Roots & Grooves
This is the third recent Heads Up release pairing West Germany’s WDR Big Band with icons, namely the Brecker Brothers, Joe Zawinul, and now a two-CD set with alto saxophonist Maceo Parker. As a teenager, Parker fell under the soulful influence of Ray Charles, and not long thereafter became an integral member of James Brown’s band – first on baritone, then tenor, and finally alto. Even those listeners who could care less about the names of backing horn players could not help but know of Parker. “Hey Maceo,” Brown shouts out in the midst of more than one hit record. “Play your horn!” Parker has since kept busy as a sideman with P-Funk, Bootsy Collins, and his own well-documented funk projects.
That the WDR Big Band hires great musicians and pays them a salary to rehearse daily doesn’t hurt these live concert recordings one bit. Disc One features Parker singing and soloing in dedication to his idol Ray Charles. Michael Abene’s exquisite big band arrangements provide the perfect impetus for Parker’s bright and bouncy alto style. Parker’s sense of melody and time are ageless, and he consistently spins out enticing solos. “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and “Them That’s Got” are stellar, the latter finding Parker riding the crest of a wave skillfully created by Abene’s best arrangement on these CDs.
Disc Two is a set of driving Maceo tunes, with all-star bassist Rodney “Skeet” Curtis and funkmeister drummer Dennis Chambers added to the WDR Big Band. What a difference this rhythm section makes while playing tunes that are 95-percent groove-reliant. “Uptown Up,” “To Be or Not to Be,” “Off the Hook,” “Advanced Funk,” “Shake Everything You Got,” and a 17-minute excursion through James Brown’s “Pass the Peas” – featuring Chambers’ lengthy drum solo – break the proceedings wide open, with all the horns wailing before a pumped-up European audience. Parker’s playing is at its unequivocal best throughout. What better tribute to his life’s work (and Ray Charles’) than to have several well-recorded hours in the spotlight backed by a fit-to-order, kick-ass big band?
- James Rozzi