Twilight zone of funk

Maceo Parker is the last of a dying breed. As one of music’s last true superstar sidemen, Parker has played his signature stuttering and stammering saxophone lines all over some of soul music’s most beloved songs. That’s him accenting James Brown’s grunts on classics such as “I Feel Good,” “Out of Sight,” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”—not to mention his stint backing Parlament-Funkadelic in the 1970s.

Life on planet groove: Funk icon Maceo Parker helped shape the pop music of the 1960s during his turn backing soul legend James Brown. Photo By Ines Kaiser

His lifelong dedication to the craft of being one of music’s funkiest players is evident in the slightly bittersweet tinge in his voice when he speaks about how music has become less about being in a tight band, and more about being a master of technology in the last 20 years.

“If you happen to be lucky enough to be able to do something with a computer and put lyrics together that people notice, you can sell a lot of music really quick,” Parker explains. “People look at that and want to create by themselves. People don’t want to grab a guitar, grab a horn and take the time to get good. It takes time, and I think people just don’t want to do it anymore.”

But this isn’t the rambling of a bitter musician raging against the latest crop of whippersnappers and their newfangled ways. Instead, Parker is speaking with a reverence towards the interaction of musicians as if it were something holy. This interaction is evident on Roots and Grooves (2007, Heads Up International), Parker’s latest offering.

On the album, he shuffles through a selection of Ray Charles songs that shows the reverence and musical muscle of the late soul singer, while crafting a disc of pure, unadulterated funk. The album is classic Maceo Parker: refined yet raw, loose yet tight. It takes the listener to a place that Parker musically inhabits, which he calls the funky side.

“I started out trying to play everything: jazz, soul and R&B,” he says. “But, by the time I got to high school, I just decided to stay on the funky side.”

When Parker speaks of this funky side, it’s with a combination of joy and sinister abandon. His speaking voice is almost like his horn playing, going in an instant from a graceful and poignant story about his idolization of Ray Charles to a percussive, almost beat-box-like collection of humming and singing when describing the music he holds so dear. If the funky side is a place like the Twilight Zone, then consider Parker its Rod Serling.

“I realized that it’s a God-given talent to hear those funky lines that I play,” he says. “It’s comfortable for me to just be funky and to just play funky.”

But Parker’s discovery of the parallel universe had just as much to do with economics as it did with a musical calling. Before he became an icon of funk, he was a struggling musician looking for a steady job.

“When I was a college student, nobody wanted to play funky, everybody wanted to play jazzy,” he recalls. “It got to the point where all the saxophone players wanted to play jazz. So when it came time to put a band together, there were all these people to pick and choose from. It got rough. But when you looked at the funky side, it seemed like nobody wanted to play funky. So when it came time to pick and choose, there weren’t a lot of people that wanted to play funky. There were three or four people on the funky side, and 35 or 40 people on the jazz side.”

But if sheer economics is what brought Parker over to the funky side, it was the love and immediacy of the music that has kept him there for the last 41 years. He’s a living, breathing link from the stuffed shirt jazz world to the less buttoned-down world of funk.

“I like the freedom that funky music has; it doesn’t have restrictions,” Parker says. “Jazz has restrictions—you have to let the bass player play, you have to let the drummer play. But funky is like, ‘It’s okay if you didn’t win the game, we’re partying first. Worry about something else later.’ It’s New Year’s Eve, Christmas night, Christmas day, your wedding day—it’s the reception or a baby shower—that’s what funky music is … a chance to get your party on.”

According to Parker, funk is there to take the listener’s mind off the bad things in the world. He claims that funk music is saying “right now, we are just having fun. This is the funky side and this is a celebration.”

And who are we to argue with Prime Minister of the Funky Side?

[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]

who: Maceo Parker with Grand Pianoramax, and featuring Celena Glenn
what: Funk icon four decades in the making
where: Orange Peel
when: Sunday, Feb. 10 (8 p.m. $24. or 225-5851)

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