Given Rodney Jones’s background as a sideman, it’s surprising that until now he never stretched out as a funk-soulster on his own projects. The guitarist spent plenty of quality time with funk-it-up/pass-the-peas JB horn star Maceo Parker (recording five albums with him and touring for five years), graced the stage with the get-down godfather James Brown, played with all the funk legends while holding down the guitar chair for the TV show Showtime at the Apollo, served as musical director for blues/R&B queen Ruth Brown, and even penned the funkified number “Dizzy’s Party” for trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie when he toured with the jazz titan for three years. On his own recordings, however, Jones steered clear of the funk groove.
But finally, Rodney Jones cuts loose with the funkiest, most soulful CD of the year: Soul Manifesto, his second for Blue Note Records. It features an all-star band that includes his alto saxophone friends Maceo Parker and Arthur Blythe (performing together for the first time), Dr. Lonnie Smith on organ, Lonnie Plaxico on bass, and Idris Muhammad on drums. “This album is really special to me,” Jones says. “For the first time as a leader, I’m bringing out the music I got into when I was young and have been listening to all my life. On this album I went back to my musical roots.”
The CD cooks with funky horn flights, juicy organ lines, and sultry guitar licks; and in stretches romps with high-octane action, especially on the hefty-hunks-of-steamin’-funk bookends, “Groove Bone, Part 1” and “Groove Bone, Part 2.” But, Jones hastens to note, Soul Manifesto is not just a good-time dance party; it also goes to a deeper place and serves as an affirmation of his passion for music that touches both the corporeal and spiritual worlds.
“There are two aspects to the word soul,” he explains. “There’s soul music that makes for an organic human experience, and there’s soul on the spiritual level—the soul that transcends the body and survives death. This album serves to bridge those two meanings, to show that there is a unity, that the two elements flow seamlessly one to the other and enable each other. You have soul that was created by God, and you have soul created by James Brown. I’ve always been fascinated by that connection.”
That story starts in Jones’s childhood. The first music he was exposed to were the Negro spirituals performed in his father’s church, and he also recalls watching the Nashville TV show Night Train where the local R&B acts of the day performed, with his folks.
With that soul foundation, Jones set out to explore. He started playing guitar at age six, and after moving to New York City at age eight he began his first formal lessons (folk chords). Then he began to dive headlong into the pop music of the day: the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Sly Stone, the Ohio Players, the Whispers, the Moments. By age 14 he had learned all the guitar parts in JB’s tunes and joined a groove band. At 17, he began to study at the City College of New York with pianist John Lewis, soon after that linking up with another pianist, Mingus alum Jaki Byard. Other gigs followed quickly thereafter: three years on the road with Dizzy Gillespie; recording dates with drummer/band-leader Chico Hamilton; and accompanying Lena Horne, with whom his relationship continues to this day.
Over a decade ago, Jones linked up with the James Brown legacy. While teaching at Manhattan School of Music (where he still is a music professor), his guitar services were sought by the German-based Minor Music label, which at the time was championing JB horn players Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, and Pee Wee Ellis and giving them the opportunity to put their jazz chops on display. Label owner Stephan Meyner was looking to enlist a guitarist for Parker’s breakthrough disc Roots Revisited (which also featured Don Pullen, Bootsy Collins, Wesley and Ellis). Maceo’s nephew, wh