Maceo, I Want You To Blow

May 28, 2011

An Interview with Maceo Parker

Maceo Parker, From the Cover of is 2007 CD, Roots and Grooves

When James Brown said the above words during the song I Got You (I Feel Good), Maceo Parker became a famous sideman. Famous enough that his name became synonymous with funky saxophone. Famous enough that a few years later he left Brown and started Maceo and the King’s Men. Famous enough that he eventually would play with George Clinton, Prince, and other funksters, not to mention folks like Ray Charles, James Taylor, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Since the early 90s, he’s been leading his own group and recording well-received albums, such as Roots Revisited (1990), Life on Planet Groove (1992), and most recently, Roots and Grooves (2007), recorded with the WDR Big Band of Germany. In person, his band reflects the tightness of the original James Brown band, as well as its adherence to “stage uniforms.” Maceo’s group is an eight-piece band that executes precision stops and starts, yet the individual members blow plenty funky. I had the opportunity to interview him by phone about 10 days before his appearance at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, on May 22, 2011. I recorded the interview and aired it on Rhythm and Grooves on May 21. I’ve done some slight editing for clarity.

LE: You come from a musical family. Your dad played the drums, your dad and mom both sang in church, your brother played the drums. How did you gravitate to the saxophone?

MP: As far back as I can remember, there was a piano around. As a child, you see an adult play, or you realize that you put your fingers on a key and with a little pressure you get a note or sound. It was interesting, or entertaining, to key it, so I would play in passing. I’d just play and bang, bang, bang. But as I got older, I really noticed how to actually play it, not just how to play it by ear. That was that, then I got really excited about my first parade, you know, a marching band parade? I still remember being really, really excited about that, and I had to choose, like my mom said, a marching band instrument, and as we were speaking, the saxophone line was passing, and I thought, well maybe I can play one of those things, and that was it.

LE: You joined James Brown in 1964 when he wanted your brother to be his drummer, and Mr. Brown said he’d bring you along.

MP: Yeah, right. Well he had met by brother Melvin about a year earlier. He happened to come by where Melvin was playing. We were college students at the time, but we had two different groups, and he (James Brown) thought Melvin was of a caliber to work with him when he first heard him.

One thing you have to remember is we started trying to do, you know, dot dot dadot, dah, and come up with our own individual styles, what we thought funky music should be. We started very, very young. I think my trombone-playing brother was in the sixth grade. I was in the fifth. Melvin was in the fourth. But we had rehearsed and rehearsed til we had gotten a couple of tunes down. We were listening to my uncle’s band [Ed note: The Blue Notes] and been at his rehearsals, being in the corner trying to learn, to imitate what they did. Pretty soon we got pretty good at it, and he would take us to the nightclub while we were at an early age, and have us play during the breaks. [Ed note: They performed as the Junior Blue Notes] To make a long story short, we just kept trying, kept trying, from elementary school right through high school. By the time we graduated, when Melvin first met James Brown, he was a freshman in college and I was a sophomore.

Then about a year after he met him, we decided to get out of school and seek that job with James Brown. We met him and Melvin said, Mr. Brown do you remember me, I’m Melvin Parker, the drummer. Mr. Brown said, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.” He was still excited about my brother. They went through the whole thing about did you bring your clothes, and where they’d be going for the next two or three days and stuff. And then my brother cleared his throat, and I cleared my throat, and Melvin said, “Oh yeah, Mr. Brown, this is my brother, he’s a saxophone player. He needs a job too.” He asked me some questions about playing saxophone, if I played baritone saxophone. I told him I played a little baritone, but I didn’t have a baritone. He said, “Okay, I’ll give you a chance. Take two weeks, three weeks, to get a baritone and you can have a job too.” It was exciting. Having two brothers in the same household being hired by James Brown at the same time. It was really exciting for us.

LE: I’m sure it was. After you joined James Brown what was the first important lesson that you learned?

