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Maceo Parker is one of the great stylists of the saxophone. His total approach to rhythm, harmony, tone and attack creates a musical energy of enormous power, which over the years has lifted the most mundane music out of obscurity.
Born in 1943, Parker came through the ranks of the James Brown band in its innovative 1960s heyday, and went on to play with Bootsy Collins’s landmark Funkadelic organisation. Only recently, he was part of Prince’s after-hours parties at this same London venue. Parker is at the heart of jazz-funk fusion and at this gig there was more than a hint that he was a “keeper of the flame” – references to past glories were scattered throughout and half the band had worked in one classic band or another.
Parker turned bandleader in the early 1990s and has now developed an on-stage demeanour that combines the smiling warmth of Louis Armstrong with a few moves and vocal delivery straight from James Brown. There is still lots of sax, and all the musicians get at least one feature, but with too much toasting and chat, he is veering dangerously close to cosy cabaret territory. He remains an incredibly exciting saxophonist and he has a great band, but the middle sagged with too many references to L.O.V.E. while his manager reciting Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy was, frankly, bizarre.
That said, large chunks of the gig captured the power, energy and intelligence of this edgy club music, and for the large part lived up to the opening chant “This Funk is off the Hook”. The rhythm section is built from the bass up – bone-crunching riffs and just the right amount of decoration to fill in the gaps – and both guitar and keyboards proved in their fluent, multi-styled solos that they were much more than squad players. And they really are tight. UK trombonist Dennis Rollins’s raucous freebooting and vocalist Martha High’s funky reworking of “Think” were both crowd-raisers, and an encore of “Pass the Peas” was just about deserved. I’d just like more of Maceo’s playing-the-spaces alto-sax. He zips into places that make even the familiar seem cutting-edge.