MACEO PARKER, FRED WESTLEY & THE JBs / Funk Forever Mixtape
Funk is the further evolution of rhythm and blues to an ecstatic apogee of harmony and melody in the service of the beat—a pledge of allegiance to the groove. James Brown is the godfather of funk, the maestro and chief innovator but he didn’t create funk by himself. He had help. Plenty help, expert help from a band that eventually became known as The JBs, led by trombonist Fred Westley and saxophonist Maceo Parker.
Because of Brown’s famous, recorded exhortations—blow, Maceo, blow (and boy did Maceo blow!)—Maceo Parker (initially on baritone saxophone, then famously on tenor saxophone, and finally/legendarily on alto saxophone) is the better known of the two men central to the development of the super-heavy funk. Although Maceo was the chief soloist, the musical director was Fred Westley. Fred was mucho adept at melding various genres of music, especially the improvisatory depth of a good jazz musician and the gritty groove of a good blues-based, R&B artist.
The James Brown band was far, far more than simply an aggregation of journeymen just doing whatever JB told them to do. The JBs were uber-talented technicians of soul music. They understood the injunction to keep it on the good foot where the funk was more than just knee deep but they also had the expertise and elegance of expression that produced the awesome genre of music we so wildly celebrate today. Their secret was the harnessing of divergent snippets into a seamless tapestry of sound.
Pick any one of their grooves and you will hear distinctive elements, from celebrated bass lines to a rapid guitar chording technique that went by the moniker of “chicken scratch.” And don’t even begin to try and get a grip on the role of the drummers—that’s plural, more than one—really it was a percussion ensemble that included shakers, tambourines, cowbells and other small instruments that augmented the big beat on the bottom. When you listen for it, you will hear the plethora of beat-producing and beat-augmenting instruments providing value-added percussion that rolled together into a river of rhythm that swept everything along surging in an unstoppable current of funk.
Many people have made the mistake of thinking funk music is technically rudimentary and easy to play. Sure the songs sometimes had only two chords, one for the verse, one for the bridge, even though the music would go on for a quarter hour or more. All the imitation bands would practice for days learning to play unison ensemble parts, and the predictable results would be boring music that verged on annoying noise.
Listen again to this funk. This is the highest form of industrial-era (mainly turn of the 20th century through the eighties) music with analog instruments, which is why after this came rap and disco, and shortly hip hop, all of which were music genres based on in-studio, computer added recording techniques, and eventually computer produced music with a pronounced digital flavor. (At a later time we can delve deeper into the sonic differences between analog and digital but for now I simply will focus on the funk.)
Listen to how the various band members are all playing different but related lines, it is the synchronizing of these differences (and not just their syncopation of off-beats) that is the essence of the funk. This is the African aesthetic re-emerged in an African-American cultural development. We have often heard that all the musicians with James Brown were playing rhythm but the important characteristic is that they were not all playing the same one-two-three-four. Brown’s band was a master of poly-rhythms that interlocked to produce a beat that no one or two musicians could do alone.
The guy playing the tambourine might have been doing something that technically it seemed a two-year old could do but listen again. Mr. Tambourine had to keep his groove while floating atop a different line from the bass player and the both of them had to constantly be aware of where the drummer’s one-drop on the snare was hitting. Plus, and here comes the spice in their secret sauce, the horn players in particular had a plethora of musical devices at their finger-tips learned from playing jazz, which emphasized harmonic knowledge.
Fred Westley was a fiend at devising little modulations from key to key within one song. Another distinguishing factor was their use of different keys—yes, it might have been the same beat but they often used a different key and thereby produced an always surprising bouquet of musical variations on seemingly melodically simple material.
Notice also that Fred Westley plays trombone, an instrument that is not common as a lead voice in post World War II music. What kept Fred at the forefront of the JB aggregation was not his prowess as a soloist but precisely his talents as a musical director: an innovative arranger of music and a superb conductor of musicians. The contribution of the musical director is too often overlooked when people analyze the funk.
If you pay attention you will find that the dynamic range of this music is an awesome wonder. Every time you think you understand the formula they throw a change-up curve and leave you swinging at air. I remember hating this band. I was an amateur, semi-professional drummer and could never figure out how they produced the massive groove that they did because I thought the parts added together equaled the whole. But I was wrong.
Funk is not a jigsaw puzzle, not a static thing. Funk is dynamic. Regardless of how many different parts or how well one plays a part, the essence is in making the parts retain their unique identity while simultaneously rhythmically merging. The JBs are a funk ensemble with the dual emphasis on ‘funk’ and ‘ensemble.’
Another element that distinguishes The JBs from other funk ensembles is the distinctiveness of their soloists, and chief among them is Maceo who established a whole school of instrumental funk. A rather common albeit not inaccurate analogy might be to think of Maceo’s approach to soloing as similar to the way that a Baptist preacher might take a bible verse, the behavior of certain parishioners, the weather outside, and the crowns (i.e. hats) that the sisters wore that particular Sunday, take all of that and make an off-the cuff sermon. In other words, pieces of everything articulated in short bursts of non sequiturs that are strung together like an exquisite necklace of African trade beads and balls of amber.
This collage of different colors, shapes and textures in one creation is also an aesthetic statement of African origin now manifested in the music. Throughout the Mixtape you will hear a variety of examples. I call particular attention to “I’m Paying Taxes, What Am I Buyin’ ” with its code-switching commentary on racial relations, moving back and forth between banter among blacks themselves to dialogues with white authority figures. But then also please pay attention to their version of “Chameleon,” which is built on a New Orleans second-line approach complete with sousaphone doing the bass parts. Traditional New Orleans music was the jazz birth of collective improvisation over a fierce polyrhythm.
Moreover, none of these tracks are the “hits” of the day even though a number of hits are covered. Check this version of “Cold Sweat,” the quintessential funk anthem that changed the funk was played after Brown and company brought the noise. Then there is the brief interlude of avant garde saxophone on “Damn Right I Am Somebody.” That same saxophone style is extended on “Same Beat” along with a rooster crowing over a modified beat jazz drummers know as a “shuffle beat.”
Appreciating the different approaches to funk manifested on this Mixtape is a master course. There is the gospel inflections infused into “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” which is an example of the funkification of a show tune. And don’t forget the Jay McShann/Charlie Parker jazz staple, “Jumpin’ The Blues” shoved up next to Curtis Mayfield’s Civil Rights Era classic “People Get Ready.”
left to right: Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis
Moreover, particular attention should be paid to the climatic “Soul Power 92,” recorded in concert in Germany. The arrangement is stripped down to a smaller group plus guest artists who are called up for cameo solos, but the feel is still there in part because of the infectious big-foot drummer Kenwood Dennard and the on the spot arranging generated by the trio of Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, and saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis (who preceded Fred Wesley as James Brown’s musical director). Collectively they offer snippets of a string of James Brown songs.
We could go for days dissecting the 57 varieties of funk contained on this Mixtape but you have ears. As long as you have blood flowing in your veins and a heart steady beating, you have what you need to enjoy JB funk.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Funk Forever Mixtape Playlist
Funky Good Time: The Anthology
01 “Introduction To The JB’s / Doing It To Death”
02 “Blessed Blackness”
03 “Pass The Peas”
04 “The Grunt”
05 “Gimme Some More”
06 “I’m Paying Taxes, What Am I Buyin’ ”
07 “Damn Right I Am Somebody”
08 “Same Beat (Part 1, 2 & 3)”
09 “Over The Rainbow”
10 “Jumpin` The Blues”
11 “People Get Ready”
12 “Cold Sweat”
Life On Planet Groove
14 “Soul Power ’92”
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