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Maceo Parker brought his best to honour Ray Charles

Under the guidance of musical director Steve Sigmund, Parker and co. offered a sprawling celebration of Ray Charles' life, music and vision.

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Image source: 
Kevin Peterson

Each year, the Melbourne International Jazz Festival manages to secure an undisputed legend for its immaculately curated program. But this year comes with a twist. Jazz and funk heavyweight Maceo Parker would be paying tribute to another legend himself – the celebrated genius Ray Charles.

If anyone is entitled to step into the shoes – or in this case, sunglasses – of Ray Charles, it would be someone the ilk of Parker. As well as honouring Charles' legacy with the undying sincerity of a true fan, the acclaimed saxophonist has spent his career playing with James Brown, Prince, and George Clinton, while boasting a revered solo discography of his own.

However, this show wasn't necessarily about Parker's  saxophone prowess. Although he picked his horn up for a few select numbers, he spent most of the evening singing – backed by Melbourne big band The Meltdown. It was a powerful pairing, with the Melbourne group a shining example of our homegrown jazz talent. Under the guidance of musical director Steve Sigmund, Parker and co. offered a sprawling celebration of Ray Charles' life, music and vision.

Parker is clearly influenced by Charles' idiosyncratic, expressive style. While he never quite matches the sheer musicality of Charles' vocals, he has soul in spades. After all, that's really what this music is about. It's easy to forget in the lavish confines of Hamer Hall that much of Charles' oeuvre was born in juke joints and clubs, but Parker and The Meltdown gave it their best shot to make you remember that – particularly with searing renditions of 'What'd I Say' and more cuts from the early Atlantic era.

While the Meltdown swing with ease throughout, they shine brightest on ballads. 'Georgia on My Mind' is nothing but bliss, with Sigmund bringing out the best in an already stellar group.

In a huge bonus, the performance featured vocal performances from The Raelettes – an underrated yet vital part of Charles' sound. 'Hit The Road Jack' and 'What'd I Say' are nothing without their harmonies, and the fact they're now being given the reverence they wholeheartedly deserve has been a long time coming. 

If there is one criticism of this tribute, it's that most of the arrangements err on the safer side. But this isn't about reinventing the wheel – this is a show that's about celebrating its beauty, simplicity, and influence. And if there's anyone who can afford to do what he pleases at this stage in his career, it's Maceo Parker. From one genius to another, Parker manages to offer a glimpse of why Ray Charles was a force to be reckoned with live. Backed by a Melbourne group worth the cost of admission alone, this is a show that exemplified why the Melbourne International Jazz Festival is one of the most unique of its kind.

Highlight: ‘Georgia On My Mind’.

Lowlight: Would’ve liked more saxophone playing from Maceo.

Crowd Favourite: ‘Hallelujah, I Love Her So’.