Mose Allison, long, lean and laconic

Jazz being an organic music, some of its historical tributaries have dried up or slowed to such thin streams that they no longer water the field. The more robust of the various musics, such as blues, that spawned jazz, or been spawned by it, have formed their own deltas, so that the jazz newcomer might think of them as separate from, even exclusive of, the music we celebrate here.

But if blues is the mother of jazz -- and it is, make no mistake about it -- then somewhere in between must lie the midwifery of transition in this music of ours. And there are figures in this netherworld that the folks who like neat classifications have a hard time pigeonholing.

For example, the always exuberant Louis Jordan's reputation seems perched on some bubble of classification that is ready to pop. He's sure-enough a jazz man, yet "Saturday Night Fish Fry," with its happy boogie-woogie infectiousness, is close enough to rock 'n' roll to pop up occasionally on the hipper oldies stations. "Five Guys Named Moe" always reminds me of zoot suits and the stagecraft of another in-between figure, Cab Calloway. "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't (My Baby)?" comes uncomfortably close to the minstrel show tradition now so out of fashion, and "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Cryin'" (not to be confused with the 1964 pop hit of the same title by Gerry & The Pacemakers] is a bluesy little ballad that has given more than one musical explorer entree to the ballad's possibilities in jazz.

Jordan has been dead for nearly 27 years now, but his influence, though not immediately apparent, still can be traced in the music of such newbies as Joshua Redman or Marcus Roberts. It is more apparent in the musical generation after Jordan.

Case in point: Another hard-to-classify, yet always valuable, listening experience is a tour through the thoughtfully zany world of bluesman Mose Allison. I claim him for jazz, because he is as cool as a mint julep in the Mojave Desert and his piano style lies somewhere in the cracks between bop and boogie. A genuine delta boy from Tippo, Mississippi, Allison takes a piece of his heritage wherever he goes, and he's still going strong at age 74.

A sizable portion of that heritage was flavored by Louis Jordan, and Allison, himself, always has cited Jordan among the earliest of his musical influences, influences that included Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong.

But like yet another defier of taxonomy -- Hoagie Carmichael -- Allison's influence has largely been transmitted through his talents as a songwriter, specifically, as a creator of contemporary blues filtered through the taut strainer of the Mississippi Delta of an earlier era. His songs are the musical equivalent of the souvenir photographs one can purchase in towns in the U.S. West with names like Dry Gulch, where the tourist can dress up in Wild West garb for a sepia-toned snapshot of himself as Buffalo Bill or Kit Carson. A little past, a little present, a little something to amuse you in the years to come.
His songs are lean, the words spare, the style laconic and the philosophy long, as a truly wise man's is long: using the mixed media of bop, blues and boogie, Allison creates poignant situational humor. If such a hybrid can be said to exist, it lives in the world of Mose Allison's creation and, in one stripe or another, in the real world, too. The singer-songwriter's narrative persona is seasoned yet uncertain; he is deft, but clumsy; a sober thinker, a drunken ne'er-do-well; steadfast and rakish; ignorant but curious; crippled but strong. He moves through life free of encumbrance but carrying lots of baggage. He contradicts himself and he demands consistency.

One of Allison's best-known songs is "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy" and its mournful social criticism issues as well from the pipes of Bonnie Raitt as from his own. I've never been in Mississippi, but, with "Parchman Farm," Allison has put me squarely inside the walls of that state's penitentiary during its more notorious days, the days of the "trusty shooter," when inmates were used to guard other inmates who were picking cotton or working on road gangs. "Your Mind Is On Vacation" is every man's complaint about ditsiness, colored with humor and filigreed with that blend of blues, bop and boogie.
Further support for Allison's inclusion as a jazzman is his resume, which includes stints with Al Cohn, Bob Brookmeyer, Stan Getz and Zoot Sims.

Every recording in his catalog will contain something for the jazz fan. For some especially classic Allison that is still in print in the United States, try:
-- "Back Country Suite" [Prestige/OJC, 1957]
-- "Local Color" [Prestige/OJC, 1957]
-- "Your Mind Is on Vacation" [Koch, 1976]
-- "Pure Mose" [32 Jazz 1978]

Some terrific anthologies include "The Best Of Mose Allison" [Atlantic, 1962] and "Greatest Hits" [Prestige/OJC, 1957]. Rhino also has reissued the 1957 "Allison Wonderland: Anthology."
One you've tried some of Mose's breathtaking languor, see if you can't imagine Billie Holiday assaying a few of his tunes. I'll bet you can.