Bill Laswell Remembers Bernie Worrell

4.19.44 – 6.24.16

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Bernie Worrell (right) with Bill Laswell (photo by Yoko Yamabe/courtesy of M.O.D. Technologies)

In the early 1980s, I started working with a lot of the musicians from Parliament-Funkadelic. In P-Funk there were some very high-level players: Maceo Parker, who’s very versatile; Jerome Brailey; Eddie Hazel; Fred Wesley. A lot of them were very open and trying to branch out into many areas. But Bernie Worrell was at the top of that pyramid, with a classical background, and perfect pitch, and his rhythmic sense. He was an original.

He was probably the one I did the most work with, and in a lot of pretty diverse areas. I was always conscious of taking him out of this funk-musician mode for which he was best known and putting him with other kinds of musicians in challenging situations. A great deal of that was just having him play on a session that you wouldn’t ordinarily connect with Bernie Worrell. And not just the stuff he did with Talking Heads or Keith Richards, or even the brief moment he was in Paul Shaffer’s band on David Letterman. You’d see him playing with Pharoah Sanders, or Zakir Hussain, or Fela Kuti, or Manu Dibango—the possibilities were endless. We applied this kind of thinking to the solo records I produced for him, too. We worked out ideas for what would be good for his current concept as well as for his evolution, his development.

He was always game. Whether it was Indian music, Japanese, West African, Ethiopian, jazz or ambient—it wouldn’t matter, really, what the music was. He was not the kind of person who would ever say, “No, I can’t do this.” There was never a situation where it didn’t work, where he got lost—never a one. He was incredibly intuitive: The second he sat down at the keyboard, he would adapt. We would even bring him to the session and give him a cartoon song as a prank, and he would never say, “What is this?” or anything like that. He would just try to figure out what key it was in.

He and I were very close, but Bernie wasn’t a guy who was going to sit down and talk to you about politics or science or history. He was a musician, and when you talked to him, he was focused on music. There wasn’t a whole lot else for him to talk about. He was playing piano from the time he was 2 or 3 years old. He’d studied classical music, gone on to Juilliard and the New England Conservatory, and then he met George Clinton when he was still in his 20s and that became the direction of his life. He was very conscious of what was going on in the world, but there was not a lot of dialogue, a lot of left or right. It was all straight music. He might not even be coherent until he sat down to play.

He was an innocent, and very fragile. With Funkadelic, there were heavy periods of drugs and alcohol, and the body takes a beating from those things. I’ve seen him at his worst, and I’ve seen him at his most innocent—that’s how I will remember Bernie. And, of course, I’ll remember his musical intuition and consistency. As he got older he got a little slower, but even still, almost up until the end, when he sat down to play it was consistently wonderful.