Maceo Parker: Still Taking It To the Bridge
When Maceo Parker was the musical director of the JBs for funk architect James Brown throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the Godfather of Soul used to shout, “Maceo, take us to the bridge!” And Parker would blow a wicked funky sax solo to get from one point to the other of such hits as “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “Sex Machine.” Throughout the ’70s, the North Carolina native did the same thing for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame funk act Parliament-Funkadelic.
As frontman of his own successful band, Parker is still taking it to the bridge, but in more ways than ever. By combining jazz, R&B, rock and rap with groove-ilicious funky music, he is appealing to an equally diverse audience. Among the many fans of Parker’s magical mix are Prince, Ani DiFranco, James Taylor and Sheryl Crow, all of whom appeared on the saxman’s sixth solo album, “Dial: M-A-C-E-O,” released earlier this year on the Boulder, Colo.-based indie What Are Records? The horn legend returned the favor to Prince and DiFranco by blowing some funk into their latest releases.
Over the past weeks Parker brought his “funky stuff” to two big-time jazz festivals, while sharing the stage with several fellow icons of the jam scene: Bruce Hornsby at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York and Wayne Shorter, Al DiMeola, Chick Corea, John Zorn, Taj Mahal, Ray Charles, Jimmy Cliff and Medeski, Martin and Wood at the Montreal Jazz Festival.
Parker also recently reunited with James Brown for the first time in three years at the grand opening of Experience Music Project, an interactive museum in Seattle. Coming up, he’ll play Walther’s Grass Roots Music Festival with MMW, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, the David Grisman Quintet, Jazz Mandolin Project and Lake Trout. The festival will be 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Aug. 19 at Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville, Md. For more information, call 410-887-1818 or visit the website.
Always on the road with his band, which includes his rapper son Corey Parker, Parker spoke to me between gigs about the past, present and future of his groove-ilicious career. For more information, visit W.A.R.? Records’ website at www.war.com
BM: Congratulations. You may be the only musician who’s made James Taylor sound funky.
(Laughs) No, James Taylor’s funky, man. He can be funky when he wants to be. He did a tune called ‘Mockingbird’ that was soooo funky.
BM: That’s true, with Carly Simon.
BM: Now you’ve been working with Ani DiFranco and Prince a lot in recent years. Comment on what you’ve liked most about working with them.
Well, you get to the point where you appreciate greatness (laughs). Ani, I just love her. She has a great voice. She can sing anything she likes. She chooses to sing folk with the acoustic guitar and all of that, but I knew she could do something funky. That’s why I wrote the song (“Coin Toss”). I just appreciate the fact that I could be that close to someone who can be really, really good at all these different styles.
And Prince, what more can you say? I would say he’s as close to genius as ever someone that I’ve been in contact with. He can do almost anything very well: play all the rhythm instruments very well and all the other stuff that he can do. I’m just in awe to be in the same room. Now I’ve gotten to the point where he’ll show me a video or something. And I’m there watching the video and I’m watching him at the same time. It just makes me feel that I have come full circle. I have done something right to make all this possible. I can smile and say that the trip has been worthwhile if it leads to the company of Prince.
BM: Other than your saxophone, Prince plays all the instruments on the ‘Dial: M-A-C-E-O’ track ‘The Greatest Romance Ever Sold.’ It sounds like you hold Prince in higher regard than James Brown and P-Funk, which are two of his biggest influences.
Well he’s done more I’d say. I can’t think of anybody else who’s done the different movies that he’s done, had all the big, big, big, big hits, can work all the instruments really well like he can do and run the studio board. That’s why I hold him a little bit higher than anybody else. Everybody’s experts in their own little thing, but he has so many other things that he’s expert in. He can sing really, really high and then really, really low. His range is uncommon too.
BM: What do you like most about working with your rapper son Corey Parker? What does he bring to your music that wouldn’t be there otherwise?
I never envisioned any of my kids working with me. He was an engineering major at North Carolina State. He got to a point where he wasn’t sure if he wanted to complete that to become an engineer. Before some of my music was released, I let him hear it. So he had some of my music and words just started coming to him. I don’t know if he tried his hand at writing rap before, but he tried and it came to the point where he was like, ‘I think I’ll let dad hear this.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, you did this?’ He thought at the time that somebody else could rap it, and I said, ‘No, no. Ain’t nobody else can rap your words like you can do it. They probably wouldn’t even interpret it the same way. Why don’t you came out and try it?’ So he decided to give it a shot.
And he loves the stage. He loves what he’s doing. And what it brings is another level of excitement and energy. Rap is part of what’s happening today. It makes the show well-rounded now. We have a female vocalist now. We have the instrumental music. I fool around with the microphone a little bit. I’ve got another guy that fools around a little. We can do some Sam & Dave stuff. And we can do the rap now. So all the elements are there. It just makes for a nice, well-rounded show. And I’m very, very happy that I also can say that Corey is my son (laughs).
BM: How does it make you feel to be a veteran musician whose energy, whose groove not only draws but exhausts a young crowd, gets them to shake their booties till they’re tired?
(Laughs) Most times I have to count on my fingers, ‘Wait, how old am I?’ These people come year after year after year, month after month. They like what we do. I just feel that what we do is worthwhile because so many people are there, so many people come back and really like and support what we do. Maybe they can draw something from what we do. As long as I feel that it’s worthwhile, I’ll continue to try to do it. We go continuously throughout the world to different places and people come to where we are. New doors are opening continuously. We feel it’s almost to the point where it’s never ending. I’ve been feeling the past five or six years that finally all that I’ve done that led up to this — having my own group, first of all, and people liking what we do and the direction that we’ve gone and the saxophone playing and all of that — it just makes you know that you’ve done something worthwhile and that you’ve made the right decisions.