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Maceo Parker Brings His Own Brand of Cool

In Music
Maceo Parker plays Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga on Wednesday, January 11.

Maceo Parker plays Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga on Wednesday, January 11.

Maceo Parker has played with some of the most iconic and eccentric personalities in music history. As James Brown’s sax man, he helped write the rules of modern R&B. As the musical director of George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, he led a sonic revolution in the ’70s. As part of Prince’s band, he’s helped him become one of the most in-demand live acts of this century. He’s worked on projects with everyone from Keith Richards to Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction.

The question is: how does he do it? How does he collaborate with pop’s oversized personalities without setting off a war of egos?

Duh, he’s Maceo.

“I’m easygoing,” said Parker by phone after winding up his extended New Year’s Eve duties. “I’ve got a real long, long, long, long chain before you get me out of my thing. I’m just one of those guys, I’ll open the door for you, you can go in the elevator first. If there’s a long line of cars, I’ll stop and let you in. I just do that.”

If Parker’s cool runs deep, it has also spread wide. “One of the things I never envisioned really is so many parents naming their kids Maceo,” he says. “Man, all over the world, I’m telling you. It’s crazy, really crazy. There was one time I had three little Maceos on stage. One of the left side of the stage, one in the center, one on the right. None of them knew each other, but they were all Maceo because of me.”

Parker has been recording with his own various bands off and on since the early 70s, winning a “Jammie” for Best Jazz Album in 2009 for his most recent album, the Ray Charles tribute Roots & Grooves.

When he comes to Montalvo in Saratoga on Wednesday, he brings a reputation for transcendent live shows that can stretch on for hours. He’s so known for epic partying he had to do four straight nights through New Year’s Eve last month, at Yoshi’s in San Francisco.

“People know what we’re going to bring, they know what we do. You’re going to get your party on, your dance on. That’s what we’re about,” says Parker. “I’m there for the people. They made a choice to come where I am, and I want to make it really worth their while. I’m there trying to give one hundred percent.”

It’s a work ethic that was certainly impressed upon him at a young age; he was only 21 when he started playing with Brown in the ’60s. Though the soul and funk icon was a careful arranger, he also relied on his legendary sidemen like Parker and trombonist Fred Wesley to keep his sound cutting-edge.

“When it came to ‘Maceo, time for you to blow,’ then I had to play what I hear, which is what is inside of me,” he remembers. “It was exciting, it was a little challenging. But then again, it wasn’t that much, because I was just playing me. Fred used to say ‘Man, I never seen anybody wake up out of a deep sleep and play as funky as Maceo.’ It’s all natural.”

It was a bit of a culture shock when he hooked up with Clinton’s spaced-out, psychedelic P-Funk crew, but he quickly made his mark.

“I really cherish the time I was with him. It was like a cult kind of thing, the following. It was cool, but coming from James Brown it was like ‘Whoa! Whoa! No, you can’t say that! No, you can’t do that! You can’t dress like that! You have to wear some kind of shoes. C’mon!’ I’m telling you, man, I was really thrown. Like, ‘what in the world is going on?’”

Parker has drawn from all of those experiences, but when he got the chance to set his own musical agenda, he discovered as a bandleader that the sound he really wanted to channel wasn’t so different from the one he had started out with in the first place.

“I’ve always had my concept of how I want to do it. It sort of resembles James Brown a little bit, because let’s face it, that turned out to be me, too,” he says. “It was James Brown, but it was also me.”

Rather than end up what he calls a “jack of all trades, master of none, “ he pushed his funk-based sound as hard and far as he could.

“That’s what I set out to do, and that’s what I did,” he said. “I guess it shows.”

Maceo Parker plays Wednesday, Jan. 11, at Montalvo Arts Center at 7:30pm; $44/$49.

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