Yep, that’s the way sax legend Maceo Parker tells it. The late, great Ray Charles has always been one of his chief inspirations, even if that isn’t the first name to pop into your head when jutting and strutting to the thump of his funk anthem “Pass the Peas.”
“You know what I had rolling through my mind when he died?” Parker asks. “What’s going to happen to all his musicians? What are they going to do? Then I thought to myself, Wouldn’t it be nice if I could get someone to back it and I could start using Ray Charles’s band? Wouldn’t that be … wouldn’t that be … cute?”
Cute as hell if you can wrap your mind around it.
As Parker spins the story, this dream about fronting a big band has been flitting around for a number of years now. Still, the backing didn’t materialize and the proverbial cards never fell into place. The master of funk settled for spreading his love by augmenting his live repertoire with such Charles’ R&B classics as “I’m Busted” and “Them That’s Got.” But such pie-in-the-sky ideals don’t simply die ugly, silent deaths—at least not for dreamers like Parker. No, for this James Brown, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins veteran of funk, such potent flights of fancy invariably discover innovative ways of reaching fruition.
So the story continues with WDR Big Band, a Grammy Award-winning group of musicians straight out of Cologne, Germany. They rehearse nonstop, rising each morning and trudging into work. To mix things up a bit, to keep from getting sick and tired of looking at the same faces and hearing the same damn bleets and blats day in and day out, they solicit various guest artists for some much-needed spice. One of those guest artists (specifically Joe Zawinal who penned the hit “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” for Cannonball Adderley) recommends to the group that if they really want to break the monotony, really want to throw a wrench in their regular old millworks, they should, “Dial M.A.C.E.O.”
“Just as soon as I got the word,” Parker explains. “I mean, as soon as my manager said ‘Big Band’—my brain automatically flew right back to Ray Charles. Because I thought, ‘Oh boy, when they announce me like, “And now, give a big round of applause, Maceo Parker,” I’ll just come out with those shades and that Ray Charles swagger.’ As I envisioned the whole thing, I’d walk to the center stage, set my sax down and continue that sly walk back over to the piano. I could start the set just like Ray would.”
Oh, the stuff that dreams are made of. Parker never got to play with Ray’s actual band, but the big band was close enough. Furthermore, his crack at candidly embodying the late Ray Charles himself, all the while fronting WDR in a series of European live shows, seems to have handsomely paid off. Not only did he end up with enough great material to release the double-disc Roots & Grooves (Heads Up, 2008), he produced additional works entirely dedicated to such notable Charles’ hits as “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” “Margie,” “Hit the Road Jack” and “What’d I Say.”
Still, it’s that choice to imitate Charles’ style so closely that could also arguably be the one thing holding those much-beloved funkified reins back—and come on, is it not that deep-down rooted stanky funk pumping through the heart of Parker that we all know and love so well? For example, particularly on the two ballads “You Don’t Know Me” and “Georgia on My Mind,” Parker sounds so much like Charles that it truly is hard to distinguish the two apart. If it weren’t for the telltale occasional exuberant grunt sneaking its percussive way out between all those blasting horns, you probably wouldn’t even know it was Parker up there shaking everything he’s got. Luckily, those few shortcomings are just that, few and far between. Not to mention that the entire second disc is all big band Maceo Parker funk, all the time.
“We included an entire disc of all my standard tunes coming from a sort of different perspective, a big-band perspective,” Parker says. “It was very rewarding and exciting for me. I was really thankful that WDR happened to choose me as one that they wanted to play with. Not only did I finally get to play all those Ray Charles tunes I love so much with a full band, I also got to play around with my own work. That’s something that definitely helps an old man stay fresh and able to spread his particular dream of funk, love and peace.”
MACEO PARKER @ The Paladium, 615 N. 400 West, Friday Feb. 15, 9:30 p.m. 521-4573, PaladiumSLC.com