Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

Here's a Halloween song from the great Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Too bad there's no video of them performing, but you can still enjoy their swinging excellence. "Halloween Spooks" is from their Columbia double LP from 1960, The Hottest New Group in Jazz. Scott Yanow at All Music Guide calls it "essential music for all serious jazz collections."

Janis Lane-Ewart and I did a Halloween radio show last night (10/30/2008) on KFAI. We had a lot of fun. The show will be available in the archive for two weeks.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Boo! Ribbet! Carmen in costume

She tried it on but she didn't buy it.

Eldar zooms in a new direction

When: Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008 • Where: DakotaWho: Eldar Djangirov, piano; Armando Gola, electric bass; Ludwig Alfonso, drums

The trio is already into its first tune when we arrive. There's a vibe in the room that tells me this is not the music people came to hear. Some of the regulars look cranky. Eldar, the former child prodigy who was born in Kyrgyzstan, played Oscar Peterson note-by-note at age 3, started piano lessons at 5 (and performed for the first time in public soon after), was discovered at a Siberian jazz festival at 9, and has been compared countless times to Peterson and Art Tatum, is acting like a 21-year-old. He's pounding an acoustic piano with his left hand, tearing into an electronic keyboard with his right.

I've heard Eldar play standards and (to quote Spaceballs) these are not them. Reviews of his new CD, re-imagination, for which he's currently on tour, have been whiney: "I wasn't too impressed.... and would rather listen to a blindingly fast 'Sweet Georgia Brown' to marvel at his speeds than listen to any of the tracks on this record."

DJ Logic plays turntables on the CD and I wish he was in the room tonight. Bassist Armando Gola has played with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Arturo Sandoval, and Martin Bejerano (pianist with the Roy Haynes Quartet), drummer Ludwig Alfonso with Spyro Gyra. Gola has gigged with Eldar before (recently at the Blue Note on a double bill with singer Sophie Milman, which must have been an interesting juxtaposition). Someone at the Dakota tells us this is Alfonso's first engagement with Eldar. Gola is a good match for Eldar; Alfonso seems tentative at times, but not all the time, and shows flashes of ferocity. He holds his own.

Much of the music is incredibly fast, full of fireworks and sparklers. There's a reason Eldar is known for his superhuman velocity. Like a hummingbird, he probably has to eat his weight in food every day or starve. He's also strong and he hits the notes crisply and cleanly. He may have two brains. One piano solo has several rhythms going at the same time, rapid and halting and sprung.

I don't know the new CD and have no idea what I'm hearing. (The CD is mostly original compositions and a few standards: Johnny Green's "Out of Nowhere," Peterson's "Place St. Henri," "Blackbird" as a bonus track. Go here to see and hear Eldar play "Place St. Henri" at the 2008 NAMM show.) Eldar doesn't talk much but occasionally, in between hundred-yard dashes, he gives us the name of a tune they have just performed; Gola's "Blues Sketch in Clave," his own "Insensitive," a ballad, sort of, but with a bazillion notes and classical-sounding phrases popping up like bubbles in a rolling boil. Something called "Passage."

At the end, he announces, "Now I'll play a standard. You guess what standard it is." Afterward, several people try to guess. I go to the green room and ask. It's "Donna Lee."

The set gets mixed reviews from people we hear on the way out. What, Eldar is supposed to play Oscar Peterson forever?

All photos but the first by John Whiting.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Stanley Jordan again/not again

When: Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2008 • Where: DakotaWho: Stanley Jordan, guitars and piano; Charnett Moffett, electric bass; Eddie Barattini, drums

We're so blown away by Stanley Jordan's first night that we're back again. So are many people we saw here last night. Is it possible he'll be as good as he was?

He's better. More relaxed, more expressive. You see it in his face, his hands, and his body: he twists, turns, bows, bends, and reaches for the sky. He moves from guitar to guitar and piano and back again to guitar, and if he did in fact have more than two hands he would probably play more than two instruments simultaneously.

Much of the music is the same as last night--in name, in chord structure, in melody, but not in how they play it. "El Condor Pasa." "Eleanor Rigby" (I think; this time it's the trio, not Jordan alone). A joyous interpretation of Horace Silver's "Song for My Father" is added to tonight's playlist (it's on the new CD as well). Moffett is even more fiery than last night; his "Star Spangled Banner" (which begins as "America the Beautiful") screams and wails, loops and buzzes. At times his bass sounds like a steel drum. Barattini is terrific on the drums.

