A guide to the eclectic funk music of Bernie Worrell
By John Morrison October 15, 2021
As the co-founder of the legendary psychedelic funk conglomerate, Parliament-Funkadelic (P-Funk), keyboardist Bernie Worrell was one of the most influential figures in popular music. With its innovative use of instruments like the Minimoog Model D — playing the synth for basslines and using the pitch wheel to create a portamento effect on melodic sounds — as well as the Clavinet and Hammond B-3 organ, Worrell changed the way these instruments were played, helping to push popular music into bold new territory. Nicknamed “The Wizard of Woo“, Worrell had the ability to enchant listeners with the eerie, electric sounds he wanted from his keyboards.
A prolific musician and adventurous collaborator, Worrell continued to flaunt his creative lineup into the ’80s as a de facto member of Talking Heads. Classically trained virtuoso, Worrell was at ease in a variety of musical contexts, working with artists like Fela kuti, Sly & Robbie, Nona hendryx, Yasiin Bey, Gil Scott-Heron and Yoko Ono.
As a solo artist and conductor, Worrell’s work is just as innovative as the music he has composed with others. From the cheeky avant-funk of his 1978 debut All WOOs in the world to his brilliantly tender solo piano album Elevation: Air Superior, as good as Standards, a cover album that features powerful acoustic renditions of songs by Bootsy Collins and Duke Ellington, Worrell’s solo catalog is rich and eclectic. Prior to his passing in 2016, Worrell created musical wealth under his own musical direction. Here are some of Worrell’s best solo projects on Bandcamp.
Released in 1978 (the same year that Parliament-Funkadelic discontinued Engine Booty Deal and A nation under a groove), Worrell’s solo debut is kind of a sleeper compared to the more well-known entries in the P-Funk catalog. Backed by a group of P-Funk stars including Garry Shider, Bootsy Collins and Eddie Hazel, Worrell’s debut is chock full of cheeky songs built on slinky, trippy grooves.
On the 90s Funk ages, Worrell took a lot of risks, stretching musically. With songs like the groovy and weird track “Sing” (featuring David Byrne’s vocals) and the heavy bass reggae track “Real Life Dreams”, the album effortlessly goes from funk to rock to reggae and R&B. Funk of the ages is a diverse and varied listening littered with powerful guest appearances including Herbie Hancock, Maceo parker, Keith Richards, Bootsy Collins, Sly & Robbie and Vernon Reid.
When Worrell teamed up with a prolific bassist and producer Bill laswell, the musical partnership they established has produced a range of eclectic and experimental sounds. the years 1993 Blacktronic Science is one of Laswell and Worrell’s most interesting and inspired collaborations, featuring hip-hop inspired beats and Worrell’s own fluid, jazz playing. The album opens with “Revelation in Black Light,” a radical orchestral piece where strings provide a dynamic backdrop for Worrell’s harpsichord. “Flex” is a funky and jubilant cut where J. Sumbi (Freestyle purse/Blown project) and Mike Gee (Jungle Brothers) swap freestyle verses on a bouncy, horny instrument. With Worrell tapping into the free and liberating vision of the future he helped forge alongside Clinton and P-Funk, Blacktronic Science cements Worrell’s status as an innovator well over two decades into his career.
Worrell was a classically trained child prodigy who wrote his first concerto at the age of eight, and this profound mastery of the piano forms the basis of all his music. At Elevation: Air Superior, Worrell has returned to his roots with a fantastic collection of solo piano performances. The album opens beautifully, with an acoustic interpretation of Joe Zawinul’s proto-ambient composition “In A Silent Way” (made famous by Miles Davis). Worrell’s playing on this track is patient and unhurried, his familiar melody underpinned by deliciously intelligent chords. On “I’d Prefer Be With You,” Worrell takes Bootsy Collins’ playful ode to erotic love and turns it into a heart-wrenching ballad full of drama and nostalgia. From his bittersweet but still hopeful version of “Ooh Child” by The Five Stairsteps to his version of “I Wanna Go Outside In the Rain” by The Dramatics. Elevation: Air Superior reveals yet another layer of Worrell’s art. With his mastery of the piano, Worrell breathes new life into these well-known songs.
Later in life, Worrell made a number of recordings under the banner of the Bernie Worrell Orchestra. Filled with fluid and airy jazz-funk compositions, BWO lands is among the best of these versions. Like much of Worrell’s work with P-Funk, the song “So Uptight” relies on the power of a heavy groove, a hoarse voice and a big brass arrangement. “Moneypenny” is a rhythmic funk tune, with elegant horns, swirling synths, and the same dramatic feel as the soundtrack of a car chase in a ’70s movie. “Piri Piri” takes the album on a bend. complete on the left. With Worrell’s dream organ in the foreground, the group builds a groove that goes from Latin rhythm to jazz swing and mind-boggling downtempo. A fun and eclectic recording, BWO lands provides ample evidence that Worrell was at home in any corner of the musical universe.
Another masterful Worrell / Laswell collaboration, Pieces Of The Woo: The Other Side is a collection of weird and highly sophisticated compositions. As in most of Worrell’s work, there is a magical balance between his own style of play and the fantastic contributions of his guest stars. The experimental guitarist and frequent collaborator of Worrell Buckethead trades heavy metal riffs with Worrell on “The Mask”, while the pianist and AACM member Amina Claudine Myers appears to provide an equally bright and distinct keyboard play as Worrell. Pieces Of The Woo: The Other Side might be the most unclassifiable version of Worrell’s catalog. There are moments on the album that merge chamber music with blues (“Witness For The Defense”) and others approach the melancholy melancholy of Terence Blanchard’s film scores for Spike Lee (“Moon Over Brixton”), but it all makes sense in Worrell’s diverse musical work.