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Photos by Andrzej Pilarczyk

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(w/ Rich Syracuse)
Caffe Lena
Saratoga, NY
October 4, 2009

by J Hunter

The moment you step into the entryway at Caffe Lena, history smacks you right in the mouth. A collage of newspaper clippings and advertisements lines the wall to your right, dotted with some of the greatest names in folk music history. If that isn’t enough for you, maybe the photos of Bob Dylan above the stairway (or the abstract take on the cover of Dylan’s seminal release Blonde on Blonde) will do the trick. Put simply, legends have walked through these doors, and Mose Allison fits right in.

This is a man who was lauded over fifty years ago for his brilliant mixture of melody and irony. Play me a contemporary piece that you think is a sharp comment on life and all its facets, and I’ll play you a Mose Allison song that did it better. Seeing this son of Mississippi in this distinguished bandbox of a performance space is a gift that keeps on giving. And even though publicity for this show was relatively low-key, Caffe Lena was wall-to-wall people as Allison and bassist Rich Syracuse wound their way to the stage. Last-minute walk-ups were out of luck, in every sense of the word.

Both sets began with lickety-split instrumental mash-ups of jazz, blues, ragtime, and even a few classical sounds. I found out later that this was Allison’s preferred method of “warming up”, though it certainly didn’t seem like there were any kinks in his piano playing. Allison’s in his 80s, and some of the high notes are beyond his reach nowadays, but his keyboard skills are still top-notch, reminiscent of other Delta piano men like Fats Waller, Professor Longhair, and Dr. John. Syracuse was a hell of a wingman on this evening, serving up intense solos of his own when he wasn’t laying his usual expert foundation, and his rapport with Allison was evidence of their longtime professional relationship.

Some of Allison’s material may be six decades old, but it hits like a Jon Stewart monologue: One second you’re laughing, and the next second you’re thinking, “Hey, he’s got a point there!” In short, Allison’s missiles are still finding live targets: He nailed everyone who howls about saving the ozone (but in the next moment claims, “I love my new hair sprayer!”) with “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde”; every reality-show contestant needs to hear “What’s Your Movie”; the tripped-out lyrics to “Monsters of the Id” summed up every astroturfed wing-nut at this summer’s town-hall scream-fests (“Goblins and their trolls/Are trying to rig the polls…”), while “Your Mind is On Vacation” could be the soundtrack for a montage of radio talk-show hosts. And maybe I’m the only one, but I think “Your Molecular Structure” (Best… pick-up pitch… EVER!) should be the new theme song for The Big Bang Theory – goodness knows it’s funnier than anything or anyone on the show itself.

We also got a quick tour of Allison’s influences, and guess what? They’re wiseacres just like he is! “Meet Me at No Special Place” always seemed like it sprouted from the middle of Allison’s irony patch, but it was originally done by the pre-TV-fame Nat ‘king’ Cole. “Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me” (“And you never will…”) could sit right beside “Everybody’s Crying Mercy” and “Ever Since I Stole The Blues” as an Allison original, but Duke Ellington and Bob Russell actually came up with it. Even a song as innocuous as “You Are My Sunshine” got the Allison makeover treatment, becoming way darker than former Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis ever imagined when he wrote the song in 1939.

Standing next to the wiseacres in Allison’s creative portfolio are blues icons like Muddy waters and Willie Dixon, because the blues is at the base of almost everything Allison does. Before comedy told the truth, the blues did the job, and Allison embraced that attitude and never looked back. There’s a line in Dixon’s “I Love the Life I live” that sums up Allison, both at Caffe Lena and in general: “Next week I could be over the hill/I’m just tellin’ you people how I feel.” Even though stage logistics had him singing to the wall his stand-up piano was up against, Mose Allison was in our faces all night long. Dylan would have loved it.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.