"How Insensitive." The Mozart again but not again, with ten thousand new notes. One encore only, "O Holy Night." After the concert, Moffett sits at the bar and I bring him a big bushel of adoring fan talk. I stand before him and babble about how wonderful he is. I can't help myself. Out in the lobby, Jordan is surrounded by fans and CD buyers. I wait until the end of the line, then take his picture with the lovely Deborah.

I thank him for his music. He stands very still and talks very, very quietly. After the sound and fury and virtuosity of his performance, he exudes silence and calm.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How many hands does Stanley Jordan have?

When: Monday, Oct. 27, 2008 • Where: DakotaWho: Stanley Jordan, guitars and piano; Charnett Moffett, electric bass; Eddie Barattini, drums

My only Stanley Jordan CD is Cornucopia (1986). Before that, not even vinyl. I’m drawn to this show because Charnett Moffett is on bass, and to me, Moffett is like Zakir Hussein: someone not to miss when he comes to town.

I know a little about Jordan’s signature guitar-playing technique: he taps (not holds and strums or plucks) the strings so he can play two lines (melody and chords) at the same time. But until tonight, I don’t really care.

Because until tonight, I haven’t seen him live.

Two guitar solos to start: “My One and Only Love,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” (“I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail/Yes I would, if I could/I surely would”). I’m hooked and Moffett isn’t even on stage yet. How is it possible Jordan is playing just one guitar? How many hands does he have? Boosted by amps, layered, swirling sounds fill the room.

Moffett and Barattini come through the curtain for “All Blues,” a track from State of Nature, Jordan’s most recent CD and the reason for the current tour. On this tune, Jordan plays guitar and piano simultaneously. It’s not a parlor trick, it’s amazing.

He told Guitar Player magazine: “My original instrument was piano, and when I switched to guitar, I still had this piano thing in me, so I developed the whole two-handed tapping technique in order to play the guitar more like a piano. When I did this album, I decided there was still a part of my music that lives in the piano…. I am thinking of them together like a single instrument. If you were using two hands on the guitar, or two hands on the piano, you would think of what you were doing as playing one instrument.”

Another track from State of Nature, which Jordan introduces as "a celebration of nature"; the Andante from Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21, a.k.a. “Elvira Madigan.” Jordan is solo but sounds like a chamber orchestra. He plays the notes and all the notes around the notes.

More guitar and piano simultaneously; this time Jordan sweeps his right hand up and down the keyboard in spacious glissandos. Then he plays the guitar with his right hand and the piano with his left.

Moffett solos on “Star Spangled Banner” a la Jimi Hendrix. This is something he has played for a while (and recorded), most often (to the best of my knowledge) on his big upright bass. Tonight it’s on electric bass, deep and dark and searing. He weaves in “Amazing Grace” and “Frere Jacques.” “Star Spangled Banner” is always a political tune, so I guess Moffett is saying something by playing “Are you sleeping, Brother John?” this close to the election.

The announced final tune is “A Place in Space,” also from the new CD. It’s music that makes you want to strap yourself down or at least hold onto something. The audience brings Jordan back for two solo encores, “O Holy Night” and “Eleanor Rigby.”

For some artists, an instrument and all its history and mastery is just the beginning, the jumping-off point, the starting block, the launching pad for a whole new thing. What Jordan does with the guitar is beyond imagining, best (like most jazz) experienced live.

Here’s “Eleanor Rigby” from a 2006 concert. More rock-and-roll than tonight's version but a decent video with many views of Jordan’s hands, proof that he has only two after all.

Photo by John Whiting.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Charmin Michelle at Cue

When: Saturday, Oct. 25, 2008 • Where: Cue at the Guthrie • Who: Charmin Michelle, voice; Doug Haining, saxophones and clarinet; Rick Carlson, piano; Keith Boyles, bass; Nathan Norman, drums

Taking pictures at Cue is almost impossible; the combination of floor-to-ceiling windows, candlelit tables, and low overhead lighting creates a wonderfully romantic ambience and challenging conditions for photographers. But Cue is all about food and wine and atmosphere—and, on the weekends, live music. So I'm not complaining, just saying. It's a gorgeous room and I love going there to hear some of my favorite area talent: Arne Fogel, Maud Hixson, Dean Brewington, and tonight the exquisitely lovely and charming Charmin Michelle.

