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While most sax players have followed in the footsteps of jazz legends like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, Maceo Parker has consistently marched to a different tune. Since his earliest days, he has gravitated to the more rhythmic and soulful end of the spectrum, following figures like Louis Jordan, Ray Charles and James Brown – all of whom were innovators, each pushing their respective sound and style to the point of becoming something entirely new. It was Parker’s recurring stints in Brown’s band, in fact, that not only produced some of the most enduring entries in the vast canon of American soul music, but also sowed the seeds of the funk revolution of the 1970s. In hindsight, Maceo Parker has been as innovative as the people whom he cites as his own influences.
Onstage, Parker served as the perfect foil to the Godfather of Soul – punctuating the frontman’s incendiary vocals and mesmerizing stage choreography with horn blasts that were equal parts melody and percussion. At the height of their collaborative powers, it was difficult to tell where the genius of one ended and the other began.
Parker left Brown’s band in 1970 to launch his own outfit, Maceo & All the King’s Men, but reconnected with Brown three years later – switching to alto sax and laying down horn tracks for Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” “Lickin’ Stick” and “Mother Popcorn.”
He released his first solo record, Us People, in 1974, followed a year later by Funky Music Machine. Throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he was a featured player with George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic and Bootsy Collins’ Rubber Band. After a brief hiatus, he returned to James Brown until the latter’s incarceration at the end of the 1980s.
Some of Parker’s more recent solo projects include Funk Overload, 1998, Made By Maceo (2003) and School’s In (2005). He joined the Heads Up International label with the 2008 release of Roots & Grooves, a two-disc set that positions him front and center with Germany’s WDR Big Band, arguably the hottest jazz orchestra on the European continent. Roots & Grooves is equal parts Ray Charles tribute and a showcase for some of Parker’s own classic material.
Without question, Parker’s body of work over the past four decades stands on its own merits, yet he sees the music as part of an even greater message. “At all my concerts, I try to say ‘love’ as many times as I can,” he says. “I think if we all use that word as much as we possibly can, the idea will flourish, and all that other negative stuff will diminish. So I’m definitely going to do what I think is my part by just showing the spirit of love throughout the word as much as I can.”
His most recent album, It’s All About Love (2018), exemplifies this message. It features the WDR Big Band once more, with beautiful arrangements by Michael Abene – all of which feature love in the title. It is a fitting celebration of Maceo’s 75th birthday (on Valentine’s Day, no less) and of the longevity and importance of his role in musical history.