Mose Allison

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

By Geoff Edgers
Published February 13, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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Listening to Mose Allison is about admiring the perfect turn of a phrase. Allison is an American original, a jazz singer without the scat, a college-educated family man whose songs are populated by sharecroppers, wise guys and ne'er-do-wells. In spirit, he is probably bop's answer to John Prine, a pure storyteller who understands the fine line between clever and corny.

"Gimcracks and Gewgaws" -- his fourth album on Blue Note and first since turning (gasp!) 70 -- is full of ringers, from the opening, name-game shuffle of "MJA Jr." ("That's the way it's written in the book/Don't call me Moss, don't call me Moose/It's not some made-up, showbiz hook") to the 90-second "Old Man Blues," an unexpected sequel to 1957's "Back Country Suite." (The Who turned "Back Country Suite" into the blistering "Young Man Blues" on "Live at Leeds.")

Almost 20 years ago, in an interview with Robert Palmer, Allison broke his songs into three categories: slapstick, public service and personal crisis. By then, he'd stopped playing the cotton-sack songs he'd written as a boy growing up on the Mississippi Delta. He also had a ways to go as a balladeer, a particular strength on his Blue Note releases. The shimmering melodies, on "Fires of Spring" and "Numbers on Paper" in particular, wouldn't seem out of place in Bill Evans' catalog.

Accompanied only by his piano, groaning like Bud Powell over the between-verse fills on "Old Man Blues," Allison confesses that he's changed his mind over the last 40 years, remembering that "the young man knows how to wheel and deal; the young man's got that sex appeal; the young man is the man of the hour; 35 years of purchasing power."

His voice, a cross between a croon and a whisper, remains intact. With the possible exception of Chet Baker -- before he got his teeth knocked out -- nobody's ever really sung like Allison. So quiet, he wouldn't survive without a microphone -- but cool, not pretty. If he's lost a couple of notes on the high end, he's gained a growl.

Thankfully, except for a dabble with electric keyboards during the '70s, Allison has remained true to the basic, acoustic bop of his classic work on Prestige and Atlantic (the best of which has been collected on Rhino's "Allison Wonderland" anthology). Bassist Ratzo Harris and drummer Paul Motian, a member of Evans' most famous trio, provide the backing on "Gimcracks."

The beauty of "Gimcracks and Gewgaws," and almost every Allison album, is that you don't feel like you need it until you've taken a listen. Then you can't resist, sucked in again by that perfect line in the perfect song that only a few can write, over and over again.

Geoff Edgers

Geoff Edgers is a writer at the Raleigh News & Observer and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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