On his 1997 album Slant 6 Mind, foggy-voiced folk bluesman Greg Brown details every detail of a shitty dive bar where the waiters treat him like crap, the owner insults him and, worst of all, threatens not to pony up his cash when the show’s over. The song is called “Mose Allison Played Here” and it lays out every working musician’s waking nightmare, set to a swampy blues shuffle punctuated by an inspired Bo Ramsey guitar solo. Then comes the pay-off, one that not-so-subtly explains the reverence with which Allison is held among veteran musicians like Brown and Ramsey: “But as I set up, I’m proud to be here / ‘Cause once last November / Once last November / Once last November / Mose Allison played here”.
No doubt it’s Brown’s way of paying tribute to an artist to whom he owes a creative debt. Allison, now 82, was honored by the Who when they turned his “Young Man Blues” into an incendiary highlight on Live at Leeds, covered by the Clash (“Look Here” on Sandinista), and cited as a major influence by Van Morrison, John Mayall, Ray Davies, and many others.
If you wonder why and you’re one of the uninitiated when it comes to Allison’s profoundly smooth blues piano work and jazz soul, start now and grab a copy of his first album in 12 years, the exceptional The Way Of The World, and let the immersion begin. The Mississippi native has been recording for more than five decades and his back catalog is filled with excellence, even though he’s never been much of a commercial success.
“I’ve got 50 records out there and none of ‘em are selling”, he told Mojo magazine, by way of explaining why he wasn’t exactly eager to get back in the recording studio. He relented, even though he swore he wasn’t going to make any new music after Joe Henry—the disc’s not-so-secret weapon—badgered Allison for an entire year and pleaded with Allison’s wife to convince him to get into the studio. The result will likely turn up on a number of critics’ short lists for best of the year.
Kicking off with a sly blues shuffle on “My Brain”, Henry and Allison lay out the sonic palette for World: lots of space in the arrangements, a dry pristine sound, and taut songs that venture off on short instrumental improvisations without ever falling into self-indulgent jamming. It’s borderline condescending —or at least politically incorrect in an ageist kind of way—to note that Allison doesn’t remotely sound like he’s 82, but after so long off, it’s a fair issue to address. His voice is smooth, his piano playing energetic and bouncy, and his lyrics full of humor and wisdom. In short, he sounds ageless, but when he sings, “My brain is losing power / Twelve hundred neurons every hour / Cool little cluster, my brain / My brain is gettin’ pounded, my brain ... pretty soon I’ll be dumbfounded”, there’s a poignancy—and an unflinching honesty—that is both funny and just a little sad.
The Way Of The World is filled with that kind of wisdom and little lyrical asides delivered with a southern gentility that jump out at the listener and evoke a charming, sardonic perspective. On “Modest Proposal”, Allison digs into religion through the concept of giving God a vacation. Accompanied mainly with his own syncopated piano work, he implores us to give God a break, at first sounding ironic but eventually giving the message a different kind of weight. “Let’s do Allah a favor”, Allison sings. “Let him sleep late for awhile / Up off our knees / Thank you and please / Let all the women dress up in style / He gave us the power to reason / Use it or lose it, they say / So let’s let him go for a season … and start making sense today”. The emphasis is on the last couple of words, and Allison seems to be saying that the best way to bring a little sense into the world would be to give the God stuff a break for awhile without exactly giving up on the Almighty forever.
Tracking at just 35 minutes spread over 12 songs recorded in only five days, World is fat free. Allison’s piano is always at the center of the arrangements, but Henry—an exceptional songwriter in his own right—surrounds him with perfectly complementary musicians who provide a sophistication that never overshadows the songs. Mostly jazz, but a little blues, it’s a typical Allison album: difficult to categorize. To borrow a metaphor from Henry’s liner notes, the music swings and sways with an easy rhythm that echoes the country’s musical roots.
A little Willie Dixon, a little Bob Dylan, a little Randy Newman, and all Mose Allison.
Listen to the disc enough, and rather than just remember the melodies, something unique and special happens: You end up with the artist’s voice rambling around in your head, like some wise friend who’s kind and cool and willing to take the time to share his thoughts with you on the way of the world.