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Wesley, Berklee honor funk legend

Micah Nemiroff | 2/26/2009, 9:40 a.m.

There’s a great scene in the 1994 documentary “My First Name Is Maceo,” which captures a tour of former James Brown sidemen led by legendary saxophonist Maceo Parker, that shows the band’s members about to get their funk on.

Parker, fellow saxophonist Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis and trombonist Fred Wesley are all decked out in smooth suits, sharp slacks and slick ties. The beige-suited Wesley — arguably the greatest funk trombonist of all time, whose résumé includes stints alongside music icons like Brown, Count Basie and George Clinton — is getting ready for his solo.

The Mobile, Ala., native has a quieter demeanor than Parker, but when it’s his turn to blow, his horn speaks volumes, delivering a seamless solo that smoothly transitions from one line to the next — he makes it look easy. The solo and scene are both quintessential Wesley — the man, his trombone, some funky music, and a wide smile at the end.

The whole package will be on display tonight when Wesley joins the Berklee Music of James Brown Ensemble on stage at the Berklee Performance Center to serve up some of the classics the trombonist played with “The Godfather of Soul.”

In addition to punctuating an exciting Black History Month here in Boston, the concert — co-sponsored by the Africana Studies/Black Music Programming performance and lecture series at Berklee College of Music — marks the first time that Wesley has played at Berklee, and with the Music of James Brown Ensemble, a 10-piece group comprised entirely of the college’s students.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Wesley said from his South Carolina home during a telephone interview. “I’m real excited by the magnitude of the school and hope I can share the experience I have with all the young musicians.”

That experience would certainly impress the ensemble’s young members, with whom Wesley has rehearsed in preparation for the concert. (He has also conducted clinics and master classes during a residency sponsored by the college’s brass department.)

Wesley learned to play the piano at the age of 3 before picking up the trombone in his teens. The most celebrated period of his career came as a member of Brown’s backing band in the ’60s and ’70s, but the high-profile collaborations didn’t end there — after his time with Brown ended in 1975, Wesley beamed up to the mothership, joining George Clinton and the monster funk collective Parliament-Funkadelic.

Asked about the experience he gained from the classic groups, Wesley emphasized the two were like night and day — though not in the way most might think.

“I got my writing chops through James,” he said. “That’s where I learned to compose and create. James would have these [rough] ideas, and we usually had to create something out of nothing.”

With Clinton, however, things surprisingly tended to be a bit more organized.

“[George] was a wild man,” Wesley conceded, “but I usually would add in tracks to music that already had been recorded. A lot of it had been written already.”

Kenwood Dennard, an associate professor of percussion at Berklee and director of the Music of James Brown Ensemble, founded the group earlier this decade. When he came to Berklee in 1997 after years performing with some of the biggest names in jazz and RandB, Dennard was shocked to find that the school had no group dedicated to the music of the man responsible for chart-toppers like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine.”

Drawing on his performing experience — he toured with Maceo Parker’s band in the early 1990s — Dennard sought to create an ensemble that matched the sound, energy and, perhaps most importantly, the precision of the Brown bands.

“With funk, everything has to be exact. The timing and feel has to be dead on,” said Dennard.

At the same time, he added, he wants to make sure the students are loose.

“As a funk ensemble, we have to make the band and the audience dance,” he said. “We need to make sure we reach a high level of creativity and have an emotional impact on the audience.”

One of the keys to being “exact” is Dennard’s “meta-call” system, a method for him to communicate using one of three signs he signals to his co-performers on stage during live performances.

“It is a creative approach specially designed for listening,” explained Dennard. “I try to use various signs to tell performers what I am looking for and when I am looking for it.”

As Diana Leverington explained, what Dennard is looking for isn’t always about playing the right notes.

“He not only teaches you the grooves, but also the attitude” said Leverington, who sings backup and plays tenor saxophone in the ensemble. “Kenwood is very philosophical.”

While the ensemble intends to play the familiar mega-hits from the James Brown catalogue, they also want to shake things up a bit, and have a few tricks up their sleeves to unveil tonight.

“Oh, we’re gonna try something different,” he said. “It’s a very special group.”

Special indeed — tonight’s collaboration with Wesley will be the ensemble’s first live performance of the year.

“We’re hoping it’s going to be tight,” said Dennard. “It’s gonna be hot.”

Fred Wesley and the Berklee Music of James Brown Ensemble perform tonight at the Berklee Performance Center, 136 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston. The concert starts at 8:15 p.m. Tickets are $10 for the general public and $5 seniors. For tickets and additional information, visit the Berklee Performance Center’s Web site at www.berkleebpc.com or call 617-747-2261.