MP: Punctuality, I think was the first thing I learned. Well, he used to teach pride, stage decorum, and punctuality. Not in that order, but at the same time. The one that came to mind first is punctuality. The bus would leave at a certain time, and if you’re not there, maybe five minutes within leaving time, they’re gone. And then there’d be like a fine, and if you weren’t there, you’d get fifty dollars taken from you. You learn really quickly you gotta be on time for stuff. I think that’s the first thing I learned. We knew about punctuality anyway, but that was a big thing with Mr. Brown. Along with stage decorum, the way your uniform looked, you gotta be pressed, just having pride in being a man, to respect women and kids. He preached that really, really well.

LE: You mentioned being in a marching band, and I noticed that on Funky Music Machine, one of your albums with the Kings Men, that you do a tune that’s a tribute to the Tennessee State University Marching Band. What was it about that band that made you want to do a tribute song  to them?

MP: Well, it was not my idea, I went along with it. That whole idea was from my trumpet player at the time, Richard Griffin. We called him Cush. We had a couple of friends that had joined James’ band, the James Brown Band, from Nashville, and I guess it inspired him to write that little thing. The whistle part, and the “pick up your feet” part, what was it, “pick up your feet, play your part, drive, drive, drive” came from the school that Melvin and I were at, which was North Carolina E&T in Greensboro. That’s something we used to sing. We incorporated that because it was like a march.

LE: You’ve served as a sideman to James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic, and Prince. You’ve worked with artists like Kenny Neal, Candy Dulfer, Ani DiFranco. Do you approach your playing any differently when you are not the leader of the group, as opposed to when you’re the leader?

MP: No. I just dig down within my soul and within myself to try to come up with something funky. I always try anyway. People say, wouldn’t it be nice to have that guy that worked with James Brown come up with something (for a track). They’ve come up with something that reminds them of, or sounds like, something James Brown would do or something funky in the same kind of vein, and my name comes up. So I figure that’s what they want, something I would do if I’m working with him. It’s very easy and natural for me. I just realize that the funky style is natural for me, just as some guys can pitch a baseball, or hit a baseball, throw a football. It’s just something natural I could do from birth I guess.

LE: How did this current appearance with Christian McBride come about?

MP: I don’t know, but I’m excited about it. We’ve worked together. We were on the same stage a while back, some festival, or something where we’ve collaborated. Either we’re on the same stage doing a couple of tunes together or he’s with a group and I’m with a group. These things happen in this business. You follow your schedule, your itinerary, and however it turns out, it’s fun, it’s okay. That’s what makes it exciting as you tour month after month, and year after year. You get to the point where you start looking forward to things like this where you cross-breed with other musicians.

LE: I believe you’re doing an appearance with the African tribute to James Brown.

MP: Well, there’s some stuff coming up, I think they call it, Still Black, Still Proud. I’m doing stuff like that too. [Ed note: Coming to the Ordway Theater in Saint Paul on November 22, 2011]

LE: We look forward to seeing you on Sunday, May 22nd.

MP: Thank you, and like we say all the time when I perform, on behalf of all of us, we love you.



Wanderlust as Inspiration

May 12, 2011

Interview with Kip Jones, Violinist, Vocalist

Kip Jones plays violin and sings along with his stringed instrument. Sometimes he wordlessly vocalizes, while at other times he sings in Korean. He calls his original music “traditional fiction” or “folk music from countries that don’t exist,” depending on the context. He performs as a solo act, in duos, and has even performed at the Friday Night Community Pool series at the Black Dog Coffee & Wine Bar in Saint Paul, where the emphasis is on free improvisation. His new CD is entitled Hallazgo. It’s an adventurous solo outing that effectively captures Jones’ facility with various world, folk, improvisational, and Classical music forms. This interview took place in the studios of KFAI on April 16, 2011, during my radio show, Rhythm and Grooves.

LE: I’d like to welcome into the studio, Kip Jones, a violin player, vocalist, and world traveler.

KJ: Thanks so much for having me. I’m glad to be here.

LE: Kip, you’re having a CD release party at Studio Z next Friday and Saturday

The new CD, Hallazgo

KJ: The name of the product is Hallazgo. It’s Anglicized version of a Spanish word that means Discovery.  Like an archaeological discovery or when I bought a great thing at a market, and it’s really cheap. It’s a find.

LE: You are originally from Duluth, and you studied out at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and afterwards had a serious case of wanderlust.

