JAZZ / Tired roots?: Phil Johnson on Maceo Parker at the New Trinity, Bristol

James Brown may be to blame for refusing to let his band wear frilly shirts on stage, but in their dark lounge suits Maceo, Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley - the Holy Trinity of ex-JBs horn-men - now look like seriously middle-aged representatives of the party machine. Maceo, his slightly excessive sideburns signalling his role as leader, takes the stage first and carefully manages the opening number so that it not only showcases his alto sax but also allows him to test the mikes and the lights for the rest of the front-line. When tenor-player Pee Wee and trombonist Fred join him, they gather at the front for a vocal caucus, whispering funky imprecations to the house before taking up their instruments and beginning the sound that launched a thousand samples, tight horn- punches provoking spasms of movement in every listener.

As a formula it's one of the surest there is; even in the midst of the quieter moments it only takes a second for the rhythm to kick in again and the audience to be transformed into a dancing mass of happy feet. The music works on such a visceral level that a Pavlovian response animates the crowd; you can see the punch coming a mile off but that doesn't stop it hitting you every time.

The JBs sound was the most fully thought-out of all the R & B bands, as African as any diaspora music could be - every instrument played like a drum, even the horns. In sessions away from the leader, like the earth-shattering 'I Know You Got Soul' by Bobby Byrd - the funkiest record ever made - it represented one of the highest points of post-war black music.

This makes Maceo's group, Roots Revisited, a heritage theme park of funk; the problems begin when he tries to move into more conventional territory. Of the slow numbers only a beautiful version of 'Do Right Woman' really hit the mark, the trio weeping the chorus in authentically maudlin fashion. The broader sweep of material showed up some defects too. Maceo is a fine player but behind the churchy, melismatic phrasing he has a flat tone. Fred is a canny player but what one remembers about his solos is the elephant-trumpeting, and Pee Wee, though he may well be the best musician of them all, likes to slope off for a fag, as if it's not really his gig.

It was a professional performance, but one has to feel that without JB to force them to the bridge, these veterans take rather a long time to get there. And in the urgent aesthetic of funk, tarrying along the way is not quite the same thing.

Now touring in Europe

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