Mose Allison, The Original Hipster

Hipster pianist, jazz poet, country bluesman—the possible descriptions of Mose Allison’s signature musical style stretch almost as long as the 83-year-old artist’s career.

By Jon Regen

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Hipster pianist, jazz poet, country bluesman—the possible descriptions of Mose Allison’s signature musical style stretch almost as long as the 83-year-old artist’s career. Allison’s audacious amalgam of angular pianism and wry lyrical wit has influenced legions of artists. In fact, there’s hardly a singer, songwriter, or jazz-tinged pianist working today that doesn’t owe a musical debt to the Mississippi native, who has seen his infectiously inventive songs covered by the Who, the Clash, and Van Morrison.

After a self-imposed 12-year sabbatical, Allison has returned with The Way of the World. Helmed by Grammy-winning producer Joe Henry (an acclaimed solo artist in his own right), the record marries the familiar sounds of Allison’s piano trio with unexpected new sonorities: Jay Bellerose’s propulsive percussion, Greg Leisz’s countrified guitars, the tenor sax stylings of Walter Smith III, and even Allison’s own daughter Amy on vocals. It’s Mose 2.0, and a whole new chapter for one whose very legacy defies characterization.

The new album is a really interesting mix of what you do and what Joe Henry does.

Yeah, well Joe kept asking me, kept wanting me to record for years. I finally just decided to say “Why not?”

You’re known for a lean, trio-based sound, both live and on record. This album is trickier, with sneaky sax lines and slide guitars. Did you enjoy augmenting your core piano-centered sound?

Oh, yeah. It’s different from my usual records. I usually control my own records. This time, I just sort of let Joe Henry control this one. He hired the musicians and so forth. I just did my part and didn’t worry about what other people were doing. And it came out okay. I really don’t know what it’s like just yet—I’ll have to listen to it! Six months from now, I’ll be able to tell you how I feel about it! But I haven’t decided what I think of it yet, because I don’t like to listen to me anyhow! [Laughs.]

Your music is often called ‘hard to categorize.’ There are comedic themes and serious ones, country riffs and Monk-ish sharp eleventh chords. But isn’t that the point?

Yeah, that’s what I always told people. I said “I’m a musician, I do a lot of things.” People are just beginning to pick up on that. I’ve had a lot of records out, and they haven’t done much as far as selling goes. But I feel that more and more people are now coming around to what I do, and they’re digging the songs.

Twelve years have passed since your last studio album. Why was there such a long break?

I just wasn’t gonna record any more. I figured that my next record would be in my living room with just a bass player, probably. But Joe Henry kept after me, after we played a gig in Germany a few years ago, and so I finally said “yes.”

Did you do a lot of new writing for the album?

Not really. Joe sent me some lyrics and I wrote the melody to them, For the title track “The Way of the World,” I liked the tune, and he was satisfied with the melodic thing I put to it. That’s sort of the way the whole record went. It was a confabulation between he and I. I let him direct things.

What kind of pianos do you like to play?

I have a Yamaha at home, but you can’t beat a Steinway if it’s in good shape. Actually, I think the older ones are better. But I like Baldwins too. I’ve been lucky to play on a lot of good pianos.

Do you keep up with what’s happening in contemporary music?

I’ve been listening to far-out contemporary composers lately. One that I’ve been listening to for several months is Wolfgang Rihm. I listened to Arnold Schoenberg for a long time as well. I like music that’s completely different from the stuff I usually do—I actually discovered Rihm in a Borders bookstore. They were playing him on the house sound system, and I liked it right away. So I bought it.

What players did you listen to when you were coming up as a young musician?

Thelonious Monk was a great hero of mine. I played on the bill with him on a lot of gigs. I did a month with him at the Five Spot on Eighth Street [in New York City] years ago. I also played with him at the Village Vanguard. I opened the shows for him a lot. It’s funny— Monk is considered a bebopper, and he never played bebop! He’s completely unique. He and [saxophonist] Lester Young are my two favorite musicians in jazz.

So Monk having his own sound struck you from the beginning? Is a lesson in there for younger musicians?

You know, everybody starts off copying somebody else. When I was a teenager, I was listening a lot to Nat “King” Cole and Erroll Garner, and people like that. Later, I listened to [Modern Jazz Quartet pianist] John Lewis, and Bud Powell, and so forth. I quit listening to all those people aft er a while. I fi gured you have to do your own thing.

Is it gratifying to be known as a true original?

Well, that was part of my original plan. That’s what I always thought that every musician should do. I’m happy to be along that road, as far as I’ve come. I don’t plan on changing anything—I just do what appeals to me.

If a young musician came to you for advice and said, “I want to write songs, play the piano, and have a career in music,” what would you tell him?

Marry a woman who has a job!

Joe Henry on Making The Way of the World

“Our record wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Mose’s wife, Audre,” says Grammy-winning producer Joe Henry. “I’m completely convinced of that. I’d taken Mose to Germany with me last summer for a festival I was curating. Mose’s wife, who’s a retired high school English teacher, came along, and we wound up talking every day about authors like Raymond Carver and Alice Munro. As we were leaving, I said ‘I feel this great compulsion to make a record with Mose,’ to which he replied ‘I’m done making records.’ So I just continued to correspond with Audre, who loved the idea of Mose and I making a record together. And so, as I said in the album’s liner notes, I embarked on an old-fashioned letter writing campaign, where I’d send emails to Audre and she’d print them out and give them to Mose. I did this for months—pushing ideas to him. With that little bit of encouragement from Audre, I just kept going. And as it turned out, he actually got excited about the project.

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“We recorded everything over four days,” Henry continues. “At first, I was overly anxious that Mose be pleased, because I had dragged him into the project. But very quickly into the first day, I realized he was very open to trying different things, to being surrounded by different sounds than he was accustomed to. So I just decided to do what I heard, and do all the things we talked about. And he never batted an eye.”

*Video: Pete Townshend, Elvis Costello, and more superstars praise Mose Allison.

*Get The Way of the World on iTunes.