That wasn’t lost on the March 16 crowd that gathered at the Westcott Theater, 524 Westcott St., to see Maceo Parker
and his band, the idiom’s leading proponents. For more than 2½ hours,
Parker’s 10-piece group laid down an unrelenting, bottom-heavy pulse
that had the medium-sized crowd continuously in motion, if not dancing
and throbbing to the irresistible beat. It was an evening of extended
grooves, both predictable and satisfying.
As funk’s towering icon, Parker brought
an impeccable resume and a plethora of talents to the Westcott, the
former movie house that has been gutted of its seats in order to morph
into a defacto club, complete with professional stage lighting and bars
for food and drink. The changes work both by design and by accident:
The format makes it easy to get close to the action, while the
ex-bijou’s sloping floor allows a decent view of the action even from
the very back, where it’s less of a jam.
Serving as the lead soloist on alto sax,
Parker also played the congenial host, the band director, the featured
vocalist, the protean star of the show. His formative experiences with
funk’s seminal creators—James Brown, George Clinton and Bootsy
Collins—primed him to fashion his own leading role, supported on this
tour by a band that included trumpeter Ron Tooley and trombonist Tyrone Jefferson (both alumni of the James Brown band), plus bassist Rodney “Skeet” Curtis (formerly of Parliament/Funkadelic), drummer Jamal Thomas and guitarist Bruno Spieght.
Everything that went down that night
was, well, funky right from the get-go, when pianist Speight nudged the
show into motion with an a capella introduction to a Spanish-flavored
riff called “Funky Fiesta,” intoned by backup singers Corey Parker and Neta Hall.
It wasn’t long before that segued into “Off The Hook,” a Parker staple
and a piece that sampled James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”
with vocal hip-hop elements. Original lyrics to Parker’s songs are
deliberately minimal, more like repetitive chants interspersed into the
mix as rhythm elements. “Make It Funky,” the next selection, worked the
same way, with extended funk riffs as a framework for Parker’s
signature sax solos, themselves condensed bursts of familiar
repetitions that serve more as punctuation than as creative verse. And
again the title was used as a call-and-response chant with an audience
that was eager to be part of the act.
Other Parker originals followed without
pause, much to the pleasure of a crowd that swelled slowly as the night
went on. The titles changed but the process held its course with
bassist Curtis glued primarily to the first and third beats of each
measure, funk’s signature element. Parker kept things fluid and
spontaneous by continuously tweaking the elements, the volume, the
vocals, the horn riffs, the instrumental solos.
Trumpeter Tooley used his spaces to toss
in jazz elements and flights into the upper register, while trombonist
Jefferson added paraphrases of former James Brown trombonist Fred
Wesley. Guitarist Speight, who stitched the evening into a closely sewn
brocade with his impeccable rhythm all night, added a Wes
Montgomery-like solo on “To Be or Not To Be,” a piece that also
featured a rapped-out recitation of part of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” by
Parker’s manager Natasha Maddison. “I thought it meant ‘to be
or not to be’ funky,” Parker quipped. Later Parker ceded the microphone
to the other Parker, who took center stage to add hip-hop vocals to the
So it went for the evening: an
uninterrupted drone of infectious rhythm, extended grooves that seldom
ventured away from a single chord, Parker’s unmistakable “popcorn” sax
stylings, good natured shtick from the star, an egalitarian flux of
familiar elements from the people that developed the form.
Conspicuously absent was Parker’s covers of Ray Charles’ songs,
something that he devoted a CD to on his 2008 double release, Roots and Grooves (Intuition). No one seemed to notice, or care. This crowd got what they came for, and they got it all night long.
Maceo Parker: The funky player had sax with the audience all night long during a recent gig at the Westcott Theater. MATT MUMAU PHOTO