"I can play anything. It's one of the gifts God gave me. I have perfect pitch. I can adapt to anything."
When such words come from the mouth of one Bernie Worrell, who's talking by phone from a Miami hotel room in between Lauryn Hill sessions, they don't sound the least boastful. All they are is true.
The funk legend, most widely known as the longstanding keyboardist and musical director for George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic, may have popular music's most diverse resume. Besides co-writing, co-producing and performing on such iconic songs as "Flashlight," "Atomic Dog," "Knee Deep," "Cosmic Slop" and "Red Hot Mama" (to cite just a few), Worrell has lent a dazzling array of licks, riffs and chords to all manner of rock and pop, reggae, world-beat and fringe-jazz.
He was a touring member of Talking Heads during their popular heyday of the early '80s. The list of acts he has gigged and/or recorded with is truly staggering: Albert King, Fela Kuti, Yoko Ono, Keith Richards, Pharaoh Sanders, Jack Bruce, Mike Watt, Cibo Matto, Throwing Muses, Drivin' & Cryin', Afrika Bambaataa, Matthew Sweet, Syd Straw ... That's range, folks.
And then there's the incessant sampling. Along with James Brown's bands, the Isley Brothers and perhaps a handful of others, the hip-hop world looked to Worrell mostly for ready-mixed music bits to anchor their songs. After all, he is the architect of the funk/disco synth bass line.
He's never been a flashy chops player, one to clear the decks so he could launch into extended solos. "The bass line on "Flashlight,' that's ..." he says, then pauses, "five notes. That's a solo. It's the most important part of the song. It depends on how you define solo. You can be runnin' off at the mouth all the time, but you ain't sayin' nothin'. That (busy) shit is boring if you hear it all the time."
Amid his clogged recording schedule, the keyboardist finds time to lead his own incendiary funk ensemble, Bernie Worrell & the Woo Warriors. The northern New Jersey-based group includes second key man Gregg "Daffy Duck" Fitz; bassist Donna "Lady Bass" McPherson; drummer Gary "G-Man" Sullivan; lead guitarist Da Flash; and newly added guitarist John Hickey (who apparently hasn't earned a nickname yet). The featured vocalist, Jennifer "Sonic Voce" Durkin (formerly of Deep Banana Blackout) is such a firebrand she makes Mary J. Blige sound like Leontyne Price.
Woo Warriors Live, from a couple of years ago, showcases a rambunctious, deep-groovin' outfit that can clearly tear the roof off any sucka. Like P-Funk, the sound is not staged and precise, but freewheeling and come-what-may. That's why Worrell's band has found a home with jam-band aficionados - the songs stretch out, with shrieking metal guitar solos, call-and-response vocals and long sections that just groove tirelessly.
With Worrell as the ringleader. Reluctantly. "It's a pain in the ass," he says with a laugh. "I'd rather ... I'm about teamwork. I don't wanna do all the talkin', with the lights on me. I hate them lights. A mic right in my face. It makes it harder for me to play. But it's a prop ..."
He let's the sentence drop off, as if to say, "someone's gotta do it."
By the age of four, Bernie Worrell of Long Branch, N.J. was a recognized child prodigy. At age 9, he studied harmony and theory under professor John Noge at the New York College of Music. He took private piano lessons at Julliard and attended college at the New England Conservatory of Music. He learned classical, and loved it, but felt the funk. After a brief stint as the bandleader for soul singer Maxine Brown, Worrell joined up with Clinton, Eddie Hazel and the rest and formed Parliament. He was the ensemble's first musical director.
Although he departed as a full-time member in the early '80s, Worrell maintains ties with his old P-Funk cohorts and has continually expressed willingness to involved himself in their projects. For now, though, the calls for session work just keep coming, as do the gigs. His next high-profile performance will be at a jam-band festival in Tennessee. He'll perform with Primus bassist Les Claypool, guitar whacko Buckethead and drummer Brains from Praxis.
The set will no doubt pose different challenges than Worrell's other endeavors — which shouldn't be too big a deal for a man who can play anything.
Contact Associate Editor Eric Snider at 813-248-8888, ext. 114, or e-mail him at [email protected].