People were seated all around when we arrived, and many more came in when the Guthrie's current production, Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, let out. I had a delicious stuffed trout and discovered my new favorite cocktail: a pomegranate Manhattan. Restaurant manager Jeffrey Fisher and wine manager Jessica Nielsen came by to say hello and introduce the new sommelier.

Fisher has booked Cue's live music calendar through New Year's Eve, which is further ahead than many clubs attempt. Let's hope the music continues into next year and beyond. To me, it's now an integral part of the experience. A great room with great food deserves great music. I'm hoping that someday they'll have a real piano.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Sublime Stories: Maria Schneider and the SPCO

When: Thursday, Oct. 23, 2008 • Where: OrdwayWho: Maria Schneider, composer and conductor; Scott Yoo, conductor; Dawn Upshaw, soprano; The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

Last night Maria Schneider showed that she can write classical music as colorful and descriptive and satisfying as her jazz compositions, and lead a classical orchestra she has known for a few days as adeptly as her own jazz orchestra, which includes a core group of musicians who have been with her for years.

Schneider's first public performance of "Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories," based on poems translated by Mark Strand, was sublime. I didn't take notes; I just listened. Minnesota Public Radio will broadcast the performance sometime in November.

The complete program:
1 Ravel: Pavane for a Dead Princess
2 Hindemith: Kammermusik No. 3, Op. 36, No. 2: Ronald Thomas, cello
3 Delage: Four Hindu Poems for Soprano and Ensemble: Dawn Upshaw, soprano
4 Bach/Webern: Ricercare from The Musical Offering
5 Schneider: Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories: Dawn Upshaw, soprano

The original program included Ravel's Chansons madecasses, to be sung by Upshaw. We heard that Upshaw was ill last weekend and this probably accounts for the switch to the Pavane.

There was a moment of transporting magic during the Delage (also noted by Pi Press reviewer Rob Hubbard). It happened in the second of the Four Hindu Poems, "Lahore," when Upshaw sang a lengthy passage of vocalise (wordless singing--not the same as jazz vocalese, where lyrics are written for instrumental melodies). You can hear something similar on Upshaw's recording of these songs, which appears on The Girl with Orange Lips (1991). Last night's live performance may have been longer, more elaborate and daring--perhaps higher in some parts. I held my breath.

During Schneider's piece, I found myself wondering what might have happened had Frank Kimbrough been at the piano instead of the SPCO's Layton James. This is not to disparage James in the least; he's a wonderful artist and has been a SPCO mainstay for decades. But Kimbrough has held the piano chair in Schneider's orchestra and worked closely with her since 1993.

This will be the last thing I write about Maria Schneider—until the next interesting thing she does. Earlier this year I went to see her rehearse with the MacJazz band. That's when I learned she was working on two new commissions: one for the Monterey Jazz Festival in September and one for soprano Dawn Upshaw and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in October. Over the next several months, I ended up reporting on and attending both world premieres, leaving a trail of verbal crumbs:

• For Maria Schneider, there's no place like home
• MFJ/51: Maria Schneider
• MJF/51: Saturday
• The 51st Annual Monterey Jazz Festival: So much music, never enough time (see Monterey Day-by-Day: Saturday, September 20)
• Maria Schneider comes home—for the SPCO

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Monday, October 20, 2008

Thirteen Candles: The AQ’s “Lucky 13” Anniversary Party

When: Sunday, Oct. 20, 2008 • Where: Artists’ QuarterWho: Lots of people

In October 1995, the Artists’ Quarter moved from Minneapolis to St. Paul, a city not known for its nightlife. Yet there it has remained, drawing jazz lovers down the stairs of the Historic Hamm Building for real jazz six or seven nights each week, every month, all year long.

Sometimes it's jam-packed, SRO, and sometimes there are maybe 10 or 12 people in the audience. We've heard amazing music in that small basement club lined with posters and photos and album covers: Roy Haynes, Bill Carrothers, Lee Konitz, Jaleel Shaw, Ari Hoenig, Kenny Werner, Mose Allison, Craig Taborn, Greg Tardy, Eric Alexander, Bob Rockwell, Lew Tabackin, Ira Sullivan, Stephanie Nakasian, Rick Germanson, Jim Rotondi, Jon Weber, Dewey Redman, David Hazeltine, and on and on...and, of course, the countless area musicians who have made the AQ their second home, thanks to owner and resident drummer Kenny Horst.

