Jazz-blues musician wrote sardonic lyrics
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.