Idiosyncratic, unclassifiable jazz/blues/etc. singer and pianist Mose Allison delivers a fine set of live performances spanning the whole of this career.
Mose Allison is one of jazz’s best non-singers. Like Bob Dorough, Allison employs an idiosyncratic approach to his vocals that make them feel almost conversational; streams of words that simply happen to align nicely with the music happening underneath. Making the most of his limited range, Allison has made a career on a hip mix of jazz, blues and a somewhat anachronistic hepcat persona.
Having begun his recording career at the age of 30, Allison always seemed somewhat ahead of or even out of touch with his peers, making him a singular talent. This sort of remove helped cultivate a unique language and approach to music that incorporated a number of styles to create something largely unclassifiable. Given his phrasing and approach to the piano, Allison is generally labeled a jazz artist. But he could just as easily fall under a blues or R&B tag, delivering a modernist take on the blues that draws as much from jazz as jazz did the blues.
Because of this inability to be stylistically pigeonholed, record labels have often had trouble knowing how best to market Allison. Regardless, since the release of his 1957 debut, Back Country Suite, he’s delivered time and again engaging collections of originals that have been covered by seemingly everyone from the Who to Bonnie Raitt, while attracting scores of high profile admirers along the way.
On his latest release, American Legend: Live in California, Allison tackles a number of popular originals while also debuting new material. “Certified Senior Citizen” is an amusing homage to his current age bracket and all the trappings and expectations that come with it. Playfully playing up the downside of the aging process, Allison’s vocals are downright spritely compared to those preceding tracks. Coupled with an exuberant piano line and solo passage, it seems to invigorate both audience and performer, each pleased and amused with the garnered reactions.
From here, things pick up in overall energy and intensity. “Your Mind Is on Vacation", from 1962’s I Don’t Worry About a Thing, again employs humorous lyrics delivered with a sly, knowing wink. This approach is the hallmark of a performer who knows how to not only read an audience but also make them come to him. When he extends the final chorus phrase of “One of These Days” almost to the breaking point, shakily holding the note to the point of absurdity, he does so with a well-earned sense of self-satisfaction.
Similarly, “Ever Since the World Ended” relies on sly wit to make a rather prescient point. Like a jazz-leaning Tom Lehrer, here Allison playfully pokes fun at fairly easy targets while still managing to provide somewhat scathing social commentary. “It’s just as well the world ended/it wasn’t working anyway,” he sings, only half joking. With its references to intolerance (both religious and cultural) and resource depletion, “Ever Since the World Ended” offers a light-hearted take on a fairly bleak idea. “Ever since the world ended / There’s no more black and white/ever since we all got blended / There’s no more reason to fuss and fight.”
Unfortunately, due Allison’s limited range and vocal approach, many of these tracks sound and feel largely interchangeable. “City Home” into “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy” could well be an additional series of verses to former and vice versa. Sticking primarily to mid-tempo numbers, much of the performance ultimately runs together. Only on those better-known numbers and standards (the minor key reading of “You Are My Sunshine", “Tumblin’ Tumbleweed” and “Baby Please Don’t Go” in particular, along with several Allison originals) does any sort of delineation begin to appear. It’s a minor complaint for such a singular talent, but one worth noting for those not familiar with his style of performing.
Overall, American Legend: Live in California, recorded in 2006, finds the then 79-year-old Allison still on top of his game, delivering energetic, albeit low-key, performances that span the whole of his nearly 60-year recording career. Far from essential, it’s a pleasant collection of hits, misses and the utterly unclassifiable. Regardless, Allison is truly an American legend and one deserving of continued recognition and respect. American Legend may not be the best place to start, but it’s a damn good reminder for those already in the know.