KJ: It started right after I left college. I spent about a year traveling around the country by motorcycle, then went to India for half a year, met my wife and we spent two years in Korea and spent a year traveling in South America. It was during that last trip that all the songs on this particular project were written.

LE: So were you inspired by being in South America, or did other aspects of your travel come into your compositions?

KJ: I think like a lot of musicians there are certain projects that take a very short time to come to fruition. And there are some that take a very long time. For me playing and singing at the same time has been an especially long journey. I started doing this in college, but it’s very difficult to do the intonation on a violin. It’s obviously not static. I can’t put my finger on a key behind a fret and expect it to be right on a note. And so, learning the ins and outs of that relationship has taken a number of years, and it wasn’t until this most recent trip that I was able to begin composing for that platform, after years of doing essentially, exercises.

LE: And so now you’ve settled back here in the Twin Cities. You’ve been playing around town, with Patrick Harrison at the Red Stag occasionally, and you’ve played at the Friday Night Community Pool Series at the Black Dog in Lowertown, with Brian Roessler. You’ve been playing with other folk as well.

KJ:  Yeah, Dean Harrington, and Dan Newton, among others.

LE: Nice group of folks you’re playing with. And it seems you’ve brought your instrument along.

KJ: Both instruments. The one with the strings and the one with the vocal chords.

LE: You want to play something?

KJ: I’d love to play something.

LE: What will we hear?

KJ: A song called “Awaken.” The beginning starts out at the wailing wall of Jerusalem, and it finishes up with Sonic the Hedge Hog, dodging a whole bunch of stuff in the woods.

KJ: (Plays) [Ed note: For a video of Kip performing this song at a Duluth station, click here.]

LE: That was great. Were you using the same language for all of that?

KJ: All of those lyrics were in Korean. The lyrics more or less mirror the mood of the song. “Wake up, Wake up. We have but one life. Let’s live it and be excited.”

LE: You learned that when you were in Korea?

KJ: Two years of solid study and I still can’t talk about a lot of complicated things. But, I have a basic fluency in the language, and can at least get around the country.

LE: What made you decide to go to Korea?

KJ: My wife, at the time my girlfriend, took an ESL (English as a second language) teaching job there and left me lonely and bored, at least without any long term future plans here in the States. An opening occurred at her school and she was able to swing getting the school to hire me, and so I went over there and spent two very pleasant years living in rural South Korea with a small motorcycle, going to temples, listening to huge, giant copper bells ringing throughout the forest. That’s one of the coolest Buddhist meditations – a giant copper cast bell, maybe three and a half to four feet in diameter, maybe ten feet tall – must weigh two or three thousand pounds. They’ll take a tree trunk and slam it against this bell. And when you’re up close you’ll hear overtones. You’ll hear “gooong” [makes a low sound] just like a bell, but when you’re a half mile away, walking way in the woods, you hear “bhmmmm” [makes a sound like a foghorn]. It seems to shake the forest. It’s really a wonderful sound.

LE: You mentioned traveling throughout South America and India, and across the United States. You have a lot of compositions that you’ve composed yourself, and yet you’ve played with musicians in a bit more of a free form arrangement. How did your ability to interact that way and improvise – How did you develop that in terms of your travels?

KJ: I think that a lot of the greatest composers, or at least a lot of my role models have been people that exemplify both a quality in improvisation and a high standard of composition as well. The obvious example is Bach, whose compositions could be described as little more than transcribed improvisations for ensembles. To a certain extent, composing is sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and improvising on paper, and in your imagination and enforcing that, or offering it to someone else.

One of the first crowds I fell into out at Berklee College of Music were the free improvisers, who were the ones who had the greatest love for life. They would pick up their instruments and the first thing they would look for is something they had never done before. I don’t know, trying to keep themselves informed but also not worrying about playing the hip lick or playing the coolest tune that’s going around. I think Schoenberg is another good example of someone who was able to take a composition, but also..  he made the comment that composition is improvisation slowed down. And so while traveling alone, with an instrument, naturally improvising, playing to a rock or crowd, a mountain, or a bunch of people at a house concert, or something to that effect. Gradually these improvisations congealed into compositions that are on this record.

LE: In your travels, and as you performed in impromptu settings, was there any one in particular that changed the way you looked at things, or had a significant impact on the way you compose, or the way you play?

