Maceo Parker lives in a beautiful place as a saxophone player. He is not really considered a “jazz” player, but neither is he a cheesy purveyor of “smooth jazz”. Rather, Parker is a master of down-home funk, a player honed to perfection in the master class that was the James Brown band and given further blues-drenched cred among the P-Funk All-Stars. His music is good-time music, but it is rooted in blues and soul more than any happy pop. You dance to it, but you do so with serious intent.
The latest from Maceo Parker is a double-disc recording made live in Europe with the masterful WDR Big Band, a German jazz band that collaborates often and knows how to get the job done. The first disc is devoted to more traditional material associated with Ray Charles, the true father of the soul music with which Parker is normally associated. The second disc brings in Parker’s own drummer and bassist, the redoubtable Dennis Chambers and Rodney “Skeet Curtis, for a set of straight-up funk fueled by the big band’s undeniable brassy power.
The Ray Charles sides are fun and soulful, with Parker working out his blues language on several standards with a wider harmonic palette than most of what he plays in his own group. On these tunes — some groove/soul tunes like “Hit the Road Jack” and some more in the vein of jazz standards such as “You Don’t Know Me” — Parker often sounds like a nasty Cannonball Adderley, emphasizing his biting alto tone and blues know-how while still getting off some very sophisticated licks. Placed in contrast to the fine WDR soloists, Parker does not come off as any kind of hack but rather as a pleasing contrast. For example, Klaus Osterlon’s trumpet solo on “Margie” is much more free and wide-ranging than Parker’s snapping statement, but they complement each other nicely.
“Margie” and other tunes also feature Parker as a vocalist. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the leader sounds a good deal like Brother Ray on tunes like “Georgia on My Mind”, “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and “What I Say”. It’s not a slavish imitation but more like a sincere homage, and it’s performed with such obvious joy and affection that you can hardly be churlish and accuse Parker of failing to develop his own sound. In some pre-song banter, Parker admits that it has always been a dream to perform these tunes in front of a big band. And, in fact, the whole package is pretty much irresistible to hear as well — strong and cool and drenched in feeling. Of course, it’s equally true that these sides will always exist in the shadow of the great Ray Charles versions, which are flat-out masterpieces.
Maybe the best song on the first disc is “What I Say”, which sounds the least like the original in that it gives the 15 WDR horns the lead in establishing the groove and does not try to mimic the classic Ray/Raylettes call-and-response. When Parker plays his solo coming out of a stop by the band, its like the leader was wrestling a blues snake right before your eyes. Parker’s slightly muffled vocal articulation also works best here, as he floats atop the band’s sheer power.
During the Ray Charles set, some fans in the audience cry out for some pure Maceo Funk, and Parker has to tell them, politely, to settle down and wait. When it finally comes, on Disc Two of Roots and Grooves, you feel some of the relief that fan was waiting for. The power of the Chambers/Curtis rhythm team is matched perfectly with the strength of the big band, and organist Frank Chastenier and guitarist Paul Shigihara, wrap themselves right into the groove. On Parker’s “To Be or Not To Be”, the groove is staccato and vicious, with Chastenier’s clavinet like a dream, and blood-pumping give-and-take between the big band and the leader. Then, to everyone’s pleasant surprise, a second alto player, Karolina Strassmeyer, steps up and shows that the Maceo influence has been felt all around the world. Yeah!
There are plenty of groove pleasures throughout this second disc: the bold 12-bar theme played by the big band on “Advanced Funk”, the insane pocket on “Uptown Up”, the jittery theme and vocal on “Shake Everything You Got”, and the 17-minute version of the Parker classic “Pass the Peas”, featuring strong solos all around, including from Chambers, who slows the groove down and then plays with the inside of the beat like a puppeteer. (Yet I would prefer to pass on the two solos on the disc by the Electronic Wind Instrument, which suddenly drags the band back to some bad ’70s fusion gig.) The main pleasure of the funky half of this collection is in hearing a loaded big band get a crack at some genuine funk. It makes you wonder why this kind of thing is not done more often.
There are two musical trends afoot right now that Roots and Grooves sandwiches, in a sense. The continued interest in “jam bands” has blissfully broadened from Grateful Dead and Phish spin-offs to include certain affirmatively funky jazz groups like Medeski, Martin & Wood and, yup, even Maceo Parker. At the same time, in city after city, “smooth jazz” formats are dying as the audience for such faux-funk Velveeta vanishes. Here’s hoping that radio stations and concert promoters both find more ways to program the authentic groove music of artists like Maceo Parker and the WDR Big Band. There is power and soul in discs like these, and it is a surface pleasure of the first order. Roots and Grooves is neither groundbreaking nor essential, but it certainly is fun.