He hails from the Mississippi Delta, but his music possesses a cool that is forever cosmopolitan. He is viewed largely as a jazz and blues stylist, yet successive rock ‘n’ roll generations have championed his music. And while he has titled his first studio album in 12 years The Way of the World, Allison’s songs are often reflective of very singular, flawed souls.
Leave it to Joe Henry to appreciate those hapless contradictions. A bit of an artistic journeyman himself, especially when he switches roles from songwriter to producer, Henry is the renaissance artist that has helped rekindle the careers of Allen Toussaint, Bettye LaVette and Solomon Burke. That The Way of the World is being released through the rock and Americana renegade label Anti instead of a jazz stalwart like Blue Note (which issued a pair of concert recordings by Allison in 2001 and 2002) only enforces the sort of diverse, even indefinable audience his new music is now being aimed at.
But while the marketing devices may have changed, nothing within the acerbic cool of Allison’s songs has. They still percolate with bright jazz piano colors, sleek narratives and a studied, steady soulfulness. And, at age 82, they reveal a kind of sagely grace. But then his Prestige records from the ‘50s and Atlantic albums of the ‘60s did, too.
“My brain is always ticking, long as I am alive and kicking,” Allison sings with hushed, swing-savvy pride over a typically spry piano gallop on the album opening My Brain. The song is indicative of The Way of the World‘s playful demeanor. As with all of Allison’s greatest recordings, an almost purposely imperfect human underpinning prods the song along. The sentiments seem stubborn at times. But the delivery is discreetly cool, relaxed and a bit regal. It’s akin to placing a withered tomato in the sunshine for all to see, even though such placement is likely to rot the poor thing even more.
“I’m not the first, I’m not the most,” Allison sings with self-effacing assurance on Ask Me Nice. “Of this town, I am not the toast.” But listen to the solos by guitarist Greg Leisz and saxophonist Walter Smith III, which neatly augment the piano trio sound (rounded out by bassist David Piltch and the always distinctive drumming of Jay Bellarose) that has come to define Allison’s music over the decades, and you will discover another contradiction. Within Henry’s immensely respectful production, the aged ease that surrounds The Way of the World sounds positively youthful.
In that regard, Allison is more than the toast of the town. He’s the toast of his own World.