Maceo Parker in Denver
Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom
March 12, 2010
Maceo Parker doesn't just play funk. He IS funk. He's one of the innovators, being there not just for its conception and birth, but for the child-rearing, shaping and development of the musical form. After extended stints with James Brown starting in the mid-60s, and later George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Parliament/Funkadelic through the 70s, he's been leading his own band and touring extensively since the early 90s. Friday night, he brought the funk to Denver for an infectious two-hour set.
As with any good funk band, well over half the songs they played had the word "funk" in the title or at least the lyrics. We heard "We're Gonna Make it Funky" and "(This Funk is)Off the Hook." He also worked in some of his old boss James Brown's tunes, like "Doin' it to Death (Gonna Have a Funky Good Time)," "Make it Funky," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "It's Too Funky in Here." That last tune got me to thinking about whether it is actually possible to get too funky. I think probably not, especially on a Friday night. In contrast, about three-quarters of the way through his set, Parker inexplicably threw in Paul McCartney's saccharine "My Love Does it Good." He actually recorded that song on the Dial Maceo CD from 2000, so he must like it and that's OK. But the point is, while that song was playing, it was decidedly not too funky in Cervantes.
Actually, I think getting too funky is a little like having too much fun: you can't do it. In fact, "fun" might as well be the root word of "funk." Not only that, this issue has been addressed in song. Some of you may remember this old chestnut:
Too much funk, that's news to me;
Too much funk, there must be;
A whole lotta times that I really stunk;
But I ain't never had too much funk.
Parker and his band have been called the tightest little funk orchestra on earth. They lived up to that reputation and spread dance fever throughout the concert hall, loosening and lubricating every neck in the place, as well as most of the other joints between necks and pinkie toes. Besides Parker on alto, occasional flute and vocals, the band included trumpet and trombone, keyboards, guitar, bass, drums and two backing singers. Parker and his bandmates dressed to impress. Parker himself wore a suit and tie, as did the balance of the horn section. They don't just sound good, they look good. In contrast to the theatrics of James Brown with his capes, and Parlament/Funkadelic with, well, everything including the kitchen sink, Parker's band just gets up there and plays; no gimmicks, just unadulterated funk.
Parker has a distinctive alto sax style. His phrases are often short and jagged, sometimes consisting of only a handful of notes, making them as much a part of the rhythm as they are melodic. This punches the funk groove even deeper. His vocals, while short on the type of anguish James Brown could pour out by the gallon, are authoritative and put him firmly in command of the incessantly throbbing funk.
Parker's latest album is 2008's Roots and Grooves, a double CD recorded with Germany's WDR Big Band. The first CD is a tribute to Parker's hero Ray Charles. Indeed, Parker's vocals even sound pretty close to Brother Ray, and on Friday night Parker performed "You Don't Know Me" from Charles' Country and Western days. The second CD is filled with big band funk. Friday night's show featured two from that disc: "Uptown Up" and "(This Funk is) Off the Hook." About midway through the set, the band paid tribute to NOLA funk with The Meters' "Hey Pocky A-Way." The band wrapped up their set with a perennial James Brown favorite, "Pass the Peas." As expected, it was funky.