Say the name Maceo Parker, and immediately the legendary R&B saxman’s longterm association with the late, great James Brown comes to mind. Brown always gets the props for redefining and revitalizing 60s soul music, but Maceo was right there with him, helping turn that forward thinking vision into an exciting reality with some of the decade’s tastiest and most iconic sax licks. Laying the groundwork for the later emergence of R&B-influenced saxmen like Grover Washington, Jr., David Sanborn and the current smooth jazz generation, Parker instinctively alternated between making his horn a melodic instrument, then a feisty, percussive musical weapon.
Depending on how steeped one is in R&B, Parker’s later work with George Clinton and Bootsy Collins might pop up in the conversation. But long before the Godfather of Soul entered the saxman’s musical picture, Parker was actually grooving heaviest on Ray Charles, who became one of the influential musical heroes of his life. The first disc of the truly epic double CD Roots & Grooves gloriously celebrates Parker’s connection to these roots, the eight tracks a loving but bluesy and soulful homage to his growing up years in North Carolina listening to early Charles tracks on the radio.
The hook that makes this more than simply a high energy covers date is that it teams the brilliant alto player with Germany’s renowned WDR Big Band—and from the first swinging blasts behind Parker’s horn on “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” “big” is the operative word. Given Parker’s sense of groove invention and the evergreen emotional power of Charles chestnuts like “Busted” and “Hit The Road Jack,” anyone might have expected this to be a dream match. But it’s more than that because Parker also sings with a gravelly, Charles-like perfection on these two songs, and even more poignantly on “You Don’t Know Me,” “Margie” and a magically moody “Georgia On My Mind.” Charles may have been declared deceased in body in 2004, but lives here again through Parker in haunting yet wonderful ways.
Getting “Back To Funk” (the title of the equally exhilarating Disc 2), the second part of Parker’s latest project is something of a wildly jazzy, impossibly funky jam retrospective on his best solo tracks. The concept is Parker having a blast revisiting his own rich catalog of classics, starting with “Uptown Up” and vibing right on through to a nearly 18 minute scorching take on “Pass The Peas.” Along the way, he keeps grooving on “To Be Or Not To Be,” “Off The Hook” (talk about a track living up to its title!), “Advanced Funk” (ditto!) and “Shake Everything You Got.” Throughout both sets, numerous WDR soloists step up to the plate and deliver the goods. Among them are guitarist Paul Shigihara (“I’m Busted”), alto saxophonists Heiner Wiberny (“Them That’s Got”) and Karolina Strassmayer (“To Be Or Not To Be”), and tenor saxophonists Olivier Peters (“What’d I Say”) and Paul Heller (“Hit the Road Jack”).
You can’t call too many recordings “instant classics” these days, but the term is appropriate here. It’s a stroll down memory lane with one of the guys who made funk what it was back in the day, played with as much energy and fire as he had 40 years ago.
To paraphrase a recent Grammy winning album title, Ray Charles was not the only genius who loved company—Parker, too, has a blast working with one of the hippest big bands in the world.