Maceo Parker’s Roots and Grooves was half genius, half missed opportunity

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The almost mythical groove of saxophonist Maceo Parker, best known for stints with James Brown and P-Funk, has always been a canny blending of styles from a long-past era. There’s the muscular bebop of Charlie Parker, the angular soul of Ray Charles, the playful R&B of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley.

Sometimes all in one cut.

So, it’s no surprise that Roots and Grooves – a live recording made during a European tour over the early part of 2007 and released on February 12, 2008 – finds Maceo Parker attempting another fun experiment with history and sound. The catch here is that he does it, and maybe for the very first time, with mixed results.

Parker has long traveled with a fairly large band, merrily referred to as “the greatest little funk orchestra on earth,” but here was featured with the expansive WDR Big Band Cologne. That works well early, then less so later.

The group provides a terrific backdrop for a Disc 1 tribute to Ray Charles, tearing through the opener, “Hallelujah I Love Her So” then settling into an elegant rhythm under the direction of conductor and arranger Michael Abene. In fact, it’s one of the most fully realized compliments ever paid to the late soul stirrer – sensitive, yet still swinging.

Most of the other titles are familiar, to be sure. But Abene and company dusted them with a polish that matched Charles’ later, often regal recordings.

Early on, there was an appropriate reverence to Roots and Grooves that perfectly offset Maceo Parker’s funky growl, both on the sax and on a sprinkling of rough-hewn vocals. In this way, you come to realize that tunes like “Busted,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Hit the Road, Jack,” “Georgia on My Mind” (recast here as moody retro-’60s avant-garde jazz) and “What I’d Say” worked like signposts for Parker’s nascent sound.

Unlike Ray Charles’ stuff, however, Parker’s doesn’t always clean up so well. That brings us to Disc 2, which was subtitled “Back to Funk.” While the soloists – in particular the greasy and great bassist Rodney “Skeet” Curtis – certainly acquit themselves well, the larger band behind them simply wasn’t limber enough to do justice to such glorious hip-shakers.

You can’t argue with the clustered brilliance inside the soloing group of horns on “To Be or Not to Be,” but the WDR Big Band Cologne can’t get down-home enough to connect. Maceo Parker’s backing group similarly marred standby party-starters like “Shake Everything You’ve Got,” and that timeless James Brown-era closer “Pass the Peas” – both of which shuffled along, too often sounding polite when they ought to be nasty and fun. (See Parker’s 1992 perfectly titled concert offering Life on Planet Groove.)

That doesn’t take away from what came before. Still, as transcendent as Disc 1 of Roots and Grooves so often was, best to leave it at that.

Jimmy Nelson

Jimmy Nelson

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Jimmy Nelson
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