Tonight, many are here to celebrate and perform: George Avaloz, the Tuesday Night Band, Phil Hey, Gordy Johnson, Dave Karr, Carole Martin, Debbie Duncan, Phil Aaron, Chris and JT Bates, Chris Thomson, Dean Magraw, Dean Granros, Peter Schimke, Tom Lewis, and I know I’m missing some because we aren’t able to come for the whole thing; it starts at 5, we arrive around 9. Just in time to hear Debbie Duncan sing “But Beautiful,” then Carole Martin rejoins her for “The End of a Beautiful Friendship.” Then the wonderful quartet How Birds Work, led by Peter Schimke, now with Chris Bates on bass. Even when Chris is standing still, he’s not standing still; he’s up and down on the balls of his feet, swaying, smiling, nodding his head, dancing with his bass.

The evening ends with a group called Shovel: Anthony Cox, Chris Thomson, Dean Magraw, JT Bates. Fine fine stuff. A tune called “Mr. Cox, High School Band Director.” Another: “Boulder Car.” Something about a car that runs on spring water and rocks? A brilliant back-and-forth between JT and Anthony on electric bass. Ellington’s “Take the Coltrane,” Anthony’s “Interracial Walk-by,” then “Verk in Progress,” a title that leads into a brief riff on Hogan’s Heroes and the number of bridges blown up on that show (Anthony: “I don’t know how the Allies got into Germany.”)

As the AQ's venerable doorman Davis says, "Dig Shovel!"

There’s supposed to be a jam session but it's already past midnight. Finish drink, pay bill, say thank-you and goodnight to Kenny, walk Jennifer to her car, go home, plan to return next weekend if not before.

Photos by John Whiting. Top to bottom: Lord Davis riles the crowd; How Birds Work; three-quarters of Shovel.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Hit me again: The return of Global Drum Project

When: Friday, Oct. 17, 2008 • Where: O’ShaughnessyWho: Global Drum Project: Mickey Hart, Zakir Hussain, Giovanni Hidalgo, Sikiru Adepoju: drums, percussion, electronics; Jonah Sharp, computers, processors

Why go to see Global Drum Project twice in one year? Because it’s Global Drum Project, the reunion of four great percussionists, each worthy of the overused descriptor “world class.” Because opportunities to see any of the four individually are rare, and the chance to see them together is a lightning strike. Because the CDs [Planet Drum (1991), Global Drum Project (2007)] are amazing but nothing compares to live music. Because unless the power fails or someone breaks a hand it’s a sure thing.

We have good seats to start with, then meet our friend Rich Solomon in the lobby, who moves us up to the orchestra pit. For well over two hours, allowing for a nine-minute intermission, the music is transporting, transcendent, detonating, tranced-out. We hear tunes from the 2007 CD (“Baba,” “Kalilu Groove,” “I Can Tell You More”) and probably also from Planet Drum and perhaps even Diga, the album Hart and Hussain released 15 years before Planet Drum, before world music was a category, when they called themselves Diga Rhythm Band.

Dense textures, complex rhythms, hypnotic grooves, soaring vocals, lengthy and spectacular solos, blurred hands and sticks and mallets, calls-and-responses (Hussain does his rapid-fire ticka ticka ticka vocalizations, Hidalgo responds, or Adepoju responds on his talking drum). It seems that any instrument that can be beaten, banged, shaken, pounded, stroked, or hit is on that stage: drums, bells, gourds, chimes, rattles, shakers, skins, goats’ toes, tambourines, things with feathers, vegetables in a bowl (more rattles).

The audience is happy, the performers are happy—the balcony at O’Shaughnessy didn’t sell, so this is the intimate main-floor crowd, seated in long rows without aisles that curve toward the stage. (For the curious, seating charts are available at the O’Shaughnessy site. We were in the first row B, seats 7–10.)

