Toward the end of a thoroughly enjoyable interview, saxophonist Maceo Parker, who brings his show to the Merriam Theater, wishes to say his mission is all about one thing: "Love, love, love, and love. You're in Philly, right? That's all about brotherly love, so you know what I'm talking about."
Parker first became famous as James Brown's most soulful and credited sideman (how many times have you heard the Godfather of Soul shout for "Maceo"?). The saxophonist got his start in his hometown of Kinston, N.C. "My older brother Kellis played trombone, the other, younger one - Melvin - drums. My drummer uncle had a jazz band, and I honestly loved absolutely everybody that I heard every day," he says. He also names the big-band sounds of the Dorsey brothers and Lionel Hampton, fellow saxophonists like Cannonball Adderly and King Curtis, and his absolute favorite, Ray Charles, whose raspy singing style influences Parker's own.
"I learned a lot of standards, blew air, wiggled my fingers, and could have spent forever trying to sound, say, like Charlie Parker," he says. "Instead, I wanted to sound like me. Who could outplay me being me? I was blessed to be able to get a professional sound - my sound - very early on. I didn't want to be like some student. I wanted to be a pro. Do my own thing."
You can still hear the swing of classic big-band arrangements in the sound of his self-titled "funk orchestra" touring unit. "I think you're right," he says. "That music never left me."
Parker made solo albums during his tenure with Brown, with whom he shared some fiery highpoints. Check out the frenetic Shout Factory DVD James Brown: Live at the Boston Garden - April 5, 1968, the day after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parker went out on his own in earnest with two jazz-infused albums - 1990's Roots Revisited and its follow-up, Mo' Roots. But he couldn't shake the funk of his onetime employer. "Who would want to?" he laughs. He even covered "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" on his 2012 album Soul Classics. "It becomes mine the minute I do it," he says, "at least for the moment. When I really, really, really like something, it's easy for me to do."
Parker credits fellow R&B legends Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, and Aretha Franklin, and he saves a space in his heart for the Sound of Philadelphia. On Soul Classics, he does a cool version of "Yesterday I Had the Blues" by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, a tune written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. "That's the sound of that brotherly love thing we're talking about," says Parker. Ever the romantic, he just happened to be born on Valentine's Day.
"That's a good thing."