KJ: Any particular performance, you mean?

LE: Yeah, of those impromptu sorts of things.

KJ: Well there have been a number of really fun ones. I’m trying to think. The ones that changed the way I think about music. I don’t know, it’s tough to say. I feel like performing is something that, you just stand in front of a bunch of people and take your metaphorical clothes off, and stand there for awhile, and eventually put your clothes back on. Those experiences, I feel like my conscious mind is not so much engaged. I kind of turn it off, and let the songs do what they do. But, a couple of the fun ones. One was in Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, we were staying at the house of Andrea and Ivan Shoemacher. Wonderful couple, really fun people, great cooks, had a really interesting fun group of friends – architects and painters and so on and so forth. We all met at a bar, hung out, drunk a whole bunch, had a fun time, and the bar closed and at two o’clock in the morning went back to their house for coffee. Made a couple of pots of coffee, I decided to give a house concert and played from maybe three until four. And our bus was at five in the morning.  I played the concert, they loved it, we continued having great conversation and coffee at 4:30 to 5 in the morning, and they all drove us down to the bus station. We kind of went en masse. It had been this giant hang from eleven o’clock the previous evening. This was in the most southernmost part of the world. It was the winter solstice. It was dark, not like Alaska dark, but it got dark early and people were used to being out in the darkness. And this was one of the most fun solo performances.

I think another interesting one was at the Ecuador Ministry of Social and Economic Inclusion, which is probably as strange and unpredictable an organization as it sounds like. I had met a guy that worked for the group at a New Year’s party where I had played a couple of songs and it seemed to turn into a Cyndi Lauper singalong, though I’m not sure exactly how that occurred. He had asked me to come and play for his office the following Friday. And so I did. Originally it was going to be in a theater and all the folks that worked in the office were going to come down and listen. And instead, they all got let off early and twelve people were made to stay and listen to my show, which then took place in a small office. I think they had a good time under the circumstances, but everyone wished they had been relaxing with their families, not listening to this foreigner saw away on his instrument. (chuckles)

LE: It sounds like you made lots of contacts. Are you fluent in Spanish as well?

KJ: That came a lot easier than Korean. In Korean the syntax is different, you conjugate verbs based on social status. The list of potential difficulties is enormous. You know, my Spanish is pretty messy, but once again, I can get by.

LE: You don’t need a whole lot in order to get along

KJ: You don’t even need a lot to discuss some deep topics because there are so many cognates. It seems to me, anyway, it’s the more basic kind of nuts and bolts work that you have to learn and then the more difficult latin-based words, well, think of a word like inquisition. It’s the same in Spanish. Reclamation is the same in Spanish.

LE: Let’s talk a little bit about your upcoming CD release party. It’s a Studio Z in Lowertown, a great little space.

KJ: A tiny classical performance space. A wonderful place. The Zeitgeist folks have been extremely helpful and extremely courteous. It’s nice of them to have me, and I’m really looking forward to performing.

LE: You’ll do a solo set and then a set with a couple of other musicians?

KJ: Patrick Harison will be joining me on accordion, and James Buckley, (bass) who is currently rocking Coachella with his band Gayngs, will be there as well. The three of us have a band, Zations.

LE: Okay, well can we hear something else?

KJ: Absolutely. This song is called the Mind of the Spirit and it is the very song that folks at the Ecuadoran Ministry of Economic Inclusion were forced to listen to for the first time. And now, anyone who’s tuned in, you’re not forced to listen, but I invite you to listen to “Th’Mind of th’Spirit.” It’s a theme and variations, with a bridge.

KJ: (plays) [Ed note: for a video of Kip playing this song, click here.]

LE: Thank you. That was Kip Jones performing live here in KFAI’s studio. Now, you have a website.

KJ: I do.

LE: Can folks buy your CDs at your website?

KJ: Not yet, but there’s tons of stuff on the website. I’ve made a couple videos leading up to the show. I’ve got a whole bunch of stuff for downloading on line. Some solo stuff, some from a project with a bass player friend of mine from Boston – Karl Doty – K2. Has some of the same musical spaces that the solo project inhabits.

LE: Thank you so much for stopping by. I look forward to hearing your concert.

KJ: Thank you so much for having me on the show.

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