James Brown got all of the headlines, be they for his fancy moves, his fancier suits or his brushes with the law. But the JB Horns, those great groovers who provided the punctuation to every grunt, gasp and squeal, remain an underrated element to the legend. Maceo Parker, the muscular saxophonist, has perhaps had the most solo success, but the truth is fellow saxist/arranger Pee Wee Ellis and trombonist Fred Wesley have often joined him on those projects. They remain, then as now, a unified front of fonk.
If you haven’t listened in since this trio was in Brown’s employ, check out these handful of rumbling, horn-driven R&B delights …
ROOTS REVISITED, MACEO PARKER (1990): Maceo recorded this, his first solo album in 15 years, when his employer at the time got thrown in jail on drugs and weapons charges; suddenly, he had time on his hands. So it can be said that something good did come out of James Browns’ legal problems: Good, organic funky soul with classic tunes by giants like Ray Charles (“Them That Got”), Charles Mingus (“Better Get Hit In Yo’ Soul”) and Sly Stone (“In Time”). “Children’s World,” a slight reworking of James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s World,” is worth the price of admission. Fred and Pee Wee stop by, as do Don Pullen, Bill Stewart and Bootsy Collins, an old friend from Parker’s days around P-Funk.
Pullen, who probably should have been represented on an overlooked jazz pianist list here, reveals himself to be a most capable B-3 player as well, serving up the grease by the ladle-fulls. Stewart, who was virtually unknown at the time of this 1990 release, is a world class drummer, perhaps one of the very finest today. And we all know what Bootsy can do. But the real star here is the triple threat horn lineup of Maceo, Fred and Pee Wee. Maceo’s alto sometimes recalls another Parker, but while the Bird could fly higher, Maceo’s grits ‘n’ gravy appeals to the heart and feet as well as the mind.
FUNKY GOOD TIME/LIVE, THE JB HORNS (1993): Aptly titled, this early 1990s from Gramavision, shows just how deep a bond these three guys still had. They’ve played together for so long, it’s like brothers finishing sentences for one another. As with so many classic live soul albums, the crowd becomes another growling instrument. Folks howl and grimace, they whoop and hoot — as, frankly, do these still-rocking JB Horns.
Everybody gets their solo turn, too: Pee Wee on the excellent “Blues for a L.S.,” Fred on “House Party” and Maceo on “Children’s World.” But, it’s the arm-in-arm revelry of the full-band tunes — horns tastefully basting each — that makes this such a funky find. Highlights, no surprise, are several songs from the James Brown era — including the title cut, and “Soul Power.
ROOTS AND GROOVES, MACEO PARKER (2008): Parker, he of the almost mythical groove, has always been a canny blending of styles from a long-past era. There’s the muscular bebop of Charlie Parker, the angular soul of Ray Charles, the playful R&B of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. Sometimes all in one cut. So, it’s no surprise that on “Roots and Grooves,” made during a European tour over early part of 2007, Parker attempts another fun experiment with history and sound.
Parker has long traveled with a fairly large band, merrily referred to as “the greatest little funk orchestra on earth,” but here is featured with the expansive WDR Big Band Cologne. That works well early, then less so later. The group provides a terrific backdrop for a Disc 1 tribute to Charles
— tearing through the opener, “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” then settling into an elegant rhythm under the direction of conductor and arranger Michael Abene. In fact, it’s the most fully realized compliment paid to the late soul stirrer that I’ve heard so far — sensitive, yet still swinging. Most of the other titles are familiar, to be sure. But Abene and company dust them with a polish that matched Charles’ later, often regal recordings. Stick with that, rather than moving on to Disc 2, subtitled “Back to Funk.” While the soloists — in particular the greasy and great bassist Rodney “Skeet” Curtis — certainly acquit themselves well, the larger band behind them simply isn’t limber enough to do justice to such glorious hip-shakers.
BLUES MISSION, PEE WEE ELLIS (1992): The first bonafide solo release by Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, one of the funkiest homo sapiens anywhere. Happily included are updated versions of his seminal pieces with James Brown — the immortal, groundbreaking “Cold Sweat,” a sort of emancipation for jazz in the form of a soul-funk voting card. This song is perhaps the apex of his late-1960s stint in the Brown band — a period that included Ellis-arranged hits like “In the Middle,” “Popcorn” and “Soul Pride” — but that’s not the end of the line for our man Pee Wee.
Ten years after leaving the Brown band, Ellis came on as bandleader and arranger for Van Morrison, a pairing that lasted until 1986. Since, Ellis has been regrouped with Parker and Fred Wesley from the old band, and appearing on sideman projects. This studio album seemed to point up one inalieable fact: We need guys like Pee Wee moving and grooving. From the smooth soul of “Yellin’ Blue” all the way until the monster title track, Ellis remains hip and healthily cool. Most pleasingly, early stints with jazzers like Ron Carter, Chuck Mangione and Sonny Rollins also emerge. Stir in liberally with the swimming funk of Brown and the high emotion of Morrison, and you have a mission of your own: Go get this thing. The band is wah-wah wow … including drummer Clyde Stubblefield, who sat in with Ellis on Brown’s “Mother Popcorn.”
LIFE ON PLANET GROOVE, MACEO PARKER (1992): As solo recording in name only, Life includes all of the JB Horns recorded live in concert at the raucous Stadtgarten club in Cologne, Germany. Several Brown favorites, including “Pass the Peas” and a rollicking update of “Soul Power,” are included — as are a smattering of sizzling originals, including “Shake Everything You’ve Got” and “Got to Get U.”
Parker puts it all in perspective during the opening track here — saying: “We like to play two percent jazz … and 98 percent funky stuff.” Enough said, right?
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