Keyboardist extraordinaire Bernie Worrell went from classical child prodigy to Funkadelic, and has followed his own idiosyncratic course
ever since, doing sessions for everyone under the sun and releasing a stream of solo albums. Some of his appearances on this site (not counting
Funkadelic, Parliament, George Clinton and Bootsy Collins):
Da Bomb (Space Cadets: 1981)
Another shard of the splintered Mothership, this short-lived band fronted by singer/songwriter/guitarist Nairobi Sailcat featured Bernie, Tyrone Lampkin, and various assorted others (including bassist T.M. Stevens). Unfortunately, like most of the early 80s Funk Mob output, it's easily ignored dance-funk that hews close to genre norms ("Let's Pump It Up").
In fact, it's probably the most mainstream, least "outside" album-length project Worrell has piloted; none of his playing is at all distinctive ("Loveslave (Nose Job)"). The saving graces are "Make Me Funk (Fonkin' Straight Ahead)," with a kinetic rhythm guitar line that's exciting if not novel, and the low-key Glen Goins ballad "I Love What You're Doing To Me." I've never seen the original LP; a CD release with beaucoup bonus tracks - including an alternate take of "Pump It Up" imitating the Flying Lizards' New Wave cover of "Money" - came out about twenty years later. (DBW)
Funk of Ages (1991)
Bernie's next solo album came after thirteen years of session playing, and he called in all his
favors, getting a long list of guest stars.
There's a surprising amount of solid rock and roll, including "Beware Of Dog" (with Vernon Reid
on guitar), "Sing" (written with Mike Hampton and David Byrne) and best of all, "Don't Piss Me Off,"
with a stomping riff and energetic duet vocals from Phoebe Snow and Gary "Mudbone Cooper (one of three tracks featuring Keith Richards on rhythm guitar). And of course there's funk (the swirling "Y-Spy"):
Bootsy drops by for a bizarre cover of "Ain't She Sweet" and the pleasant but
ordinary "Funk-A-Hall Licks" - Herbie Hancock adds keyboards to both tracks.
I've barely started listing the performers: Sly and Robbie turn up on "Real Life Dreams," Jimmy Rip adds guitar throughout, Maceo Parker
adds sax, Steve Jordan, Jerry Harrison, percussionist Aiyb Dieng, the Uptown Horns, etc.
In fact, there are so many guests you may forget it's Bernie's record, and it pulls in so many directions it ends up sounding
Produced by Joe Blaney and Bernie, except for two jazz organ features ("Volunteered Slavery/Bern's Blues/Outer Spaceways" and "At'Mos'Spheres")
produced by Bill Laswell.
Blacktronic Science (1994)
Produced by Bernie and Bill Laswell, whose strengths and weaknesses dominate the proceedings. Weaknesses: his only idea of a drum
track is a Sly Dunbar loop supplemented by Aiyb Dieng's percussion (I wish someone would tell his talking drum to shut up), and he
sprinkles samples, the Material Strings, and sound effects over everything, so his attempts at funk sound mechanical ("Time Was (Events
In The Elsewhere)") and his attempts at hip-hop sound crowded ("Flex"). As a result, the best tracks are those Laswell left alone: two
entended jazz improvisations featuring Maceo Parker and Tony Williams ("Blood Secrets" and "X-Factor").
Laswell's main strength is his ability to recognize and blend talent, which results in spellbinding
raps from James Sumbi and Mike G. on "The Vision." He even reunited Bernie, Bootsy and George on several tracks (the best is
sometimes with Maceo and Fred Wesley for good measure. The P-Funk-fest fueled speculation that a full-blown Mothership
reunion was around the corner - that came (sort of) with 1996's T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M.
The Other Side (1994)
Instrumentals, apparently left over from other Bill Laswell projects - the arrangements and tunes are interesting, but the
musicians tend to wander, ending up sounding more like a jam session than recordings made for public consumption.
Most interesting are the two tracks ("Witness For The Defense" and "Moon Over Brixton") featuring Fred Wesley (trombone), Vincent Chancey (French horn), Marty
Ehrlich (bass clarinet), Janet Grice (bassoon) and Patience Higgins (clarinet).
Amina Claudine Myers appears on two incredibly overextended Hammond organ duets, "Set The Tone/Victory" and "Judie's Passion Purple."
Buckethead adds some noisy guitar to "The Mask," but it's still a Bernie organatron.
Two reasonably funky tracks feature just Bernie and Laswell on his usual "loops, beats and samples": "Gladiator Skull" and "Fields Of
Free Agent (1997)
Worrell has a discursive atmospheric side, and a punchy funk side.
His best work usually comes when he integrates both sides, but this
self-produced offering is so heavy on the atmosphere you may lose interest. Most of the tracks are
instrumentals starting off with a limping, canned groove and then
degenerating into themeless chaos with some brilliant
moments ("AfroFuturism (Phazed One)") but more dull ones. It's Bernie's
show all the way - he's the only musician on "Hope Is Here," guitarist
Buckethead is the only guest on
"Woo Awakens" and "Warriors Off To Woo."
