Thursday, April 3, 2008

Maceo Parker: Roots & Grooves

Heads Up International
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.3.08
Buy CD: Roots & Grooves

Maceo Parker isn't related to Charlie Parker, either genealogically or musically. 

Maceo, born in 1943, followed the paths of soul, R&B and funk; his idols were Louis Jordan, James Brown and Ray Charles. Parker came from a musical family, picked up the saxophone before his teens and played in a band with his brothers: one a drummer, the other a trombonist. 

Vocalist Ray Charles turned Parker on, and his sax style was based on emulating Charles' voice and phrasing. 

Then Parker's brother, Melvin (the drummer), was hired by James Brown; Melvin convinced his new boss that he also should take Maceo as part of the package. Brown agreed if Maceo would switch to baritone sax, which he did. 

Maceo Parker remained a fixture of Brown's band for six years, and then left to form his own group. Three years later, he returned to Brown, this time on alto sax. During the subsequent years, he alternated between Brown's band and several other funk groups before setting off on his own for good. 

Although I'm not a rabid fan of R&B or funk, this two-CD release is a true swinger. In large part, that's because Parker is supported by Germany's WDR Big Band, one of the hottest jazz orchestras on the European continent. It's truly a big band, with five trumpets, five trombones, six reeds, a B-3 organ and piano, two bassists and two drummers (who play on alternate CDs), a guitar and — last, but not least — a "conductor." 

The latter, Michael Abene, also arranged all the tunes. 

The first CD, dubbed A Tribute to Ray Charles, contains big band versions of six of the jazz great's most famous tunes. Parker is featured on alto sax and also handles all the vocals; he's not Charles, but he's more than adequate. 

All but one of the six tracks on the second disc, Back to Funk, are written by Maceo. 

Yes, the rhythmic beat and vocal lines are repetitive, but everything swings like crazy. You won't be able to keep your toes from tapping or your fingers from snapping. It's a fun, driving, two-hour excursion into bliss.

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