Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Listening to Prestige 214: Mose Allison

This album means so much to me. It was one of the first albums I bought after I had become a convert to jazz, and it was the first one by a new artist making his recording debut. So even though I was such a novice, and I knew there was a rich history that I had to learn, and a lot of music I had to listen to, I could still feel that I was in at least this vanguard.

Mose Allison was the right guy for me at the right time. I had come to jazz through rhythm and blues, and I loved the easy, bluesy feeling that Mose gave to the music. In those days, and this hasn't changed much, people argued about the relationship of race to American music, particularly to blues and jazz. The blues revival of the 60s hadn't happened yet. White guys like John Hammond, Jr., Eric Von Schmidt, Spider John Koerner, playing and singing in the style of traditional acoustic blues musicians. were still beyond the horizon. In 1957, the white guys who sang the blues had names like Elvis Presley, and the jazz audience didn't take them seriously. White musicians had always played jazz. Roy Eldridge had famously said that he could always tell whether a musician was black or white from his style of playing; and as famously, when Leonard Feather gave him a blindfold test, he guessed wrong 60 percent of the time. R&B disc jockey John R. used to get calls from listeners asking, "are you black or white?" to which he would only respond, "why do you care?"

What Mose Allison sang was his own. On the Back Country Suite album, he covered an R&B tune, but he did not particularly try to emulate the original. As Shelly Manne said in a Down Beat interview (quoted in Ira Gitler's liner notes to Local Color), "Funk is as old as jazz. It's an earthy quality of playing, dating back to original blues. A guy like Mose Allison plays funk because it's natural. He's from Mississippi, I think."

Allison today is best known as a singer/songwriter, an unusual category for jazz. When one says "singer/songwriter," the image that springs to mind is James Taylor, or Joni Mitchell, or most famously, Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, and that's kind of interesting, because the white folkies or folk-rockers were certainly not the only performers who played and sang their own material. Blues musicians like Charley Patton or Blind Lemon Jefferson or Elmore James sang songs that they wrote, but no one called them singer/songwriters, perhaps because in the early days of the blues, no one thought much about songwriting.

Traditional country performers like Hank Williams or Jimmie Rodgers aren't called "singer/songwriters" either, and if you were going to name the godfather of singer/songwriting, it would probably be Rodgers. When he auditioned for Ralph Peer's 1927 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, for what are generally regarded as the first commercial country music records, he sang sentimental popular songs of the day, and was told that no, they wanted authentic folk music. He didn't know any authentic folk songs, so he and his sister-in-law Elsie McWilliams wrote a bunch.

The songwriters who created what became known as the Great American Songbook didn't sing, for the most part. Hoagy Carmichael did, but he was primarily a songwriter for other performers, who would from time to time sit down at the piano and sing some of his own compositions. In jazz, the guys who wrote and sang their own material were people like Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure and Annie Ross, and they were putting lyrics to the solos of instrumentalists who were improvising off of melodies by still other composers.

But I digress. In 1957, Allison was essentially known as a piano player. He had come to New York in 1956, and found work with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, and later with Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan. And although he had grown up in the South listening to the blues and playing blues, he had early fallen under the spell of bebop. Nat "King" Cole was his strongest original piano influence, but he was also listening to, and learning from, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and even Lennie Tristano.

A really important influence, and a mentor in his early New York days, was George Wallington. Cohn and Getz and Mulligan didn't record any of Allison's compositions, though Allison recalls that Getz would let him play a few on live gigs, in a trio setting when Getz would sit out a number. But Wallington did--his recording of "In Salah" for Prestige preceded Allison's debut. And it's interesting to compare the two versions. Wallington is urbane and boppish, featuring uptempo solos by Phil Woods and Donald Byrd. Allison matches Wallington's speed out of the box, and his piano style is very reminiscent of Wallington's bebop, but he finds his own jaunty rhythm, and his own bluesy tone.

The songs that make up the actual "Back Country Suite" make up the first side of the album. Revisiting this album is revisiting my youth, and every note of it finds a familiar niche in my ears and in my soul. What I hadn't remembered is how short each of the individual compositions are: some less than a minute and a half, the longest two minutes and 15 seconds. I did remember that "Blues," the one vocal, later to be given rock immortality by The Who as "Young Man Blues," was short. Of course, when you think of it, they'd have to be: ten individual tunes on one side of an LP.