Only "AfroFuturism" and the township jive "In Pursuit" feature a full band:
Laswell on bass, Hamid Drake and Aiyb Dieng on percussion, and Dominic
Kanza on guitar ("In Pursuit" only).
Jean Pierre Sluys adds a number of instruments to "Re-Enter Black Light (Entersection)."
Not available in stores; see Bernie's web site for ordering information. (DBW)
Live (Bernie Worrell & The Woo Warriors: 1999)
The Woo Warriors are Gregg Fitz (keyboards), Donna McPherson (bass), BJ Nelson (lead vocals), Michael "Moon" Reuben (guitar) and
Van Romaine (drums). The set list contains a few Bernie solo tunes ("Re-Enter Black Light," "Y-Spy") and a sampling of offbeat P-Funk
material: "Smokey," "Comin' Around The Mountain," "Thumpasaurus."
The band mostly stays in the background and grooves, which is fine as far as that goes. But combined with the fact that the P-Funk material doesn't spotlight Bernie much ("Red Hot Mama"), the performances sound a bit hollow.
Worrell's solo material comes across better: he does his extended improv thing on "Black Light," and Reuben fills Buckethead's role on the relatively obscure "The Mask." A harmless curio; to hear a better example of Bernie's idiosyncratic live sound, check out his 2004 tour with Col. Claypool's Bucket of Bernie Brains: live MP3s available at www.c2b3live.com.
An improvisational jazz disc with Bernie on a panoply of acoustic keyboards, backed by drummer Will Calhoun and the aptly named Brett Bass. Five of the seven tracks have a guest musician: Warren Haynes ("Dirty") and saxophonist Darryl Dixon ("Ok, You Can Leave Now") appear on two cuts each, and Mike Gordon plays banjo on "Up In The Hills" (based on a riff from "Lunchmeataphobia").
Calhoun is creative and sensitive ("New Boss"), Bass indulges in Bootsyisms ("Bass On The Line"), and the leader is characteristically brilliant but frustrating: he creates many moments of unexpected wonder, but buries them in rambling, patience-trying jams ("Celeste"; "Killer Mosquito").
The same year, Worrell worked on a project called Baby Elephant with Prince Paul.
I Don't Even Know (2010)
I think this is the Woo Warrior more or less solo.
For You - For Us - For All (SociaLybrium: 2010)
A new Bernie band project with Blackbyrd McKnight, bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer JT Lewis.
As song-oriented instrumental funk - with a ballad or two ("Another Day") - heavy on organ, piano and guitar, it has the weaknesses of Buckethead's Thanatopsis project without the strengths... Not only because it's less challenging and more conventional (though that's true) but also because it's less effective as pure entertainment, hitting funk/fusion genre markers without elan ("Over There").
Generally the band sets up a repeating pattern atop which Bernie and Blackbyrd lay soloing which is occasionally inspired, but more often not (the tired guitar heroics on "Glory Story").
And it's a bit dispiriting to hear the same forty-year-old Funkadelic quotes again and again ("Swamp"), much as we all love them.
Your ears will perk up, though, at the odd mix of lyricon and pseudo-harpsichord on "Rockin' Uptown."
Bernie knows jazz, even if he doesn't play it very often, and here he serves up his interpretations of extremely familiar tunes: "Bye Bye Blackbird"; "Killer Joe" (with Smokey Hormel on guitar); "Watermelon Man"; "Moon River."
But his approach is far from typical:
the ordinarily upbeat "Take The 'A' Train" is deconstructed on unaccompanied piano; Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" gets a full-band midtempo funk treatment.
Even when the overall approach is conventional, Worrell finds a way to paint outside the lines, adding delicate piano strokes to Jobim's bossa nova "Água De Beber," for example.
That's not to say everything works - the hokey fusion take on Kern's "All The Things You Are" - but it's never routine.
The players vary from one track to another, though Gibbs and Lewis frequently appear.
Produced by Worrell and Evan Taylor.
We Told Ya (WesNWorrell: 2011)
A collaboration with NJ bassist Wes Santo, who co-wrote and co-produced everything, and played most of the non-keyboard tracks. Like many modern funkateers, Santo has the basics of the form down but none of the unhinged spark or unpredictability that made bands like Funkadelic and OP so exciting. So track after track has Bernie invigorating Santo's tired grooves with inspired synth lines ("Stand Up"; "Get A Peace"): the question isn't whether he's good at it (he is), the question is why he's bothering.
On the whole, the slower the record gets the better it is - the chorus of "Feel Alright" is sly and slithery; "Buddy's Song" builds to a compelling conclusion - though Santo's unremarkable voice gets lost inside the ballads "Stay The Night" and "Believe."