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Maceo Parker: A Brand New Bag

Maceo Parker

Shouts of “Maceo!” by James Brown, both onstage and on albums, preceded solos by saxophonist Maceo Parker from the 1960s to the 1980s, giving him rare first-name fame.

Parker’s fiery playing with the Godfather of Soul didn’t hurt his recognition either. From his baritone sax lines on the hits “I Feel Good” and “Out of Sight” to trademark tenor and alto blasts on classics “Cold Sweat” and “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” Parker developed a reputation for versatility. What most of the public couldn’t know, until recently, was exactly how versatile he was.

Since starting a solo career in the early 1970s, Parker has also accompanied Brown and funk disciples from George Clinton and Bootsy Collins to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Prince, and even delved into jazz, from traditional (with keyboardist Larry Goldings) to smooth (saxophonist Dave Koz). Still, the 65-year-old Parker’s latest solo outing with the German WDR Big Band, the live double-CD Roots & Grooves (Heads Up), qualifies as a shock.

On the orchestral first disc, subtitled “Tribute to Ray Charles,” Parker not only plays, but sings lead as well, an uncanny re-creation of Brother Ray’s soulful, mournful rasp on Charles hits like “Busted,” “Georgia on My Mind” and “What’d I Say.”

“I’ve always sang,” Parker says by phone from a tour stop in Argentina in mid-December. “I have fun doing it, especially live. Once I started, I discovered that my natural voice was close to Ray’s. I saw him for the first time when I was in high school, and I was in awe, because he had David ‘Fathead’ Newman and Hank Crawford on saxophones. In the mid-1990s, I got to open for Ray for about three weeks on tour in Europe, and hang with him in dressing rooms and talk. After that, I thought, OK, my career can end now. I don’t have to do anything else.”

Both Charles (1930-2004) and Brown (1933-2006) influenced countless vocalists and musicians, particularly in the southeastern United States. Charles, born in Albany, Ga., treaded in R&B, gospel and blues to change the sound of popular music in the 1950s and 1960s. Brown, born in Barnwell, S.C., used gospel and rhythmic influences to spearhead the African-American musical transition from R&B to soul music and funk in the 1960s and 1970s.

“The years with James were very fulfilling,” Parker says. “A lot of fun, and at the same time a learning experience, since I started at age 21. As soon as James had an idea for a song, we’d be in the studio recording.”

Parker was born in 1943 in Kinston, N.C., where he still lives. The saxophonist grew up with a younger brother, drummer Melvin Parker (who’s now retired at age 63, and got Maceo the job with Brown when they both joined his band in 1964) and an older brother, trombonist Kellis Parker (1942-2000), who became a professor of entertainment law at Columbia University. Maceo had an advanced enough musical ear to try to emulate Charles’ vocal phrasing on his saxophone as a teenager.

“Between the ages of 10 and 15, I listened to all kinds of music with my brothers,” Parker says. “And Ray Charles’ music was always at the top. I remember saying to myself, ‘If I could play a ballad and get the same kind of feeling that Ray gets when he sings, then somebody’s going to like what I’m doing.'”

Disc two of Roots & Grooves, subtitled “Back to Funk,” captures the show’s second set and features mostly Parker’s instrumental originals. But the comparable lack of shock value is neutralized by the rhythm section changing from acoustic bassist John Goldsby and drummer Hans Dekker to Parliament/Funkadelic alumni Rodney “Skeet” Curtis (electric bass) and Dennis Chambers (drums). The instrumentals allow the WDR saxophonists (Karolina Strassmayer, Olivier Peters and Paul Heller) and trumpeters (John Marshall, Andy Haderer) to shine along with Parker.

The uncommon funk big band even covers the 1970s anthem “Pass the Peas,” written by Brown with manager Charles Bobbit and drummer John Starks. Parker recorded the original version with Brown, and leads the ensemble through a chanted 18-minute version to close the second disc.

“I can’t play live anywhere without getting requests for ‘Pass the Peas,'” he says. “I had no idea it sounded the way it did [on the new CD], because once I listened to it on really good speakers, I was floored.”

Parker played with both Curtis and Chambers in Clinton’s traveling P-Funk circus during the 1970s. The bassist is also a longtime member of Parker’s touring group, and they plan to reunite with the big band.

“The WDR is a great band to work with, and we’ve scheduled more dates for the summer,” Parker says.

Genius loves company.