Interview: Mose Allison is still cryin’ mercy

mose-allison-for-web Island Packet – In addition to cultivating a 57-year career in music, producing countless albums, having his songs recorded by Van Morrison, the Clash and Pete Townshend and generally being regarded as a walking jazz legend, Mose Allison has also totally made up a word: spime.

“It means space-time,” the singer and pianist said from the Hilton Head Island home he shares with his wife, Audre. “I read a lot of science books, and I always run across the ‘space-time continuum.’ So I figured, look, you need a word for that, just one word, and that’s spime.”

Spime is less of a thing, though, and more of a place. “Getting into the spime is when you’re totally into the music,” he said, in what can only be described as an satisfyingly jazzy speaking voice. “You can’t prepare for it. There’s no formula.” (Tragically, the term appears to function in the jazz world only: “I’ve never been able to get many scientists interested in that,” Allison laughs.)

Allison can invent words, because he’s a Mississippi-born old-school jazzman and such people live their lives inventing things on the spot, and because his expansive legacy lets him do more or less what he wants these days. Now in his 57th year of making music, the lively Allison performs at the Jazz Corner today and Saturday with Ben Tucker (“You can’t do much better than that,” he says of playing with the Savannah-based bassist).

But even at the age of 77, Allison says his work ethic remains unchanged: “Try to get a job and get to it. It’s the same challenge as it was when I first started playing in nightclubs in Lake Charles, La., in 1950.”



‘Kidding on the square’

In addition to his effortlessly stylish piano and vocal work, Allison is revered as a songwriter who swung a mighty satirical sword long before such a thing became quite so regular (“I’ve been doin’ some thinkin’, about the nature of the universe/Found out things are gettin’ better, it’s people that are gettin’ worse,” he intones rather sweetly on “I’ve Been Doin’ Some Thinkin’ ”).

Such humor is “probably genetic,” he says, attributing it to an aunt who introduced him to the pleasures of irony. But a childhood spent in a hard land played a role, too. “The Mississippi Delta during the Depression … I picked up a lot of stuff there. No one says anything straight out there. They always exaggerate or understate or say the opposite of what they mean.”

They also were masters of  the concept of “kidding on the square,” which Allison says is often the key to his songwriting (so much so, that he has a song with that title). “That’s when you’re kidding on the surface, but underneath there’s an idea you’re not getting,” he said — hence, songs like “Your Mind’s on Vacation and Your Mouth’s Working Overtime” and “Everybody’s Crying Mercy,” ostensibly a clever smack on the head to warmongers (“A bad enough situation/Is sure enough getting worse/Everybody’s crying justice/Just as long as there’s business first”).

To be fair, that’s just a guess about intent — Allison isn’t a big fan of explaining his songs too much, as it tends to deprive them of a little of their magic. But the ideals he does write seem to stand the test of the years. “I’m doing tunes now that I wrote 30 years ago, and people say to me, ‘Did you just write that?’ And I say, ‘Man, I’ve been writing that for 40 years!’ ”

These days, Allison keeps up a startlingly lively schedule of about 125 shows a year, most with a different ensemble he’ll pick up wherever his travels take him.

“I have top players all over,” he said. “Forty years ago I was trying to carry a trio around, and it got to be a pain — all the money goes to rent-a-cars and airplanes and hotels. And I realized that there’s good players in the cities I visit, so I’m able to assemble a bass player and drummer — and sometimes a guitar player or tenor man — everywhere I go.”

It’s a lot of work, but the idea of retirement doesn’t seem to cross his mind. “(Music is) what I’ve always done. I’ve never been able to figure it out — no jazz player ever has. But I get satisfaction out of it every night.”


About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

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