He first encountered WDR Big Band with the two-disc release of Roots & Grooves, a 2008 album that was on one hand a Ray Charles tribute and on the other a collection of Parker’s own material in rich big band arrangements.
Parker reunites with the WDR Big Band for Soul Classics, a collection of nine songs recorded live at the Leverkusener Jazz Festival in Leverkusen, Germany, in November 2011. The recording captures Parker and his own small combo – bassist Christian McBride and drummer Core Coleman-Dunham – in collaboration with the Cologne-based 15-piece orchestra led by conductor/arranger Michael Abene that has previously backed such prominent artists as Ray Charles, Joe Zawinul, Michael and Randy Brecker, and many others. Soul Classics is set for release on Moosicus Records.
„It’s great to make another live recording with the WDR Big Band,“ says Parker. „I remember being very excited about Roots & Grooves, and I’m just as excited three ears later about Soul Classics. This is a big band that truly understands the universal elements of American soul and R&B, and is able to convey them to an audience in rich, full and interesting arrangements. Listeners are going to some very familiar songs in an entirely new way, and in the process, they’re going to rediscover just how great the material really is.“
Parker drew his inspiration for the performance in much the same way that generations of American artists have drawn inspiration for decades – by listening to the radio. „I had my satellite radio on one of the soul stations, and I just listened to whatever they played,“ he explains. „If I felt good about something, I’d jot it down. That’s the way I came up with my list of the soul classics that we played in the performance. The result was a couple of Aretha Franklin songs, some Jackson Five, a little bit of Michael Jackson, Bill Withers, Isaac Hayes and a couple more. And of course, I included some James Brown.“
Soul Classics kicks off with a blast of energy from the James Brown canon – a driving rendition of „Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag“ propelled by the rock-solid combination of the WDR horn section and Coleman-Dunham’s clockwork drumming and Parker’s own soul-drenched vocals.
The followup track is an equally punchy and high-energy instrumental version of „I Wish,“ one of two Stevie Wonder songs in the set. The second is the celebratory „Higher Ground,“ which is built on a muscular synthesizer and horn bed that provides plenty of room for Parker and a few other WDR horn players to use the melody line as a lunch pad for some impressive solo acrobatics.
Further in, Parker and company slow it down a bit with a slow and sultry rendition of Isaac Hayes‘ „Do Your Thing“ that relies on Frank Chastenier’s Hammond B-3 to underscore some dramatic horn work by Parker and his WDR counterparts on horn. Paul Shigihara also delivers some intriguing, vibrato-laden guitar lines in between the horn solos.
Parker once again steps up to the mike to deliver the vocals on „Rock Steady,“ his homage to soul queen Aretha Franklin. He closes the set in much the same way he opens it – this time with one of his own compositions, the punchy and uptempo „Come By and See,“ a song whose energy and percussive impact is reminiscent of the James Brown heyday. It’s a free-for-all number, with plenty of call-and-response and audience participation. Well before the Midway through the song, the positive and enthusiastic crowd response is hard to miss.
„As I get older, it becomes increasingly important that I chase moments that are really fun for me,“ says Parker. „Working with the WDR Big Band has once again taken me to that peak, just as it did three years ago. I’m so thankful to everyone connected to this project – especially my two sidekicks, Cora and Christian – and to Michael Abene for the great arrangements and for assembling such a spectacular band.
„While soul music may be an inherently American art form, „sometimes you have to step beyond the cultural boundaries of the music’s point of origin and hear it through the ears of musicians from a different culture in order to regain your appreciation for it,“ he says. „The experience serves as a reminder that this music taps into something that’s universal to the human experience. Thanks to a brilliant team of musicians, these Soul Classics make a direct connection to everyone everywhere.“