Wednesday 16 November 2016
When I was 16, I was torn between trying to learn to play guitar like the Shadows’ Hank Marvin or the Indianapolis bebop marvel Wes Montgomery. Me and my mate Dave used to stumble through Montgomery tunes on a couple of battered semi-acoustics, and after half an hour or so of it, in which we even bored ourselves, we’d play jazz LPs instead – Montgomery’s hip-looking albums for the Riverside label, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue or Porgy and Bess or Sketches of Spain, with a good many of Gil Evans’ beautiful orchestral nuances excised by the shortcomings of the Dansette record player. Everybody we listened to was purely an instrumentalist – except for Mose Allison.
I thought Dave had let the side down at first by buying a record with singing on it, but Mose did things I didn’t know singers did. His lyrics were poetic, intelligent, satirical, and mostly they didn’t seem to be about love. His quirky piano-playing was jazzy but it was oddly inflected, as if he’d learned it like a second language. He seemed to understand bebop (I heard, with fascination, that he’d been a sideman for cool-jazz saxophone star Stan Getz), but he was deeply rooted in the earthiness of the blues. He was a white kid at home and accepted in an African-American musical world, just like we wanted to be. He could write wonderful ironic poetry, as well as the kind of blistering putdown you vainly dreamed of being able come out with in the presence of a smartass.
More than three decades later in the 1990s, when I started regularly hearing him play live on what became his twice-yearly trips to the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, London, it was wonderful to hear how much of the old bite and unsentimental realism remained, that he was still producing new material, and that his resourcefulness as a piano improviser had, if anything, expanded. In his lean, wise, grey-bearded 70s, he would arrive on stage as if passing through to a more urgent appointment somewhere else, throw his jacket on the piano lid and barrel through classic songs at headlong speed, draining them and moving on as if he were leaving empties on a bar. He didn’t talk much or tell anecdotes about what must have been a fascinating life, preferring to thumbnail-sketch the biographies and credit the importance of the southern country and blues artists, famous or unknown, whose work he would often cover. And he would play a great deal of piano, mixing insistent, boogying grooves with unexpectedly ornate flourishes and fills, without ever letting an underlying and hard-hit chordal punctuation stay quiet for long.
Timeless Allison lyrics – “Ever since the world ended, I don’t get out so much”, “Your mind’s on vacation but your mouth’s working overtime” and “Y’know if silence was golden, you couldn’t raise a dime” – never lost their caustic charm, and as the ages of many of his fans advanced along with him, it was also gratifying to witness him turning his scalpel on what life as a senior citizen could feel like. “The young man is the man of the hour, 35 years of purchasing power,” the octogenarian Allison would snap, over a rocking piano vamp and glittering boppish rejoinders that sounded as if he was still 35 himself – winding up Old Man Blues with the indictment: “An old man ain’t nothin’ in the USA.” In this new political era, we’ll miss him even more.