Finally there is a record that Bernie Worrell might have made many years ago, but did not, because as the sage once said, everything happens in its time. Now is the time. Mr. Worrell’s exquisite programme is called Elevation (The Upper Air). How apt is this recording. It presents Mr. Worrell in a singularly contemplative space. Even though there would probably have been several technical staff and producer Bill Laswell in the room where this recording took place, the manner in which the music rolls out seems to suggest that Mr. Worrell was in fact, in a sacred space, alone with a marvellously tuned grand piano and a digital keyboard of sorts to create some sort of digital delay. This is, of course, pure guess work, but the point is: Bernie Worrell might never have sounded this way if he were not in the proverbial zone seeming to himself levitate as he interprets some of the finest music of the times. Make no mistake about this fact as well: This is not an attempt to create an album of ambient music, not is it Mr. Worrell’s intent to show off his virtuosity, but here is heartfelt music that comes as a result of reaching deep down into the soul and into the psyche. What emerges is abject honesty and musical interpretations of such immense power and beauty that it is very possible there are few solo piano records like it.
Bernie Worrell’s past credentials precede him, wherever he goes, thus his musicianship is hardly surprising. Mr. Worrell has always approached music with his whole body, mind and spirit. On Elevation this aspect of his music is given an opportunity to shine. It becomes obvious from the very first bars of the recording that Mr. Worrell is set to occupy a rarefied realm. His long and craggy fingers curl and stretch towards the notes on the keyboard that are caressed rather than “played,” so that the felt hammers whisper to the strings on the piano and a note is played. When Mr. Worrell attached several notes to this manner of playing, and a phrase is announced, it is with some significant pomp and circumstance that this takes place. With an evocative use of the pedals, notes—and the ends of phrases and lines—are made to dally languidly so much so that they begin to sing with true passion, grace and fire when played this way. It is impossible to read any complexity in to the manner in which Mr. Worrell approaches the melodies: in a reverential manner. This immediately translates into music of great depth and substance and that goes back to how Bernie Worrell relates to the piano; how he lets his fingers embrace notes—and therefore chords—making the horizontal and vertical aspects of the music sound like a spectral blessing.
It would be remiss not to mention charts such as Joe Zawinul’s “In A Silent Way” that became a beacon and a torch song for Miles Davis, both when Mr. Zawinul and Mr. Davis played it together as well as after the departure of Mr. Zawinul. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is restored to its original beauty when Charles Mingus played it in an almost reverential manner. The Bob Marley music is also approached in like manner and the simplicity and beauty of Mr. Marley’s original music is heightened. If a favourite is allowed from this repertoire, then that would be “Alabama,” which is a brooding piece of such power that it elevates mind and soul. Otherwise, it is difficult to single out a chart. The immense beauty of Mr. Worrell’s playing seems to carry on forever.
Track List: In A Silent Way; I’d Rather Be with You; Alabama; Goodbye Pork Pie Hat; Light On Water; Ooh Child; Samba Pa Ti; Realm Of Sight; I Wanna Go Outside In The Rain; Wings; Redemption Song.
Personnel: Bernie Worrell: piano.
Label: M.O.D. Technologies Records | Release date: March 2014
About Bernie Worrell
Bernie Worrell first came to prominence as a founding member and Musical Director of Parliament/Funkadelic. While this massively influential supergroup was radically altering the course of music, Bernie was radically charting the course of emerging keyboard technology during the golden age of analog synthesis. Among the key ingredients in his sonic stew were perfect pitch and a well-honed facility with the classical canon.
A child prodigy who began studying piano at the tender age of three and gave his first public performance just a year later, Worrell wrote his first concerto at age eight and performed with the Washington Symphony Orchestra at ten. His classical studies would continue throughout his adolescence, including private lessons at the Julliard School of Music, before he entered the New England Conservatory of Music.
Upon leaving the Conservatory, Worrell served for several years as Musical Director for Maxine Brown before joining Parliament/Funkadelic crew. Worrell then proceeded to provide this freewheeling collective with a structural foundation which, while occasionally implied, was ever present. At the same time, he explored and expanded his own musical ideas in every conceivable direction with a brazenness which was both revolutionary and evolutionary. From fanciful forays on clavinet which leaped without warning from guttural gulps to squiggly squeals to liquid Minimoog bass lines which herded listeners to the dance floor, it all represented new musical language. All the while, his rapid advancements of the synthesizer’s potential were actually traceable to his classical foundation.
The hits were many: “Flashlight,” “Atomic Dog,” “Aqua Boogie,” “Cosmic Slop” and “Red Hot Mama” are only a few of the Parliament/Funkadelic classics which Worrell co-wrote, played and co-produced on literally dozens of albums — not to mention his years of wild P-Funk performances, which quickly became the stuff of lore.
After departing Parliament/Funkadelic, Worrell resurfaced with the revamped Talking Heads lineup for several albums, including The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads, Speaking In Tongues and Jonathan Demme’s dazzling concert film, Stop Making Sense. Worrell’s ominous colorings, this time delivered via new digital keyboards such as the Prophet 5, were central to the recasting of group leader David Byrne’s musical ideas through African rhythms.
In the years since he left Talking Heads, Worrell has been a phenomenally prolific studio musician, serving as a primary change-agent in the many experimental works of producer Bill Laswell while contributing his singular flair to projects by the likes of Keith Richards, the Pretenders, Jack Bruce, Deee-Lite and Bootsy’s New Rubber Band. At the same time, he has been among the most sampled musicians ever, with Digital Underground, De La Soul, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, DMX and countless others having acknowledged his timeless grooves by building their tunes around his signature riffs.
Worrell also released a series of critically acclaimed solo efforts, including Funk of Ages, Blacktronic Science, Pieces of WOO/The Other Side and Free Agent: A Spaced Odyssey. And he has become quite a sensation on the jam band circuit, playing with groups ranging from Warren Haynes’ Gov’t Mule to Laswell’s Material, Method of Defiance and Praxis conglomerations.
In 1997, Worrell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with Parliament/Funkadelic (Talking Heads would follow five years later).
Worrell’s work has also continued to surface in other places. In 1993, when David Letterman moved his program to CBS, Worrell helped launch the CBS Orchestra with Paul Shaffer. He co-wrote the score for the cult classic, Car 54, Where Are You? and other films, including the Ice Cube vehicle, Friday. In 2003, his music was featured in the NBC television mini-series, Kingpin.
The “Wizard of WOO” continues to wear many hats as effortlessly as he mixes musical forms, performing with both Mos Def’s Black Jack Johnson band and Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains.
His newest collaboration is The Bernie Worrell Orchestra. Their debut album launched in 2013 and the title track, “BWO is Landing” named the winner in the IMA (Independent Music Award) Funk/Fusion/Jam Song category.