Mar 31, 2014
When you hear the name Bernie Worrell, your feet should begin shuffling and your hind quarters should start to shake. That’s because Mr. Worrell is a certified keyboard legend; a founding member and essential collaborator / composer / music director and arranger in George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic, and a sideman to bands as wildly diverse as Talking Heads, Jack Bruce, the Rolling Stones, Fela Kuti, Pharoah Sanders, Buddy Guy, Sly & The Family Stone, and more. He is among the most influential and emulated electronic keyboardists in modern music. His synthesizer work became a key element of DJ culture when hip-hop began, as samples from his work defined 80's and 90's West Coast Hip Hop, and is still recognized in the pop hits of today.
So imagine my surprise when I heard Elevation (The Upper Air). The CD turns out to be a straight forward, seemingly simple and yet deceptively touching, solo acoustic piano creation. Featured are delicate impressions of classic jazz (Mingus, Coltrane, Zawinul), soulful sounds (Chi-Lites, Santana, Bob Marley) and three original ambient soundscapes - all delivered with his signature hand.
What’s really surprising is that I shouldn’t have been surprised. Worrell was a piano prodigy, learning to play the piano by age three, and writing a concerto at age eight. He went on to study at Juilliard and the New England Conservatory of Music. It just took him 60+ years to get around to recording music that comes from where he began. Mr. Worrell will turn 70 on April 19.
Worrell’s Elevation (The Upper Air) is produced by legendary iconoclast, Bill Laswell, for his M.O.D. Technologies. I spoke with Mr. Laswell last year about this label, and he and Mr. Worrell will be performing on April 26 as part of Bill’s upcoming residency (April 19, 22-27) at The Stone in New York City.
My conversation with Bernie Worrell covers topics that span his career, and Podcast 418 features our talk and musical selections:
Bernie Worrell – “Redemption Song” and “Realm of Sight” from Elevation (The Upper Air).
Material -"Black Light" from Hallucination Engine. By 1994 Bill Laswell's band was more into mystic-inspired world jams than dance-funk music. This track co-written by Laswel and Wayne Shorter, features, among others, Shorter on soprano sax, Laswell and Bootsy Collins on bass, Worrell on electric piano and Hammond B-3 organ, Jeff Bova on synthesizer and Trilok Gurtu and Zakir Hussain on tabla.
Parliament – “Unfunky UFO” from Mothership Connection. For my money, P-Funk’s finest hour came when Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker (the core of the J.B.’s) joined the band for this funk tourdeforce. The Library of Congress added the album to the National Recording Registry in 2011, declaring "[t]he album has had an enormous influence on jazz, rock and dance music."
Talking Heads – “Once in a Lifetime” from The Name of This Band is Talking Heads. Recorded at Sun Plaza Concert Hall, Tokyo, Japan, February 27, 1981, the group is David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison joined by the now famous ensemble of Adrian Belew (guitar), Bernie Worrell (keyboards, vocals and clavinet), Busta “Cherry” Jones (bass), Steve Scales and Jorge Rossy (percussion), and None Hendryx and Dolette McDonald (backing vocals).
Nona Hendryx - "I Sweat (Going Through the Motions" from The Art of Defense. A constant Worrell collaborator, Nna, who hit fame with Labelle in the 70's, was a key part of Material and Talking Heads. Bernie just completed work on her latest CD.