Long playing technology was hardly a novelty by this time, and jazz musicians had long since discovered that they could stretch out and explore improvisational possibilities way beyond what one side, or even both sides of a 78 RPM record could handle. This is a little different: a series of vignettes, each one too short, by itself, to make a 78 or a 45. If Bob Weinstock had foreseen the later immense popularity of "Young Man Blues" and decided he would grab a little of it by releasing "Blues" as a single, he maybe could have. "Stay," by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, made Number One on the charts, and it was only a minute and 37 seconds long, so "Blues" would only have come up ten seconds under that...but no. Would not have worked. But these vignettes together make a beautifully realized, interconnected piece that fits perfectly on one side of a vinyl LP.

So people who think of Allison as a singer/songwriter may also remember him as a pianist/composer. Probably fewer remember him as a working jazz musician. When I heard him at the Half Note in New York in 1959, as part of the Al Cohn-Zoot Sims quintet, I remember being surprised even then -- Wow, that's Mose Allison! I didn't know he did gigs like this. But as a working jazz musician, he played the range of tunes that most jazz musicians play, but, of course, his own version of that range. The second side of this album has one Allison tune, the Wallington-covered "In Salah," and an interesting variety of covers. Two are well-known: tunes from earlier decades which had just recently become mega-hits. "Blueberry Hill" was originally a singing cowboy ditty from a 1940 Gene Autry movie, but it crossed that Red River Valley into Hollywood, where it became a Number One hit for Glenn Miller, and finally reached its zenith when Fats Domino recorded the definitive version. Mose makes a sweet addition to the catalog, with a boppish uptempo version.

Buddy Johnson wrote a lot more good songs than a lot of composers who have bigger reputations, "Since I Fell For You" was his biggest hit. Originally recorded by his sister Ella in 1945 it became a big pop hit in 1963 for Lenny Welch. It's become a jazz standard in versions by Coleman Hawkins, Lee Morgan, Stanley Turrentine and George Benson, and a vocal standard for pretty nearly everyone, from Nina Simone and Dinah Washington through blues singers, doowoppers, Sixties rockers, and even country performers...and Mose Allison.

Johnson was a classically trained pianist who led a jump blues band in the 40s, and held it together through the 50s, though by then there wasn't much of a market for jump blues. His other compositions include "Fine Brown Frame" and "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?"

Johnson's "You Won't Let Me Go" is an absolutely beautiful blues ballad that's been recorded by Ray Charles, Lonnie Johnson, Hadda Brooks, and Charles Brown -- twice, in a vocal version and an instrumental with Johnny Moore's Three Blazers. Brown was a strong influence on Allison, both as pianist and singer. This was never the hit that "Since I Fell For You" was, but it's just as good. Listen to a couple of those fine renditions.

"I Thought About You" is the one standard from the Songbook, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Mercer.  It, maybe even more than "In Salah," is the number where you can really hear the Wallington influence.

I loved "One Room Country Shack" when I first heard it. The liner notes say that Mose learned it from a recording by a blues singer named Mercy Dee, so when I went out to look for the original, way back then, I had trouble finding it, until I discovered that the singer's name was actually Mercy Dee Walton, and he had recorded it for Specialty. If I live long enough, and am ever crazy enough to do this with another record label, it will be Specialty.

Allison is accompanied by Taylor LaFargue on bass. This may have been LaFargue's only recording, although Allison recalls him playing (as Jug Taylor) with Stan Getz's quintet during Mose's tenure there. Drummer Frank Isola also played with Getz, and is the one who brought Allison into Getz's group. Getz had interesting hiring practices. From Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective:
I didn't audition for him because he never really auditioned anybody; the job was the audition, and if he was satisfied with you on the night you stayed with the band.
In the same oral reminiscence, he talks about Isola:
The whole idea about drums for me is momentum without magnificence, or to put it another way, momentum without volume. A lot of good drummers get the momentum but there's too much volume. I like the guy who can get the momentum without excess volume, and Frank was the master of that.
Back Country Suite was released in 1957, to wide acclaim. I wasn't the only one who was turned on by it. Dom Cerulli in Down Beat said:
 This is an important record. Not so much because of the suite, which in itself is charming, fresh, and rooted in the blues, but also because Allison is a talent which bears watching. If his subsequent writing has the individuality of approach and the same earthy quality as in this excursion, jazz will have added another exciting voice to its roster of spokesmen. This deserves hearing.” 
We know what his subsequent writing produced. "Your Molecular Structure," "Your Mind is on Vacation," so much more.

"Blues" was too short to make a single, but Prestige did release "One Room Country Shack" on 45. b/w two of the pieces from the suite, "New Ground" and "Warm Night."

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

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