Exploring new sounds is not unusual for keyboardist Bernie Worrell. For more than four decades, he’s built a legacy out of musical adventure, particularly with the P-Funk empire. As music director for Parliament-Funkadelic, he stretched the boundaries of funk keyboard playing by layering multiple instruments such as the piano, Minimoog, clavinet, organ and synthesizers, then crafting contrapuntal melodies animated by references to classical music, blues, gospel and even cartoon jingles. He continues to stretch, this time far beyond his comfort zone, with his new disc, Elevation: The Upper Air (MOD Technologies), his first solo piano recording. “I really don’t like creating music just by myself,” Worrell says.
The project’s producer, bassist Bill Laswell, one of Worrell’s longstanding collaborators, encouraged the 69-year-old to record the date. To sell Worrell on the project, Laswell shared his own rewarding experiences with cutting a solo bass outing. “I explained to Bernie that, in the beginning, I wasn’t that sure about it. But the more I got involved, I realized how personal it can be,” Laswell recalls. “It’s a very different experience. He’s never done a solo recording before; for that reason alone, it should be done.”
Elevation is the most intriguing and reflective disc in Worrell’s discography since 1993’s Pieces of Woo: The Other Side (CMP), a mostly organ-centric rendezvous that featured him alongside such jazz renegades as multireedist Patience Higgins and fellow organist Amina Claudine Myers. Similar to Worrell’s 2011 disc, Standards (CMH/Scufflin’), the new one showcases a few jazz classics, among them Joe Zawinul’s “In a Silent Way,” John Coltrane’s “Alabama” and Charles Mingus’ “Good Bye Pork Pie Hat.”
Jazz seems like an ideal vehicle for Worrell considering his virtuosity and intuitive, often unpredictable melodicism. But he’s quick to point out that he’s no jazz musician. “I can play at jazz. I didn’t grow up on jazz, but I appreciate it,” he says before citing Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock as some of his favorites.
On Elevation, Worrell interprets the material in an almost elegiac manner that accentuates the compositions’ melodies. In addition to the aforementioned jazz tunes, he reveals the melodic beauty of Bootsy Collins’ funk classic “I’d Rather Be With You,” the Dramatics’ stormy ballad “I Wanna Go Outside in the Rain” and Santana’s lamenting “Samba Pa Ti.” Discussing his musical approach, Worrell says, “I deal with the sound of the instrument. I just start playing until I feel a pattern that’s most appropriate for a particular song. I like to have people give me some kind of idea of what they are looking for. If they can put it into words, I try to interpret that along with what I’m hearing.”
“Bernie can hear things almost before they happen,” Laswell explains. “I’m sure in many cases that he’s hearing things that aren’t even there. As far as rhythmic syncopation, he’s in a world of his own.”
Regardless of the idiom at hand, Worrell’s playing stands on formal classical training that dates back to his early childhood in Long Branch, N.J. His mother taught a 3 1/2-year-old Bernie a piano scale. After she noticed his gifts, she hired a formal piano teacher to push him further. When the family moved to Plainfield, N.J., Worrell continued studying classical music with Fay Barnaby Kent, a Quaker who arranged opportunities for him to play his first piano concerto at age 10 with the Washington Symphony and for him to take private harmony and theory classes at the New York College of Music, Juilliard and the New England Conservatory of Music before he entered college. “I was the only black pupil that she had. I guess I became her favorite,” he laughs.
In some ways, Worrell looks at Elevation as going back to his musical roots, in that he’s playing the piano alone. “At 4 years old, I did my first solo piano classical concert. But that was then,” he says. “[With Elevation] I had to put my discomfort out of my head, go into the studio and just do it. It wasn’t really comfortable. I just turned it over to God and let whatever comes through me come.”