Roots & Grooves
First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2008, Volume 15, #2
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Thu February 21, 2008, 06:30 AM CST
As an alumnus of bands that have been fronted by James Brown, George Clinton, and Prince, Maceo Parker doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone. His sonic blasts and insistent funky rhythms have been responsible for inducing more sweat and hip-shaking than almost anyone else alive. Dozens of times over the past two decades, his ecstatic musical excursions have rattled my bones, and he probably has saved me thousands of dollars in chiropractor and therapy bills.
On paper, the idea of Parker’s recording a tribute to Ray Charles sounds like a match made in Heaven. As one of the last, old-school sax wailers to remain active in the music business, Parker is, perhaps, better equipped than anyone for revisiting and reinterpreting Charles’ signature tunes. To be fair, he largely succeeds in his pursuits, although his choices of songs — which range from Hallelujah! I Love You So to Georgia on My Mind to Hit the Road Jack — are predictable. One wishes that he’d gone deeper into Charles’ catalogue, but at least Parker approaches the material with energy and enthusiasm, thus acquitting himself well throughout the opening half of Roots and Grooves.
Still, there is a level of looseness as well as a lack of polish to almost all of the performances, and over time, these become grating. Part of the blame has to lie with Parker’s choice of recording with the WDR Big Band of Cologne. The group’s big and brash sound fits Charles’ music perfectly, but the outfit is, at times, sloppy. Roots & Grooves is plagued by problems with the ensemble’s timing, and often, it is not until Parker joins the fray that the tunes get back on track. There is a lot of joy in this material, but it’s difficult not to wish for a little less feeling and a lot more precision in the execution of this tribute.
Unfortunately, things go even more awry during the latter half of Roots and Grooves. Dubbed Back to the Funk, the second disc in the collection features a concert performance by Parker and the WDR Big Band, and one wonders why the record company decided to release it. Though it features many tried and true staples from Parker’s standard live set, his playing is nowhere as assured as it is on his previous live albums such as 1992’s stellar Life on Planet Groove. Parker himself is in fine form, but he is constrained by his supporting cast. Ass-liberating stomps like Pass the Peas and Shake It with Everything You’ve Got just don’t sound as tight and rubbery in the big band setting as they do when they are played by his core group. Due to its size, the ensemble just doesn’t seem to possess the turn-on-a-dime chops that are needed for Parker’s musical vision to take full flight.
Roots & Grooves is a sincere homage from one musical great to another, and many listeners will find a lot to enjoy in the set. Given Parker’s tendency to revisit his previously recorded material, it hopefully won’t be too long before he re-imagines these Ray Charles’ classics in a small group format. That would be a tribute worth shouting about!
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box