At almost 70 years of age, Maceo Parker is a bit of an American treasure. Sure, some may argue that he lucked his way into his position as James Brown’s saxophone player in 1964 — as the artist has said time and time again, the Godfather of Soul originally wanted his brother, Melvin, to join his band as a drummer, though agreed to take Maceo on as long as he could find his own baritone sax to play in Brown’s touring band — but you certainly can’t dispute how much work he put into taking full advantage of such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
He doesn’t really have a checkered past. You’d have to search far and wide to find anybody who would say a bad thing about him, and even then you might not come up with anything substantial. He’s worked with a who’s who in soul/funk music history: Parliament, Bootsy Collins, George Clinton, Prince, and don’t forget the aforementioned Brown. His story is one of unabashed normalcy. Kid grows up watching his uncle play in gig bands in North Carolina. Kid gets in gig bands himself. Kid goes off to college. Kid lands gigs on weekends with said gig bands. Kid works his way into a lucky situation. And the rest is history.
Part of that Americana story is what makes his latest set, Soul Classics, so impressive. For being just a simple man, from a simple town, Parker sure knows how to lead a big band through some of the most affecting soul music created in the modern day, even if that music is merely an interpretation of yesteryear compositions. From his big-name former boss, all the way up to one of the saxophonist’s own originals, this 10-track (nine song) set proves how expansive Parker can be in the live setting, both from an exceptionally profound skill level, and on a somewhat unexpectedly solid showmanship platform. This isn’t just great funk music — this is a college course, and Parker has a PhD.
Recorded with the WDR Big Band Cologne in November 2011 in front of a live audience, Soul Classics is far from what one may expect upon hearing the term “big band” along with the night’s performer. In fact, some of the best moments of the disc come when Christian McBride and Cora Coleman-Dunham — the only two musicians here outside of Maceo not in the WDR group — are allowed to showcase their impeccable rhythm section chops. “Soul Power”, for instance, is a crash course in syncopation as McBride’s bass guitar burns like the most impassioned blaze of funk and Coleman-Dunham’s lightning quick fills accentuate the intricacies of both players’ performances. If it’s not the best take on the James Brown classic, it’s got to be in the top 10.
And who knew Parker could carry a set of vocal tracks so well at this point in his life? “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” and “Yesterday I Had The Blues” feature a surprisingly soulful voice, the most unexpected of which comes during the latter, when the saxophonist suggests he more than knows his way around a good blues vocal. Funk and soul, we knew he could conquer, but hearing him effortlessly convey such an emotionally driven performance of the Gamble and Huff classic makes you wonder why he doesn’t opt for the microphone more often.
The most brilliant moments come during the band’s take on Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady”, easily the best track of the bunch. Parker’s funky crooning is overshadowed by the expertise McBride and Coleman-Dunham display during this nearly-7-minute stomp through some of the nastiest grooves put on record in recent memory. It serves as a fantastic tribute to one of Franklin’s overlooked hits and there isn’t a single member of the WDR group who doesn’t shine for at least a moment or two during this performance. It proves precisely how poignant funk music can be when done correctly.
Some may argue the collection suffers when Parker decides to slow it down, such as he does with Isaac Hayes’ “Do Your Thing”, but those who say as much simply aren’t paying attention. An instrumental riff on one of the Stax icon’s more slithering tracks, the performance illustrates how versatile Parker is when it comes to melody. His sax performance all but makes the original recording seem obsolete, or, at the very least, over-produced. Who needs vocals when you have a horn instrument that’s this emotive?
Actually, who needs any other live soul showcase when the nine songs that paint Soul Classics are this … good? Sure, Maceo Parker isn’t reinventing the wheel with any of these performances, but damnit if he can’t still offer up some down and dirty, body-shakin’, move-makin’, tail-wavin’ funk music to soothe our souls whenever we feel deprived of such excellent, essential-to-life amenities. And in a world obsessed with musical production tricks covered in sugar and pop stars concentrated more on image than talent, what other 69-year-old saxophone player can lay claim to that?
An American treasure, indeed.