[JPL] Maceo Parker Still Funky After All These Years
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February 21, 2008
Still Funky After All These Years
By JIM FUSILLI
February 21, 2008; Page D7
When saxophonist Maceo Parker was in his early teens in Kinston, N.C., "I
had to find out what's me," the now 65-year-old musician told me during a
break last week in his current tour. "With everybody wanting to play jazz, I
decided I'll play funky. It'd be nice if I could play like Cannonball
[Adderly] or [John] Coltrane, but I'll just be really, really, really good
at playing funky."
And so Mr. Parker started his journey to become the funk sax player. In
1964, at age 21, he joined James Brown's band and soon his playing on alto,
tenor and baritone sax became an identifiable part of Brown's sound -- in
part because the singer frequently shouted out "Maceo!" on recordings and in
concerts. From there, Mr. Parker joined George Clinton's eclectic,
ultra-funky Parliament-Funkadelic groups, before returning to the Brown band
in 1984. He began playing in Prince's New Power Generation in the late 1990s
and worked in the studio with rock acts clamoring for his distinctive sax.
"They say, 'Why don't we get that guy who did that James Brown stuff?" the
ebullient and effusive Mr. Parker said of the musicians like Ani DiFranco,
Dave Matthews, Jane's Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers who have
featured him on their discs. "The way James called my name, they think, 'He
must be all right.' When they call me, they want me."
And, since the late 1980s, Mr. Parker has been leading his own band too,
mixing jazz and funk during countless concerts and on a dozen albums that
form a body of work both mature and fun.
Mr. Parker's latest recording finds him fronting not his own group but the
Cologne, Germany-based WDR Big Band. "Roots & Grooves" (Heads Up) is a
two-disc live set cut about a year ago: On the first CD, he plays and sings
the music of one of his early heroes, Ray Charles. Mr. Parker ensures that
the big band pays tribute to Charles's sax players -- including David
"Fathead" Newman and Hank Crawford, who both had an influence on Mr.
Parker's style. The second CD is pure Maceo Parker funk, including five of
his compositions and Brown's "Pass the Peas." The disc explodes as Dennis
Chambers, who also worked with Mr. Clinton, takes over the kit from the WDR
drummer and, along with Rodney Curtis on bass, sets a deep groove that Mr.
Parker gleefully, and characteristically, exploits.
Joe Zawinul, the ex-Adderly keyboardist and co-founder of Weather Report,
who has since died, recommended the WDR band to Mr. Parker's producers. Mr.
Parker, in turn, suggested the Charles tribute. He said he enjoyed the
temporary change of direction. "I experienced the big-band stuff in
college," he said, "but I never longed to work with a Count Basie. Ray
Charles, maybe. But having said that, it was great. I've always loved a lot
Clips from "Roots & Grooves":
You Don't Know Me2
Shake Everything You Got3
While Mr. Parker is probably best known for his staccato bleats, melodic
flourishes and impeccable timing over relentless percussion and modal
vamping by keyboards and guitars, the horn sections in which he played often
featured long, harmonically rich lines akin to the unison parts in big-band
music. "That big-band sort of phrasing," he said, "I've always done that.
That's me." It was King Curtis too, who also was an early influence on Mr.
Parker, as was trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, whose music, Mr. Parker said,
taught him that "if you play it right, intricate sounds simple."
On "Roots & Grooves," Mr. Parker's compositions are performed with a kind of
precision that seems contrary to the free-flowing funk Mr. Parker displays:
If a big-band soloist is granted 24 bars, he needs to complete his statement
before the band re-enters. But when Mr. Parker is running the show with his
own group, the vamping goes on as long as he likes. "There's no written
rules on how long or how short each tune has to be," he said. "I give a
signal -- touch my head, do a turn or something -- and we move on."
On Sunday night at the Roxy, here in Los Angeles, he conducted his
powerhouse band with a series of unorthodox gestures -- in one he appeared
to mimic a man bailing water from a leaky boat; in another, he looked like
he was spinning a carnival wheel -- and his eight backing musicians
responded. Mr. Parker allowed Greg Boyer on trombone and Ron Tooley on
trumpet plenty of space to solo, but the show's best moments came when
Messrs. Parker, Boyer and Tooley played knotty, smile-provoking lines
In a lively mood, Mr. Parker, who wore a light-gray suit he'd drenched in
sweat by the second number, donned a pair of sunglasses, imitated Charles's
walk, and sang an affecting version of "You Don't Know Me." It gave way to
"Uptown Up," a blast of funk that featured the horns and bassist Mr. Curtis,
who turned in a remarkable night's work. The group made Paul McCartney's "My
Love" a moving blues, and as if to indicate how well the horns know each
other -- Mr. Boyer also plays with Prince, while Mr. Tooley backed Brown --
they tossed in a bit of the R&B chestnut "Compared to What" amid Mr.
Parker's composition "Shake Everything You Got." What the horns played
together embodied Mr. Parker's philosophy of making the challenging sound
simple, as it often does on "Roots & Grooves."
"I've been playing in front of strangers since I started in the fifth
grade," Mr. Parker told me. "In the beginning it's all good -- your
grandmother is showing people your picture and telling you how great you
are. But when you go to the other side of town and they like you, you're
onto something. By the time I started with James Brown, what was inside of
me was longing to come out. I've been playing me for a long time."
Mr. Fusilli is the Journal's rock and pop music critic. Write to him at
jfusilli at wsj.com4.
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