"To be or not to be", the opening track on this CD, is one of those pieces that, once you’ve seen it performed live, a recording just won’t do. I saw Maceo Parker at the Monterey Jazz Festival on Saturday, September 20 2008, and it was the first time I really understood what funk was about. Parker, a saxophonist, was a sideman for James Brown before he went solo. His music sets up a groove and then explores it, usually over a period of eight to ten minutes. At Monterey I particularly remember the performance of “To be or not to be”, something of a set piece for him. Parker occasionally says the words “To be or not to be – what?”, and towards the end (in many performances, including at Monterey in 2008) he brings out his manager, Natasha Maddison, to recite the whole soliloquy while the groove continues underneath. At the end a (somewhat redundant) chant of “we’re gonna make it funky, now”, is introduced.
The song – if that’s what it is – has one chord throughout, but it never needs to modulate. The tension ebbs and flows through a variety of means – dynamics, instrumentation and utter preciseness from the brass section contrasted with free jazz improvisation from the sax and guitar, for instance. So many elements, including the sparse vocals, contribute to the complexity of the rhythm. At the performance I remember thinking that the 65 year-old Parker was controlling everything as strictly as any conductor. The energy was astonishing and the audience completely captured. A recording can’t duplicate that. Luckily there are some videos of live performances on YouTube, at least some idea of what it was like to be there – although unfortunately the one I've found doesn’t include the soliloquy.