Roots & Grooves
Heads Up International
As James Brown’s former horn man, alto saxophonist Maceo Parker knows his funk. His previous experience accounts for his later years aboard George Clinton’s Mothership and his time with Bootsy’s Rubber Band.
Because Parker epitomizes more funk than the jazz sound associated with the brass instrument, casting himself and his music against type has long played effectively as a unique niche. On Parker’s latest CD, a live double-disc recorded during his European Tour in February and March 2007, he breaks some new ground by collaborating with the masterful jazz WDR Big Band from Germany. Kicking the brass up a notch, translated by rock standards, amounts to trading in unplugged for an amped-up sound. In this way, the album is more “live” than usual but has less banter between songs.
The first disc of the two is dedicated to the signature song material associated with Ray Charles (“Busted” and “You Don’t Know Me”). Charles was the impetus for Parker joining WDR in that he’d always wanted to shape Charles’ songs for the big band realm in the full-bodied way Charles himself sang “Georgia” backed by an orchestra in the mid-1970s. Yet Parker’s gesture is more thoughtful than moving, mostly because he attempts to vocally imitate Charles instead of concentrating on giving those standards a new sound. This approach would be more appropriate if Parker were auditioning for the movie Ray.
Outside Charles’ material, Parker’s voice isn’t bad, it just ain’t Ray Charles. Someone should have told him that anyone attempting to sing “What I Say” with anything less than wanton sex dripping from his lips might as well be a Marcel Marceau impersonation. To be fair, once Parker reaches disc two, he hits more than his share of strides. The most notable songs are “To Be Or Not To Be” and the sharp, passionate, and funky encore of James Brown’s “Pass the Peas” made even more phenomenal by percussion virtuoso Dennis Chambers’ machine-gun solo. There’s no arguing that when Parker sticks entirely to the saxophone (whether alto or tenor), his own material, or at least funk to drive his point home, the target is better struck.
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