There’s nothing like having a quick nosey at Fred Wesley’s discography to make one wonder what they’ve done with their life. As musician, band leader, arranger, composer and producer Fred has shaped the sound of funk on hundreds of recordings with James Brown, the JB’s, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Parliament, the Horny Horns and many, many more.
In his 2002 autobiography, Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman, Wesley calls himself “the greatest sideman in the world” – which in fact underplays his contribution, he isn’t just a horn player - but now he’s centre stage, perched on a stool, master of his own small but perfectly formed empire. The moment he blows his trombone the sound is as instantly recognisable as a JB scream or a Bootsy Collins bass run. Fred Wesley only doesn’t have the funk, he is the funk. His New JB’s aren’t new anymore, this current line-up has mostly been in place many years and it shows in their tight groove.
The JB’s classic “Damn Right I Am Somebody” underlines Fred’s a man in his own right; “Bop To The Boogie” is an early invitation for audience participation - “Bop to the boogie, boogie to the bop, bop to the boogie, bop bop” - which looks ridiculously easy written down yet many (or maybe only me with my stiff honky ways) fail to master; there’s Fred’s favourite track from the Horny Horns 1977 LP A Blow For Me, A Toot For You – “Fourplay”; Fred takes a lead vocal on Earl King’s “Trick Bag”; and Dwayne Dolphin takes a bass solo in “No One But You Baby” as his boss looks on and appreciates with a knowing nod. No sign of any fine for bum notes or clumsy dance steps.
The line between jazz and funk is thin one and on that line sits jazz-funk, which always strikes me as the musical equivalent of a lager-top: a less satisfying, watered down, compromise. Well, that's my take; I can't warm to it. There are a few numbers which epitomise jazz-funk and the audience get a little distracted during the one love song and shout for “Pass The Peas”. Don’t worry, says Fred, it’s coming. He’s been around long enough to know how to pace a show and bring it to the boil.
“Breakin’ Bread” from the first Fred Wesley and the New JB’s album is an odd song - early rap with a hint of country funk - but gets folk involved once more and leads into the final run of three massive JB’s tunes: the aforementioned “Pass The Peas”, “Gimme Some More” and “Doing It To Death”. These are what the crowd came for and they burst back into life as if transported back into the midst to the late-80s Rare Groove explosion when these tracks caught a second wind and became some of the biggest club tunes around. Fred has small pocket of south London tightly in his control as people are movin’, groovin’, doin’ it. To quote again from Hit Me, Fred: “The black people were dancing very well, as usual, and the white people, as usual, were enthusiastically doing the best that they could do.” Thank you Mr. Wesley.