Words from “I Can Tell You More,” spoken by Hart over deep drumming:

Rhythm is the soul of life…
Realize your rhythm in life…

The sea, the heavens, the stars, they dance…

Rhythm vibrates within my dreams

It vibrates within us
It’s us. How cool.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lura's allure

When: Wednesday, Oct. 15 • Where: DakotaWho: Lura (voice and occasional percussion), Guillaume Singer (violin), Osvaldo “Vaiss” Dias (guitar), Toy Vieira (piano), Russo Figueiredo (electric bass), Jair Pina (percussion), Kau Morais (drums)

Born in Lisbon to parents from Cape Verde, an Atlantic archipelago 300 miles off the coast of Senegal, Lura considers herself a Cape Verdean. Mentored by Cesaria Evora, she sings in Cape Verdean Creole, a mélange of Portuguese and African dialects. Her songs draw on the music traditions of Santiago, the island where her father was born. It’s ready-made world music—batuku, funana, mazurka, and tabanka touched with samba, jazz, flamenco, and R&B. Rhythmic and irresistible.

This was the second time I had seen her; the first was at the Cedar in 2006, when she was barely in her 30s. Tonight, once again, she promised to take us to Cape Verde and did, in songs and stories and ecstatic barefoot dances. She’s a wonderful entertainer with a gigawatt smile, lovely to look at and very engaged with the audience—at least she tries her best to be. She had most of us staid and repressed Minnesotans clapping and singing along (sort of), but when she said she was going to make us dance, she quickly realized that wasn't going to happen.

I’m not that familiar with her music, especially the song titles, but I know we heard “Ponciana,” “Na Ri Na,” “Vazulina” (a song about Vaseline, which she explains is a popular hair treatment among African people), and a lullabye by Cape Verdean composer Orlando Pantera. Her voice is strong and beautiful. At one point she tied a scarf around her waist and danced the torno.

Her band is very fine. I especially enjoyed the violinist, Guillaume Singer, and was fascinated by Vaiss Dias’s guitar, which looks like a mother guitar carrying a baby guitar on her back, swimming across a stream.

Here's a little love story, a video of "Ponciana." It's a song about a Cape Verdean girl promised in marriage to a wealthy immigrant who chooses differently.

Lura's Web site (not in English).

Monday, October 13, 2008

Roberta Gambarini: Jazz without a net

When: Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008 • Where: DakotaWho: Roberta Gambarini, voice; Eric Gunnison, piano; Neil Swainson, bass; Montez Coleman, drums

We’re at the second set on the first night of Roberta’s two-night engagement at the Dakota. The crowd is light for what is arguably one of the finest singers working today. Afterward I know I’ll hear comments like “another Ella,” “today’s Ella,” “the best singer since Ella,” and I do from the jazz aficionados in the house, people like Bevyn and Ron and Mike and Ray.

For “Easy to Love,” the title song from her first CD, she sings the verse (“I know too well that I’m/just wasting precious time/in thinking such a thing could be/that you could ever care for me…”) a cappella. It’s a good 45 seconds of being entirely on her own. Forty-five seconds is a long time. Count it out: one-one-thousand, two-two-thousand…. The piano comes in on “You’d be so easy to love” and it’s a perfect pitch match.

A song I haven’t heard her sing before, a ballad by Harry Warren, “This Is Always.” In the line “How can I forget you,” the second syllable of “forget” turns into a verse. In the line “This isn’t just midsummer madness,” the “ness” in “madness” is six or seven stops on the scale. The end (“With every kiss I know that this is always”) is almost a whisper, but an in-tune whisper.

Her singing is a high-wire act. She often ventures out without the net of her band—for measures and phrases, song beginnings and endings. The trio is playing and suddenly everyone stops and she keeps singing and then they return. Sometimes when a singer does a cappella passages and the musicians start in again it seems as if the singer grabs onto the music with combined desperation and relief. Not Roberta. She's cool.

And she scats, joyfully and frequently. “It Don’t Mean a Thing” is almost entirely scatted. I read something recently in DownBeat where a writer referred to Roberta’s “gratuitous scat.” I don’t think scatting is gratuitous unless you don’t know how to do it. Clumsy scatting, unimaginative scatting, repetitive scatting, scatting full of goofy syllables—those give scatting a bad name. But how can one argue against the voice as an instrument, and scatting as improvisation using that instrument, when jazz is so much about improvisation?

