I’d bought my first Mose Allison record in about 1962. It was an EP on the Esquire label, licensed from Prestige, and it contained all 10 atmospheric piano-trio miniatures making up Back Country Suite, the title of his first album, recorded five years earlier. Allison was clearly aware of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, but he was also steeped in the country blues that he’d heard growing up small-town Mississippi before studying English and philosophy at Louisiana State University. The result was was strong but fine-boned music, light on its feet, sultry as a southern night but as open as a big sky.
By the time I finally got to see him, during one of his many appearances at the Pizza Express in London in the 1980s, he’d moved on. He still sang the songs that had entranced the likes of Georgie Fame and Pete Townshend in the ’60s — his own “Parchman Farm”, Percy Mayfield’s “Lost Mind” and Mercy Dee’s “One Room Country Shack”. But his piano-playing had taken a wild left turn into a territory located somewhere between those staked out by Lennie Tristano and Cecil Taylor. A couple of time during a set he would suddenly rage up and down the keyboard, creating a torrent of two-fisted sound from waves of chromatic runs. Seems unlikely? If it was the antithesis of his early minimalism, it was certainly thrilling. Anyone turning up to hear the back-porch philosopher who sang “Well a young man ain’t nothin’ in the world these days” with such laconic resignation was in for a shock. I’m only sorry that I didn’t get to hear him many more times before his death in 2016, aged 89.
The young Mose could be heard on a 3-CD box set released on Fresh Sound in 2014, a compilation of the six albums he recorded for Prestige between 1957 and 1959: Back Country Suite, Local Color, Young Man Mose, Ramblin’ with Mose Allison, Creek Bank and Autumn Song. They formed the basis of the reputation that persuaded Nesuhi Ertegun to sign him to Atlantic in 1964 and to record 10 albums with him over the next dozen years. Those albums — I Don’t Worry About a Thing, Swingin’ Machine, The Word from Mose, Wild Man on the Loose, Mose Alive!, I’ve Been Doin’ Some Thinkin’, Hello There Universe, Western Man, Mose in Your Ear and Your Mind is on Vacation — have now been coupled with two subsequent recordings for Elektra, Middle Class White Boy and Lessons in Living, in a new 6-CD box.
Seven of the 10 Atlantic albums stay with the trio format, featuring such fine musicians as the drummers Osie Johnson and Paul Motian and the bassists Earl May and Red Mitchell. Two of those trio sets were recorded live, one at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach in 1965 and the other at In Your Ear in Palo Alto five or six years later. The latter album, Mose in Your Ear, contains a track called “Powerhouse”, almost nine minutes long, which perfectly exemplifies the kind of pianistic eruption I mentioned earlier, ranging across almost all significant approaches to jazz pianism — stride, boogie-woogie, barrelhouse, bebop, Monk-to-Cecil angularity — while somehow retaining Allison’s signature.
The same album also has perhaps his best recorded version of Jimmie Davis’s “You Are My Sunshine”, one of the standards he loved to examine over and over again, nudging the tune’s melodic planes until he has reshaped it into something completely his own, an almost total reinvention.
Of the three Atlantic albums in which horns are added to the trio, the 1976 set called Your Mind Is on Vacation is the most interesting and fully realised. With Al Porcino on trumpet, David Sanborn on alto and Joe Farrell on tenor, Allison takes chances with his arrangements. “One of These Days” is a slow altered blues played in the style of a Mingus small band imitating the late-’50s Ray Charles outfit, with enigmatically stretched silences at odd moments. “Fires of Spring” is a sophisticated cabaret song, the sort of thing Fran Landesman used to write, with a brilliant rubato treatment and a conversation-stopper of an ending.
Lessons in Living, recorded live at the Montreux Festival in 1982, is the more interesting of the two Elektra albums, with Jack Bruce on bass and Billy Cobham on drums, both commendably concerned to accompany rather than draw attention to themselves, and there are guest spots from Eric Gale on guitar and Lou Donaldson on alto. A wild up-tempo version of Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son” — another old favourite — flirts with a wonderful chaos in the piano interlude, and there’s a perfectly weighted treatment of “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy”, in which he dispenses cosmic truth with that wry fatalism.
A lot of Mose, then, but certainly not too much, because he was a true original who work deserves to be brought to the attention of new generations of listeners. After the reissue producer Jordi Puyol’s fine work on the Prestige/Fresh Sound collection, Bob Fisher’s compilation and annotation of this Atlantic/Elektra set is immaculate, as is the stylish package design and artwork by Michael Robson. Now all we need is for someone to compile the eight albums for Blue Note and one for Verve, mostly produced by Ben Sidran, and one for Anti-, supervised by Joe Henry, that represent the balance of his recording career, spanning 1987 to 2010. Not too much to ask, I hope.
* Mose Allison: The Complete Atlantic/Elektra Albums 1962-1983 is on Cherry Red’s Strawberry label.