Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Funk Forever: A Conversation with Bernie Worrell

photo credit: Brian Diescher (

As anyone who's ever had a conversation with keyboard legend Bernie Worrell (a.k.a. the Wizard of WOO) will surely tell you, the man's polite nature and soft-spoken, humble descriptions of his work belie the truly explosive contributions he has made to the world of music. A child prodigy born with perfect pitch, the classically-trained Worrell performed his first concert at age 4, wrote his first piano concerto at 8 and was performing with symphony orchestras by the time he was 10. (Take a moment to let that sink in.) Of course, astute music fans around the globe know him best from his groundbreaking work with the incomparable Parliament-Funkadelic. Since P-Funk's '70s heyday, he has built a sizable solo discography in addition to working with an astonishing array of artists including Talking Heads, Jack Bruce, Gary Moore, Ginger Baker, Warren Haynes, Les Claypool and the mighty Praxis (with guitar genius Buckethead and producer extraordinaire Bill Laswell). But at 71, he is just now piecing together his greatest musical statement.

Currently underway with help from an Indiegogo campaign, Worrell's upcoming Retrospectives album finds him embracing his glorious P-Funk past by recording brand new instrumental version of songs he co-wrote while a member of the group. In addition to offering longtime fans exciting new takes on beloved classics, Retrospectives will serve as a reminder of just how crucial he was to the band's magic.

So what has been the most thrilling part of the Retrospectives project for Worrell?

Seeing if I could do it!” he replies with a hearty laugh. “I'm used to playing with different instrumentation, and playing off of that. But with playing everything on keyboards, it was interesting to see how it would come out.”

There are millions of artists out there hoping to have just one song that resonates with people, but Parliament-Funkadelic gifted us with a full catalog of music that means the world to people 40-plus years later. In Worrell's mind, spontaneity was the key ingredient of the band's appeal.

All we were doing was funkin' around for fun,” he says. “The craziness and everything else going on in any particular moment led to what came out of us, or what came out of me trying to put everything together production-wise and bandleader-wise. We ended up playing what was channeled through us. For myself, my music comes from God; I'm just a channel.”

Not surprisingly, the aural circus that was P-Funk was indicative of Worrell's willingness to explore as many different genres and creative ideas as possible – often within the same piece of music.

I deal with sound, and I listen,” he explains. “One of the biggest things I tell young musicians nowadays is to listen; you have to listen to hear what's going on. I can play any type of music. My other gift is being able to mix musics – that's what I call it – or different genres. I like to intertwine [them] and mix things up. Having that knack allows me to play with just about anybody.

I play off of people,” he continues. “A band is a team of musicians; it's not one person. Sometimes you run into an it's all me type of thing. No, it's a team.”

Recorded last November at Laswell's Orange Music Sound Studio in New Jersey, Retrospectives features the talents of drummer Don McKenzie, whose extensive resume includes stints with Elliott Sharp, Marc Ribot, James Blood Ulmer (with Laswell) and Vernon Reid's Masque. For the New York-based timekeeper, working with Worrell in the studio was an opportunity to explore sound with an artist who has fascinated him since childhood. Thanks to his audiophile father, McKenzie was exposed to a variety of music at an early age, including what he calls the “otherworldly” sounds of Parliament-Funkadelic. In the mid '90s, he had an opportunity to briefly sit in with Worrell at the show at The Cooler in NYC when Reid and the Wizard of WOO shared the same bill. To say that McKenzie has studied the man at length over the years would be an understatement.

Bernie's been in my subconscious for quite a while,” he says. “He's just an iconic player; he has his own sound. Even if he's playing somebody else's keyboard, it's [still] his feel. Even if he doesn't have his signature Moog sound, you just hear the phrasing and you know it's Bernie Worrell.”

Naturally, McKenzie's excitement over working with Worrell came through in his playing.

When I started grooving and I heard these phrasings that I heard as a kid, I just started to get chills,” he recalls. “It was a profound thing, and Bernie's just extremely diligent, extremely focused and extremely professional. It was just a pleasure to work with him. It fills me with pride to know that I actually was able to be a part of this momentous album with Bernie.”

As word regarding the Retrospectives Indiegogo campaign continues to spread, the project has taken on a greater meaning in recent days with the news that Worrell is suffering from a host of ailments including prostate cancer and Stage IV lung cancer. He and his wife/manager, Judie, recently moved to Washington from New Jersey to be closer to family.

Medicare would pay for chemotherapy, but Bernie is not a candidate and they don't cover the Naturopathic path he has chosen,” reveals Judie via email. “Goddess forbid the damn drug/insurance/political cartel shouldn't get their blood money. Damn this country's priorities - war instead of healthcare.”

In addition to facing obstacles in the medical world, Worrell has had more than his fair share of struggles in the music business. Like so many other players of his generation, he was deprived of the opportunity to reap the financial rewards of his many talents. (This issue is explored with unflinching rawness in the must-see 2005 documentary Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth.) Not surprisingly, the best advice he'd offer an aspiring musician looking to have security in this profession is to have a secondary means of income.

It's up and and down; nothing is constant unless you have somebody with a lot of money behind you,” he shares. “Other than that, you have to roll with the punches. (laughs) Then, you've gotta pray and just hope for the best. Don't give up; keep pluggin' at it until something happens – if something happens. If none of that happens, you have to love it so in the end, none of that will matter. Do it for the love of it, and that in itself will be rewarding.”

Despite his health issues, Worrell continues to enjoy a productive life filled with music. Although he has built an amazing sonic history and shared the stage with some of the greatest acts on the planet, this humble music giant is the last person you should ask to discuss career highlights or proudest moments.

I don't look back,” he says .“Once I've done something, I've done it – I really don't give a hoot! (laughs) I'm off to the next project or whatever is brought to me. It's only been in the last couple of years that I've kind of reflected. Everybody else was always [saying], 'Look at your website.' I don't even look at my own website; I'm just not into Facebook and Twitter and all that stuff. But lately I've been kind of reflecting, and I just say, 'I didn't even realize I made all that! Oh, shoot!' (laughs) I think about it more than I used to, but I don't dwell there either, because I've been there, done that. I like something new.”

Anyone who would like to make a donation to Bernie's care can go HERE or send it (via Paypal) to or send a check made out to Bernie Worrell to:

PurpleWOO Productions
P.O. Box 1031
Bellingham, WA  98227

Go HERE to contribute to the Retrospectives Indiegogo campaign.


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