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Maceo Parker: Roots & Grooves

Saxophonist Maceo Parker has a 45-year recording career built upon being the ultimate sideman, especially to James Brown. Parker’s occasional solo releases have never changed that legacy, or even appeared to try to. Until now. The live double-CD Roots & Grooves showcases the saxophonist’s surprising vocals on the opening tribute disc to Ray Charles, then torches 50 minutes of funk on the closer with the Parliament/Funkadelic alumni rhythm section of bassist Rodney “Skeet” Curtis and drummer Dennis Chambers.

Germany’s versatile WDR Big Band appears on both CDs, which is less surprising on the first. An instrumental arrangement of Charles’ composition “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” featuring Parker, Hammond organist Frank Chastenier and the WDR’s 14-piece horn section, lulls the listener into a false sense of security before the shock value starts. Parker then puts down his alto sax, takes the microphone, and becomes a frontman on “Busted,” singing in tones eerily reminiscent of Brother Ray, especially in Charles’ most versatile, pre-1970 era. Parker says he started out trying to match Charles’ vocal sound with his sax, but clearly that wasn’t the end of the influence.

WDR conductor Michael Abene’s arrangement of the ballad “You Don’t Know Me” enhances Parker’s post-1970 Charles mimicry. On a few pieces, reach exceeds grasp, like Abene’s pedestrian take on “Hit the Road Jack” and the seemingly forced “Margie.” But Chastenier’s electric piano, and Parker’s humor, enliven the delicate “Georgia on My Mind” before the expected closer “What’d I Say” delivers more than just the expected. The acoustic rhythm section of bassist John Goldsby and drummer Hans Dekker makes the R&B classic swing as Parker alternately sings, solos and works the adoring crowd.

For the second set, the rhythm section changes to Curtis, Parker’s longtime bassist, and all-world drummer Chambers. To its credit, the WDR changes as well-to a high-degree-of-difficulty funk big band, which eases the temptation to think of disc two as a retreaded disappointment. Parker’s instrumentals, “Uptown Up” and “Advanced Funk,” aren’t just vehicles for his solos. Each features outstanding trumpet work, by Andy Haderer and John Marshall, respectively.

“To Be or Not to Be” features a singing solo by WDR alto saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer, and “Off the Hook” a meaty bass break by Curtis. Both sport chanted choruses by Parker, and Chambers’ advanced funk drumming, which leaves spaces in exactly the right places. Parker isn’t quite James Brown, but he closes with a raucous, 18-minute version of “Pass the Peas,” the Godfather of Soul’s anthemic 1970s composition with Charles Bobbit and John Starks. WDR guitarist Paul Shigihara and saxophonists Paul Heller and Olivier Peters shine, and Chambers’ thunderous solos add fire to the funk.

Originally Published