Music

'If You're Going to the City' Illuminates the Cerebral Artistry of Mose Allison

Too adventurous for blues, too raw for jazz, Mose Allison danced on the ivories in both worlds, tipping his hat to singer-songwriter pop along the way. A new tribute album reveals the many avenues worth exploring of one of the most singular voices in music.

If You're Going to the City: A Tribute to Mose Allison
Various Artists

Fat Possum

29 November 2019

"Blues is the seedling, and jazz is something sprouted off of it," Mose Allison told music journalist Stanley Booth in 1998. "Jazz, blues - it's a passion, it's a type of unlettered passion."

Allison spent many years blurring the lines between jazz and blues until they were virtually nonexistent. His honeyed voice fueled a coolest-cat-in-the-room delivery while his fleet fingers displayed a mastery of the 88s. He not only cast a long shadow over both jazz and blues, but he made inroads in the worlds of rock and pop as well when artists like the Who and John Mayall started recording his music ("Young Man Blues" and "Parchman Farm" respectively).

Allison died in 2016 at the well-lived age of 89. In the three years since, Fat Possum has been working with Allison's daughter, Amy, along with drummer/producer Don Heffington in organizing a tribute album featuring an impressive lineup that all cite Mose as a major influence. As in most of these affairs, some experiments work better than others, but the underlying spirit of celebration and appreciation is apparent throughout.

On the plus side, the inspired collaboration between Charlie Musselwhite and Ben Harper continues as they transform "Nightclub" from supper club samba to a greasy, dangerous diatribe. Musselwhite adds the right amount of gravitas through his voice-of-experience delivery and back-alley harmonica while Harper injects the soul. Roots music legend Robbie Fulks has a ball on one of Allison's later tunes, the Willie Dixon-inspired/rewrite, "My Brain". Meanwhile, the Tippo All-Stars (consisting of Heffington, Benmont Tench, Fred Tackett, David Garza, and Sebastian Steinberg with playful, almost giddy vocals by Fiona Apple) contribute a quick but cool take on "Your Molecular Structure".

Anything Mose! is a project that features vocalist/guitarist Richard Julian, John Chin on keys, Stacy Dillard on sax, bassist Matt Pavolka, and Dan Rieser on drums. They tackle another late-period Mose tune - the title track from 2010's The Way of the World -- and manage to make it even more intimate. Loudon Wainwright III arguably does the best at channeling the unspoken, intangible Mose thing while simultaneously adding his own twist on the hopeful, wry "Ever Since the World Ended". Iggy Pop adds his signature rap on "If You're Going to the City", transforming the jazz/jump-blues mashup of the original into a sort of quasi-avant-garde dub-house special.

Less successful are contributions from Taj Mahal, Jackson Browne, and Blasters brothers Dave and Phil Alvin. Though pleasant enough to hear, their performances leave you reaching for the original versions.

Not all tracks here are new. Bonnie Raitt and Richard Thompson both contribute live (but well-done) takes on the timely "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy" and "Parchman Farm", respectively. Interestingly, "Young Man Blues" is not covered, but not missed, as the Who has already laid claim to that one. Daughter Amy closes the set with a duet with Elvis Costello on "Monsters of the Id" taken from her 2009 album, Sheffield Streets that also featured none other than Mose himself on piano. Ending on one of her father's more offbeat numbers (from 1970's Hello There, Universe) seems fitting: her unconventional voice combines with Costello's surprisingly well, though it may be off-putting upon first listen.

Proceeds from If You're Going to the City help the Sweet Relief Musician's Fund. Founded by Victoria Williams, it's an organization that benefits musicians in need. Ultimately, the album succeeds in fulfilling its promise. Like its subject, If You're Going to the City is all over the map, covers a lot of ground, and brings seemingly disparate worlds together. I believe Mose wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

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