Jazz-blues mu­si­cian wrote sar­donic lyrics

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Don Heck­man

Mose Al­li­son, a genre­de­fy­ing pi­anist, singer and com­poser/ lyri­cist whose wit­tily sar­donic, blues-driven songs earned him the ti­tle of “The Wil­liam Faulkner of Jazz,” has died. The news was con­firmed on Al­li­son’s of­fi­cial web­site. He was 89.

From the mid-1950s to the early decades of the new cen­tury, Al­li­son was a muchin-de­mand rhythm sec­tion pi­anist and a jazz artist in his own right.

His rapidly emerg­ing tal­ents as a singer and song­writer also an­nounced the ar­rival of an in­trigu­ing artist who slipped through tra­di­tion bound­aries.

“I guess I’m the man with­out a cat­e­gory,” he told The Times in 1990. “Peo­ple are al­ways try­ing to cat­e­go­rize me as blues or jazz or folk. Some say I’m a jazz pi­anist that sings the blues.”

In fact, he has been de­scribed, var­i­ously, ei­ther as a blues artist who plays jazz pi­ano, or a jazz pi­anist who sings the blues. Both de­scrip­tions are cor­rect. But it was Al­li­son’s songs that fully es­tab­lished his iden­tity as an iconic mu­sic world fig­ure.

“WhatAl­li­son does,” Richard Har­ring­ton wrote in 2004 in The Wash­ing­ton Post, “is craft wry songs filled with irony and mor­dant wit, de­liv­er­ing them in an easy­go­ing, some­times dead­pan style un­der­scored by his own un­clut­tered pi­ano ac­com­pa­ni­ment.”

Singer/song­writ­ers have not been as com­mon in jazz as they have in the pop mu­sic world. But Al­li­son, along with Dave Fr­ish­berg, Abbey Lin­coln, Bobby Troup and Bob Dor­ough, among oth­ers, opened the door to an ex­pres­sive area of song un­der­scored by the rhythms and har­monies of jazz.

Al­li­son’s spe­cial con­tribu- Pi­anist and singer Mose Al­li­son was named an NEA Jazz Mas­ter in 2013. tions to the jazz singer/ song­writer cat­e­gory were the Delta blues qual­i­ties rooted within his Mis­sis­sippi child­hood, his af­fec­tion for all ar­eas of Amer­i­cana mu­sic, and his abil­ity to trans­late the com­plex­i­ties of his view of the world into mem­o­rable lyrics.

His songs were cov­ered by nu­mer­ous pop/rock groups, among them The Who, The Clash, Bonnie Raitt, Van Mor­ri­son, Elvis Costello, Eric Clap­ton, Leon Rus­sell, Blue Cheer and the Yard­birds, as well as jazz artists Diana Krall and Kar­rin Allyson.

In ad­di­tion, high-pro­file rock artists such as Pete Town­shend, Ray Davies and Bill Wy­man of the Rolling Stones have fre­quently men­tioned Al­li­son as a ma­jor in­flu­ence.

Van Mor­ri­son, who con­trib­uted to the 1996 al­bum “Tell Me Some­thing: The Songs of Mose Al­li­son,” de­scribed Al­li­son as “one of the great song­writ­ers of the cen­tury.”

Time Out de­scribed Al­li­son’s im­pact on the rock ’n’ roll world of the ’60s by not­ing that his “gift for writ­ing a song with a st­ing in the tail made him a prime source of in­spi­ra­tion for the UK’s new­gen­er­a­tion of blues/rock artists.”

Al­li­son’s best- known songs in­clude his most re­quested work, “Parch­man Farm,” in­spired by a Mis­sis­sippi pen­i­ten­tiary. Al­li­son ceased per­form­ing it, how­ever, in the mid-’90s, in part be­cause some crit­ics de­cried it as “po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect.” But Al­li­son had his own rea­sons for leav­ing the song be­hind. “It’s not funny. I don’t do the cot­ton-sack songs much any­more,” he told Nine-O-One Network magazine.

“Ev­ery­body Cryin’ Mercy,” com­posed dur­ing the Viet­nam War, was ef­fec­tively re­vived by Al­li­son dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Desert Storm and cov­ered by Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello. The lyrics, as with so many Al­li­son songs, made their point with far-reach­ing uni­ver­sal­ity: “Ev­ery­body cryin’ peace on earth, Just as soon as we win this war.”

Other Al­li­son songs are equally ex­pres­sive, of­ten be­gin­ning with a la­conic ti­tle such as “Your Mind Is on Va­ca­tion” (con­tin­u­ing with the lyric “and your mouth is work­ing over­time”). “I Know You Didn’t Mean It” is a classic ex­am­ple of Al­li­son’s dark hu­mor: “I know you didn’t mean­itwheny­ou­blew us up/You just hap­pened to think it was a good idea.”

His “Young Man Blues” — takes a poignant look at the cir­cu­lar­ity of the ag­ing process: “Take it easy on the young man/They ain’t got nothin’ in the world these days.” The song was cov­ered by the Who in 1970 on their “Live At Leeds” al­bum. “I made more money out of that,” Al­li­son told the Mon­treal Gazette “than any­thing else I’ve done.”

Al­li­son was named a Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts Jazz Mas­ter in 2013. Al­li­son is sur­vived by his wife, Au­dre Mae, and four chil­dren, Alissa, Amy, John and Ja­nine.



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