September 18, 2003

Give it up to the Funk

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I’m really not much for history lessons, so on the off chance that you don’t know who Maceo Parker is, I’ll make this one brief. Does James Brown ring a bell? JB? The Godfather of Soul? I thought so. Well, not to take anything away from His Funkdom, but at the crest of JB’s wave of soul power, it was Maceo Parker’s saxophone that fueled the groove of the sex machine.

Last Thursday, Maceo’s funk train pulled into central state, I-town, the State Theatre to be exact, and from the opening tune his message was clear: “Catch the Groove.”

Playing to a crowd mixed with Ithacans and students from both Cornell and I.C., Maceo and his band (featuring Greg Boyer and Ron Tooley on trombone and trumpet, respectively) wasted no time spreading their jazzy brand of funk. The concert-goers had different ideas of what it meant to “Give it Up to the Funk,” as some were content to sit and enjoy Maceo’s sax while others just couldn’t contain the throbbing rhythm and let loose dancing in the aisles. Soon after the second song of his set Maceo admitted that “maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if everybody took a couple of steps forward,” and, heeding his advice, those interested in dancing made their way to the up to the stage to let the sax wash over them.

While the show certainly hit its peaks with Maceo’s soaring sax solos, peppered every now and then with “JBisms” like Shucks! and Good God!, any lover of soul knows that one man can’t make a groove stand on its own. In typical funk fashion the guitar and keyboard players lent their efforts to rhythm instead of melody, joining forces with the rest of Maceo’s orchestra to play background for the solos of Parker, Boyer and Tooley. Exceptions were made, of course, and throughout the night every member of the band had a chance to step into the spotlight and ride the groove instead of drive it. Notably, a blistering drum solo provided an exclamation point to a set full of impressive improvisation.

Fans of Maceo are undoubtedly familiar with the claim the sax player made on 1992’s Life on Planet Groove: “We gonna do it 2 percent jazz, 98 puh-cent funk-ee stuff!” And while this self-categorization held true for most of Maceo’s performance, jazz itself took on more than “two puh-cent” of the responsibility for the concert’s success. In a section of the show Maceo titled “Quiet Storms,” the stage was handed over to keyboardist Morris Hayes as the rest of the orchestra took a break to wipe their brows.

Hayes’s ten minutes were perhaps the most memorable of the night. The audience followed Maceo’s lead, reclining to enjoy the overwhelming mellow vibe of Hayes’s feathery notes. Hayes’s solo was a true funk recess, and on a personal note, the best lullaby I’ve ever heard.

Maceo returned to stage and right on cue Hayes’s spotlight faded. Yet jazz still refused to give way to funk as Maceo dedicated the first somber tune of his return to the late Luther Vandross. Some might say that it’s distasteful to play a concert on September 11 and not even mention its victims or heroes, but I found in Maceo’s tribute to Vandross enough of a memorial to go around, and I hope others did as well.

Next thing anyone knew the “shucks” were popping and the groove had returned. After the break, Maceo pounded out the crowd-pleasing “Shake Everything Ya’ Got” as well as “Move Your Body,” during which JB’s favorite sax-man knowingly or unknowingly let his son, Corey Parker, steal the show.

The younger Parker, who spent much of the show on back-up vocals, took the lead from his pops several times, most notably during “Move Your Body” and “Got to Get Ya.'” C-Parker’s free-flowing rap style proved to be an adrenaline shot at times when Maceo’s groove was becoming more repetitious than “funky.” Corey Parker didn’t just take the mic; he assaulted it, drenching his words over the background of his father’s sax and quenching the audience’s thirst for a splash of hip-hop.

I might, in fact, be inclined to say that Maceo’s half-an-hour encore would have been funk-overload (pun-intended) had Corey Parker not been there to keep the groove fresh. As it was, though, Maceo and his orchestra showed the crowds too many angles of the groove to make their three-hours on stage anything but funky fresh. We love you too, Maceo.

Archived article by Mark Harrison