When I spoke with Roberta for MinnPost, I asked how she might explain scatting to someone who had never heard it before. “It’s part of the jazz spirit,” she said. “The way it was born, they say, was when Louis Armstrong was recording a song in the studio and the sheet for the lyrics fell. That's a very good picture of what we do, because that’s what we do. [Scatting is] a reaction to something unpredictable. It’s another way to react to the music in an unpredictable way.”

Set List
1. An instrumental by the band
2. That Old Black Magic
3. Easy to Love
4. This Is Always
5. Nobody Else but Me
6. Misty
7. Centerpiece
8. Lush Life
9. It Don’t Mean a Thing
10. Cinema Paradiso medley
11. On the Sunny Side of the Street
12. Body and Soul
13. When Lights Are Low
14. A scatting finale

Random thoughts on “Lush Life”: How can anyone sing this song? It’s hard. (Frank Sinatra gave up on it when he tried to record it in the late 1950s.) How could Billy Strayhorn have started writing it when he was just 16? How could he have known about “those come what may places/where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life” or girls with “sad and sullen grey faces/with distingue traces”? How could a teenager have written a song full of so many agains? (“Again I was wrong…. Life is lonely again…. Life is awful again.”) Doesn’t a knowledge of again and its grief, regret, and hopelessness take years of living? The more I hear this song, the higher it climbs toward the Best Song Ever pinnacle.

Photos by John Whiting.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Mose Allison: More from the interview

The great Mose Allison
has written some of my favorite song lyrics. Like:

One of these days I've got to get things straight
I'm gonna stop staying out late
And acting like a reprobate

Amen. How about:

Ever since the world ended
I don't go out as much

People that I once befriended

Just don't bother to stay in touch
Things that used to seem so splendid

Don't really matter today

It's just as well the world ended

It wasn't working anyway.


You're sitting there yakking right in my face
You're coming on exactly like you own the place

You know if silence was golden, you couldn't raise a dime

Because your mind is on vacation and your mouth is working overtime.

More, more!

Monsters of the id
No longer staying hid

And terrors of the night

Are out in broad daylight...

And, of course:

I can't believe the things I'm seeing
I wonder about some things I've heard

Everybody's crying mercy
When they don't know the meaning of the word.

I spoke with Allison earlier this week for MinnPost. So much has been written about him already that I doubt there's a question he's never been asked. But I asked anyway.

There's a lot of information out there about you. What is one thing you would like most people to know?
I don't have anything I want people to know. My thing is performing, and that's how I get my kicks one way or the other.... Some performances are hard, some are easy. You never know how you sound, because I've heard tapes of times when I've felt like I was scufflin' and it sounded pretty good, and tapes when I felt like it was going never know.

A lot of people have covered your songs. Is there a cover you especially like?
There's not really a favorite. My main concern is whether I get the money for it, because there's a lot of records made where the legal part isn't covered.... But I consider it a compliment when anybody does my material. I also like for people to do what they want to with it. That's what I do with other people's tunes. I don't quibble about that.

Is it true you're not writing new songs lately?
I just write nonsense songs nowadays. I do new words to old melodies when I'm around the house.... I figure I've covered most of my social comments. People ask me all the time if I'm writing about the situation today, and I always say, I've been writing about the situation today for 40 years.

What are you listening to?
Very little. Except maybe Schoenberg when I get a chance. I like far-out classical music, so-called classical music. I listen to a new German composer, Wolfgang Rihm. He wrote a piece, I can never think of the name—something about coming and going. There's a lot going on in the foreground, but there's a melody line underneath throughout, and if you can find it, it's always there.... I listen to Schoenberg for the same thing. I figure there's a melody line running through his stuff if you can find it.

Photo of Mose Allison by Carol Fridman to come.

Little dog on the sofa

The corner of a cushion is the perfect place to rest a lengthy chin.

Mose Allison: Where jazz meets blues

Originally published at, 10/3/08

What has surprised many people most about Mose Allison isn't his acerbic wit, bone-dry singing style, piano chops, extensive discography (more than 30 albums since 1957), the number of songs he has written (150 or so), his tireless touring (100-plus dates this year; he turns 82 in November), or his indisputable influence on music. 

It's the fact that he's not black.

