Mose Allison always makes it look easy. It’s tempting to ascribe the laid-back charm of his new album, The Way of the World, to the fact that he’s 82 years old — after recording and touring for 50-plus years, he’s earned the right to cruise a little. But listen to his earliest records, and that same effortless quality presides. Behind that unassuming manner, however, lurk devastating wit and nimble piano technique. His voice may be a little scratchier these days — it was never exactly a honeyed instrument – but all the better for cracker-barrel philosophizing.
Maybe if Mose Allison had more showy technique, he’d be a household name by now. It doesn’t help that his style defies classification – “the missing link between jazz and blues,” as Ray Davies of the Kinks describes it. Though his piano style is rooted in Delta stride and boogie-woogie, Allison fused that into bebop jazz early on, then added folk music’s trenchant lyrics to further confuse the issue.
Yet Mose Allison has had a Zelig-like history — plowing cotton behind a mule on his daddy’s farm in Tippo, Mississippi; playing Memphis blues on Beale Street as a teenager; hanging out in New York City’s landmark jazz clubs in the1950s; inspiring the British Invasion bands of the 1960’s (The Who covered “Young Man Blues,” the Yardbirds “I’m Not Talking,” John Mayall “Parchman Farm”). Don’t expect his music to flaunt this, though. His casual manner seems more like a guy who’s occupied the same stool at the local diner for years.
Though Allison still tours actively, it’s been 12 years since his last studio record, Gimcracks and Gewgaws. Producer Joe Henry wooed him back into the studio, convincing him that recording with younger musicians — including his daughter, country singer Amy Allison — would be a hoot. (You get the impression that Mose doesn’t do anything unless it’s a hoot.) Don’t look for a momentous sense of occasion, though. The Way of the World is an unassuming mix of re-recordings (“Ask Me Nice,” “Let It Come Down”), new originals, and a few well-chosen covers.
Jazz aficionados will appreciate the instrumental groove in the middle sections, where the ensemble perfectly complements Allison’s no-frills brand of swing. But for most listeners, the main attraction will be the verbal zing of Allison’s lyrics. Take “Modest Proposal,” for example, with its mordant suggestion, “Let’s give God a vacation / He must be tired of it all / Making the game, taking the blame / Twenty four hours a day on call.” Then there’s the pensive stroll of the title song, “I’ve heard every battle is the one to end all war / Seen thousands fall in line and never know what for / And still our greatest fear is that knock upon the door / It’s just the way of the world.”
Allison’s temperament is far more attuned to koan-like musings about the world than to moaning about love. You can hear the wink in his voice in “I’m Alright,” as he sings, “I woke up this morning, I didn’t have the glue / I pulled on my tube sock and laced my running shoe / Went to the reservoir to jog a mile or two / I didn’t think about our love and I wasn’t missing you.” Self-effacement comes naturally — witness “Ask Me Nice”: “I don’t claim to be so great / I’m no pacesetter, no fashion plate / I got some kids / I got a wife / I’m just trying to swing my way through life.” And these days, he’s even amused by his own senior-citizen status, in “My Brain” (“My brain is losing power / Twelve hundred neurons every hour / My brain, a cool little cluster is my brain”).
It doesn’t sound like the work of a young kid, that’s true, but then no kid could devise such finely honed piano solos (Exhibit A: the instrumental track, “Crush”) with never a wasted note. And no kid would chuckle so wryly over lost loves and defeated ambitions.
It’s tempting to hope that The Way of the World is the album that finally convinces the world to recognize Allison’s genius. But then the Mose Allison worldview takes over and you surrender. Why expect miracles, when you can just groove on the here and now?