January 4, 2020
Take it from a pair of funky bandleaders from other places: San Francisco was a great place to celebrate the imminence of a new year and the music which moved us through all the years preceding.
This was the verbal testimony from Ivan Neville, whose Dumpstaphunk band had been assembled in 2003 for the Jazz & Heritage Festival in his hometown of New Orleans, and from Maceo Parker, who’s still based in his home state of North Carolina. I rang out the old year with them at the Great American Music Hall last Sunday, and at SFJAZZ’s Miner Auditorium on Tuesday, respectively.
What Dumpstaphunk and Parker’s sextet have in common, aside from their fondness for the Bay Area, is a celebration of funk music. The late James Brown, with whom Parker played saxophone, once summarized funk for me in an interview as “jazz and gospel, mixed together.” Oakland-based author, teacher, and broadcaster Rickey Vincent, in the introduction to his Funk: the Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996) characterizes the genre as “a deliberate reaction to — and a rejection of — the traditional Western world’s predilection for formality, pretense, and self-repression.”
The elements of funk were audible long before the word was codified as a genre. Brown was dubbed the Godfather of Soul, but his postural syncopation, sassy horns (including Parker), and declamatory vocals were recombined in many funk acts of the next generation, including George Clinton’s theatrical Parliament-Funkadelic (P-Funk), with whom Parker also performed in the 1970s, and The Meters out of New Orleans, who interpolated that city’s trademark polyrhythms.
Sunday’s scene at the Great American might have evoked the Crescent City, enhanced by the California-sanctioned aroma of cannabis, both outside and inside the venue. The visible history of the venue as a mock-opulent bordello is similarly evocative both of New Orleans and of the acknowledged sexual connotation of “funk.” Buddy Miles’s “United Nations Stomp” ushered in the evening with a voodoo vibe, and the first set showcased Dumpstaphunk’s original material.
Inevitably, though, there were nods to like-minded ensembles. “Make It After All” brought to mind both the Family Stone and the Chambers Brothers, with Ivan Neville (son of the angel-voiced Aaron Neville) vocalizing and doing double duty on Hammond and electronic keyboard. “Dumpstamental” highlighted drummer Devin Trusclair, working inserts of quirky time changes, while the rest of the band bent notes and minds to psychedelic effect. The packed standing crowd on the ground level seemed to acknowledge the performance, in 21st-century parlance, as “lit,” although the performers, for some reason, were only minimally illuminated.
After a smoky intermission, Ivan Neville spoke about the “badass” musical influence of the Bay Area before launching a set of Sly and the Family Stone songs and summoning to the stage Greg Errico, the Family Stone’s former drummer and a present Petaluma resident. Errico had guested with the SFJAZZ Collective three weeks ago in another homage to the Family Stone, but with Dumpstaphunk he got the opportunity to put in more time and to brighten his pyrotechnics further. The set served to remind fans of how funk had glistened within the Family Stone repertoire: in the bass and horn lines of “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” in the break on “Stand!”, and on the little-known but even more funk-worthy “I Get High on You,” issued under Sly Stone’s own name several years after Errico had left the band. But numbers like “Everyday People,” which had the crowd cheering after the first couple of chords, and “Hot Fun in the Summertime” confirmed that Sly and his band’s oeuvre had brought to rock ’n’ roll a sound unclassifiable by a single genre.
In time for an audience singalong of “Sing A Simple Song,” the lineup on stage was filled to capacity with the addition of the horn section from Tower of Power, another Bay Area-bred pop powerhouse band. The Family Stone’s seminal brass pair — saxophonist Jerry Martini and the late trumpeter Cynthia Robinson — would have appreciated the magnification of their magic, further complemented by the arrival of TOP drummer David Garrabaldi.
The power continued into a set of songs from TOP’s own song list, with which the funk displayed its capacity to tickle (“On the Serious Side”) and convey message (“Get Your Feet Back on the Ground”). The latter tune had even those in the balcony standing and gyrating. On “You’re the Most,” TOP baritone saxophonist Stephen “Doc” Kupka seemed to be nominating himself for Gig’s Funkiest Instrument, but Dumpstaphunk’s Ivan Neville drew attention to his soul-sauce flavorings on the Hammond, while his cousin Ian Neville (son of The Meters’s Art Neville) ladled out molten guitar licks.
At the SFJAZZ Center a couple nights later, there were much brighter lights outside and inside, and no perceptible waft of legal recreational drugs anywhere. In keeping with the upscale setting, the band members — all male, as they had been at the Great American — were generally older and nattily attired, and the vocalist, Darliene Parker, sported a sheath dress and a lush flower in her hair, à la Billie Holiday. The seating sections in front of the Miner Auditorium stage had been cleared out to allow for dancing, but the majority of the audience was seated in the auditorium’s banked seats, except when Parker invoked them to stand. It was tamer than at the Great American, the generously supplied shiny hats and noisemakers notwithstanding.
Parker, who’ll be 77 this coming Valentine’s Day, could be seen to shuffle some, but was otherwise in fine shape, and (with the benefit of good illumination and kaleidoscopic lighting effects circling performers and audience) ever the entertainer, in the spirit of his former boss, James Brown, whose material peppered the 16-plus song set, the earlier of Parker’s two New Year’s Eve shows.
It’s been a sign of the times throughout the passing decade that venues with jazz in their name and/or their original purpose have felt obligated to dip into other genres to expand their demographics. Parker, who’s heralded in the new year here more than once, gently mocked the jazz imperative with a humorous take on “Satin Doll.” He moved on to a soulful duo sway with trombonist Greg Boyer on Shep and the Limelites’s rock ballad “Daddy’s Home.”
Although introduced by his neo-Carnaby-Street-attired British manager Natasha Maddison as “the funkiest saxophone player in the world,” Parker hosted a contender in fellow alto saxophonist Candy Dulfer, who joined the group onstage as featured guest on Parker’s “Uptown Up.” The Dutch-born Dulfer displayed the improvisational jazz facility she’d acquired from her father, as well as considerable energy and spunk. Parker’s ensemble, some of who have been supporting him for several decades, played well but safely, perhaps suiting this particular crowd. Parker was properly applauded for switching at times from alto to flute, and for pantomiming Ray Charles with his vocal rendition of “You Don’t Know Me.”
Accordingly, the song list made no pretense of adhering either to the seminal legacy of James Brown or to funk. Marvin Gaye’s sensually dreamy “Let’s Get It On” gave guitarist Bruno Speight a place to glisten, and “Stand by Me,” created by Ben E. King with Leiber and Stoller, was one of the only numbers on which vocalist Darliene Parker (Maceo’s cousin) got the solo spotlight, engaging in her delivery. Songs credited to Parker himself were few. But it’s a virtue of this ensemble that they can fit themselves to almost anything — even an attempt at funking up “Auld Lang Syne” — and that they visibly returned the love which their leader visibly bestowed on them. Bass player Rodney “Skeet” Curtis, dubbed by Parker as “funkadelic,” may have displayed the most bona fide funk credentials on that stage, outside of Dulfer.
What Parker is purveying could perhaps be classified as “smooth funk,” but that works for some. As George Clinton once told me, “funk is to do the best you can, and then leave it alone. You can truly say, ‘Funk it!’ because you did the best you could. You don’t have to be guilty.” Happy New Year, everyone.
Correction: The article, as originally published, misstated that Greg Errico guested with SFJAZZ’s Monday Night Band three weeks ago. He guested with the SFJAZZ Collective, not the Monday Night Band.