The Who's Peter Townshend once thought he was. When he discovered Allison was "f****** white!" it changed his life. "Mose was one of the white guys that made it clear that white men could sing the blues," Townshend told Paul Bernays, director of the BBC documentary "Mose Allison: Ever Since I Stole the Blues." See a clip here.
The film's title comes from a song Allison penned in the 1980s. After a British journalist suggested he was "stealing" the blues, he wrote:

Well have you heard the latest
Are you in the know
It's in the morning papers
And it's on the radio
It's even going to make the TV news:
White boy steals the blues.

Allison brings his white self and hip, jazzy blues to the Artists' Quarter this weekend for three nights of genre-defying, crowd-pleasing music. The AQ has been part of his circuit for decades, starting back when it was on 26th and Nicollet in Minneapolis (now the site of the archly named Arts Quarter Lofts). 

"I think I first played with Kenny 30 years ago," Allison reminisced by phone from his home on Long Island. "It's been a long time." 

"Kenny" is AQ owner and resident drummer Kenny Horst. Like many jazz artists, Allison plays with local pick-up sections when he travels. Here he often teams with Horst and bassist Billy Peterson; this time Adam Linz will be on bass. See a video from last year.

First song penned at age 12

Born in 1927 near tiny Tippo, Miss., Mose John Allison Jr. taught himself to play piano, hanging around the jukebox at the local gas station, soaking up the sounds of blues and boogie-woogie. He wrote his first song at age 12. "It was called 'The 14-Day Palmolive Plan.' The idea was that you turn on the radio and all you get is commercials. Nowadays, TV is worse." (Four letters, Mr. Allison: TiVo.)

His father was a stride pianist and "blues was in the air," or maybe the water, since so many blues legends came from the same part of the world: Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, and the list goes on. 

In high school Allison listened to Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan and Nat "King" Cole. He played trumpet in the bands and wrote more songs. He spent a year at the University of Mississippi, joined the Army and played in the Army Band, returned to Ole Miss, left to form his own trio, and married Audre Mae, who has been his wife for 57 years. 

What's their secret? "I once said it's because we don't have anything in common," he deadpanned. "She didn't like that because we have kids and all that."

Back in college, this time Louisiana State University, he graduated with a B.A. in English and philosophy. (Jet magazine once asked him if he was the first black man to graduate from LSU.) Does he think a major in English is worthwhile? "Who knows? Some of my songs come from literature. It doesn't hurt, that's for sure." 

In 1956, Allison moved with his young family to New York, where he played and recorded with jazz greats like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan, fronted his own trio, released his first recording as a leader ("Back Country Suite") and kept writing. 

'Monsters of the Id' and other wordplay

His lyrics are profound, perceptive, caustic and often hilarious, full of irony and wordplay. (Time Out noted "his gift for writing a song with a sting in the tail.") The prematurely titled "Mose Allison: Greatest Hits" (1988) contains several of his best-known sides: "Parchman Farm," "If You Live," "Young Man's Blues." (Original lyrics: "A young man ain't nothing in the world these days." Today's version: "An old man ain't nothing in the USA.") 

Many more followed: "Your Mind Is on Vacation," "Ever Since the World Ended," "Middle Class White Boy," "Certified Senior Citizen," "Everybody's Crying Mercy." And "Monsters of the Id," which only recently became popular during his shows. 

"When I first did it, nobody understood it," he said. "Now everybody digs it. … Events have caught up with it." A sampling of the lyrics:

Monsters of the id
No longer stayin' hid
And terrors of the night
Are out in broad daylight….

The creatures from the swamp
Rewrite their own Mein Kampf
Neanderthals amuck
Just tryin' to make a buck.

His songs have been covered by artists better known than he is: the Who, Bonnie Raitt, the Clash, Eric Clapton, the Yardbirds, Elvis Costello, and Diana Krall, to name a few. In 1996, Van Morrison recorded a tribute album, "Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison." 

Why not hear them from the source? "The main thing about Mose is there's only one," Horst says. "Tons of people have imitated him, but he's one of a kind." 

At the AQ, Allison will perform originals and songs he has made his own, maybe "Seventh Son" and his famously lugubrious take on "You Are My Sunshine." There has been a request for Willie Love's "V8 Ford Blues," which he recorded in 1961, when gasoline was 19 cents a gallon.

"I haven't done that in 30 years," he said. "But I'll think about it."
What: Mose Allison
Where: The Artists' Quarter
 Friday-Saturday, Oct. 3-4, 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. ($20); Sunday, Oct. 5, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. ($20)