Looking out at the packed audience at the Merriam Theater on Saturday, Maceo Parker wanted to make one thing clear:
"We don't do jazz." Not that the multigenerational crowd was likely to be laboring under any such delusion. The 71-year-old sax legend helped lay the foundations of funk as a key sideman for James Brown (who would yell, "Maceo, blow your horn!" to launch him into another tight, spiky solo) and later for George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic.
Allowing that jazz is fine "if I'm reading a book or washing a car," he then proved himself at least a little wrong by essaying a brief, eloquent duo rendition of Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll" with keyboardist Will Boulware. It was the first of several such interludes in the two-hour set, including a melancholy "The Nearness of You," trombonist and fellow P-Funk vet Greg Boyer's take on "Body and Soul," and Parker crooning "You Don't Know Me," mimicking Ray Charles' mannerisms (shades, too).
But these moments were exceptions, as Parker largely stuck to rambunctious funk, switching between his trademark tart but burly alto and the mike, where he'd lead the chanting vocals on "Off the Hook" or Brown's "Make It Funky." He later added shimmering flute to the mix during "Gonna Have a Funky Good Time" and to add punctuation to his cousin and backing singer Darliene Parker's histrionic "Stand By Me." Eventually, he amended his estimate to "2 percent jazz, 98 percent funky stuff," the latter not coincidentally also the title of his 2013 memoir.
References to his most notable gigs littered the set, from brief allusions to "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)" during "Off the Hook" to the set-closing mash-up of "Pass the Peas" and "Soul Power." Longtime Brown backing vocalist Martha High belted Lyn Collins' "Think (About It)," while another P-Funk alum, bassist Rodney "Skeet" Curtis, slipped a few bars of "Flashlight" into his own solo.
But Parker learned more than songs from his ex-employers, as he displayed while showing off dance moves gleaned from Brown and clowning with his sidemen. He emphasized his love for the audience and everyone else involved in the show, but it was most eloquently expressed in the taut, infectious funk grooves he's honed for half a century.