s, shortly after the arrival of the Teenager as a social phenomenon: young men had never had more power or money.) Allison was able to write thematic jazz instrumentals and witty blues songs, yet thought nothing of covering Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker from the one genre, or Ray Charles or Willie Dixon from the other. The reason Mose Allison had never enjoyed instant name recognition among the masses, it finally dawned on me, was because he’d never fitted any of the mainstream’s categories.
His set on Saturday was equally hard to define. Looking at least a decade younger than his 78 years, and dressed as if for an afternoon’s boating, in casual slacks, jacket, white cap and a pair of impeccably maintained vintage Adidas, he sat at the Yamaha Grand, facing inwards to his trio of double bass, sax and drums, and embarked on an hour of music that highlighted his skills as a jazz pianist without ever veering into virtuoso self-indulgence. Though his vocal style was never going to cause damage to his larynx, it was still a joy to hear such an old man sounding so clear-cut and confident, and while the first half of his set was built around syncopated vocal and piano melodies, he turned the second half of the set towards more conventional musical ground, performing Jimmy Davis’ ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and Muddy Waters’ ‘Catfish Blues’ as well as his own witty (and relevant) ‘Ever Since The World Ended.’ The Weather Gods must have enjoyed what they were hearing: the thunder clouds that had buried Albany in a sheet of rain just minutes before Mose took the stage parted completely and the last half hour was drenched instead in sunshine.
Allison’s musicians were talented by varying degrees. The drummer was overly laid-back, and the sax player took a good half-hour to get into his groove; double bassist Rich Syracuse was the only member to match Allison for individuality and dexterity, drawing evident respect from a clearly knowledgeable audience. Afterwards, Mose signed a few autographs for jazz trainspotters round back of the makeshift stage, and then he was gone. We headed out, too: I was eager to visit the Albany Pump Station to discover Evans Ale at its sauce/source; by the time we emerged from the brewery, the rain had returned with a vengeance, and we left headliners Diane Schuur and Branford Marsalis to their own devices.
Just as with Eddie Palmieri’s recent concert at the Bearsville Theater, watching Mose Allison was an instructive experience. In each case, here were men well beyond retirement age, who long ago made their mark (and, we must hope, their money), and yet who clearly still love playing. In each case, I felt the need to see these influential figures while they’re still with us, but I came away from each show expecting to have many more opportuntities. Palmieri seemed sprightly at 70, while Mose Allison, who turns 79 in November, has real vigor. He’s not afraid of touring, either. British-based iJamming! readers should take particular note of Allison’s upcoming residency at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, from September 21-30. Who knows? Maybe I’ll see you there.