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MOSE ALLISON,
1927-2016

Mose Allison, the jazz pianist whose eclectic approach to modern jazz was a fusion of Duke Ellington, Hank Williams, blues, early R&B and comic wit, died today in Hilton Head, S.C., his son John reported. Allison had turned 89 on Friday.

While Allison’s name never hit household levels while he was recording extensively in the late 1950s and 1960s, his songs were covered by a who’s who of rock acts. The Who had an underground hit with his “Young Man’s Blues”; The Clash did “Look Here” on Sandinista; Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt recorded versions of “Everybody’s Crying Mercy.” Van Morrison recorded an entire album of Allison songs and employed him as an opening act.

But one song—a tune Allison associated with sharecropping that he dropped from his sets decades ago—was recorded more than all others. “Parchman Farm,” an adaptation of Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm Blues,” was first released by Allison in 1957 and has since been recorded by The Who, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Jeff Buckley, Bobbie Gentry, Blues Image, Cactus, Hot Tuna and others.

Born in Tippo, Miss., Allison was a keen interpreter of Ellington, Willie Dixon, Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Percy Mayfield and lesser-known songs by contributors to the Great American Songbook. 

His Southern roots were consistently showing—for every sophisticated piano solo they was a lyric that celebrated the simpler side of life, the hardships of rural living or a note of caution about the big city. In a genre filled with high-intensity performances, Allison was a laid-back alternative, a casual conversationalist with an affinity for a sharp turn of phrase.

His laconic nature provided the perfect tone from delivering lines such as  “your mind is on vacation and your mouth is working overtime,” or  “you call it joggin’,” but I call it runnin’ around.”

After college at Mississippi and LSU, Allison moved to New York in 1956 and worked with Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Lester Young and other post-bop saxophonists before landing a recording deal with Prestige where he made a string of piano trio albums.

He moved to Columbia Records in 1960 and started to sing as well as lead his trio. After three albums, he moved to Atlantic Records in 1962 and released the albums that would fill his repertoire for the rest of his career: Swingin’ Machine, The Word From Mose, Wild Man on the Loose and Your Mind Is On Vacation among them. While other jazz acts tried to employ rock elements to make their sound more commercial, Allison stuck with what he knew, making only one album with an electric piano.

Atlantic attempted to position Allison as a blues artist, though he largely found his fan base in jazz circles and among the rock fans who heard musicians such as Pete Townshend proselytize about his greatness.

After recording intermittently, Allison had a run with Blue Note Records from 1987 to 2002. His final record was made with producer Joe Henry, who was having success helping veteran musicians return to the recording fold. Anti-released The Way of the World in 2010, Allison’s first studio album in 13 years.

Allison was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2013. He retired from performing earlier this year.

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