Quintessential piano man
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 12, 2003) – Calling Mose Allison a piano bar entertainer is like calling Bob Dylan a folksinger. Yet there is something incredibly modest and unassuming about him. On some level, Allison’s simply just a barroom singer and a piano player, if somewhat more gifted in the latter role than the former.
But then again, like Dylan, it’s what Allison does with his somewhat limited gifts and natural talent that make him transcend the role of piano bar entertainer to become a true American genius -- a quirky iconoclast who has absorbed various strains of American music and rearranged them into a singular style that is simultaneously sui generis while transparently rootsy.
In his third annual performance at Club Helsinki on Saturday night, Allison – playing a Steinway grand piano and backed more than ably by double bassist Rich Syracuse – entertained a sold-out crowd in two sets of songs that connected the blues to jazz and pop standards and novelty numbers. He skirted the edge of musical comedy throughout, but with his throwaway vocals bordering on deadpan and his authentic jazz and bebop keyboard improvisations, he always maintained a level of dignity even while tickling a listener’s belly and brain.
His own compositions blended effortlessly with that of other songwriters such that it all sounded like Mose music. “What’s Your Movie?” was built on a series of one-line questions that went to the heart of self-identity, with ambling, jaunty arpeggios that asked the same questions musically. “Ever Since the World Ended I Just Don’t Go Out as Much” was an aptly-timed bit of apocalyptic satire built on a left-hand stride pattern with a witty solo in the right hand. Allison’s phrasing crossed blues, jazz and a Beat-like deadpan, but it never seemed a put-on – he always sang with heartfelt, plaintive conviction.
J.D. Loudermilk’s “You Call It Jogging, But I Call it Running Around” was also a comic spoof, but Allison balanced the humorous material with more serious fare. A version of Victor Herbert’s “Indian Summer” was darker – more minimalist and all about tone and attitude. “How Much Truth Can a Man Stand?” was downright philosophical, the music untethered from a fixed rhythm, and Allison allowed his right hand to explore expressionistically the question the song asked. A version of the country standard, “You Are My Sunshine,” rearranged the song almost beyond recognition, recasting it as a lazy, minor-key lament, the way it probably should sound given the text.
In his second set, Allison was more experimental in his playing. “If You’re Going to the City, You Better Have Some Cash” featured dramatic splashes and crescendos, and “When I Get to My City Home” hinted at the Eastern modality of “A Night in Tunisia.” He found the jazz hiding inside Hank Williams’s country-blues tune, “Hey Good Lookin’,” and took the audience to New Orleans on a version of “Trouble in Mind.”
Allison was all business, moving swiftly from one song to the next with no fuss or commentary. He breezed through his program and kept things swinging. He was deceptively modest, so much so that you could have been forgiven for overlooking the guy singing and playing the piano. He was just your quintessential barroom singer and pianist.
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 15, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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