Funked up? Bernie Worrell would rather play the music
ASPEN With a bunch of lunatics paying as much attention to their hair and costumes as to the songs, men jumping around in diapers, and song titles along the lines of Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication, what was it that kept the funk collective P-Funk from going off the rails and heading toward Mars?The answer is Bernie Worrell, who served as the original keyboardist and music director of the quintessential funk outfit. While George Clinton, Worrells high school buddy from the unlikely launching pad of Plainfield, N.J., served as ringleader to the madness, Worrell kept P-Funk from explosion. With his colorful outfits, his extreme gaunt look and mostly, from his mere association with P-Funk one assumed a certain level of eccentricity in the 64-year-old keyboardist. But after a minute of mellow, spiritual-leaning conversation, it becomes clear that Worrell served a purpose in P-Funk apart from adding to the insanity.I was the least eccentric. Im the nerd, said Worrell, speaking from his home in Hampton, N.J., in quiet Hunterdon County, where he has lived for over a decade, an hour and a half drive from New York City. I wore leather and suede, but I didnt go the eccentric way. I brought some order to it, and interjected my feel. Which I guess is funk even though I dont consider myself a funk player. I play, thats all.Which is one way of putting it. Another way is that Worrell has been a key figure in not only funk history, but rock and jazz as well, one who has pushed the walls outward in a variety of directions. Worrell was never an official member of Talking Heads, though he was a key figure in the group for most of the 80s, making vital contributions to Speaking in Tongues and Stop Making Sense. Worrell toured as a member of the Pretenders, was part of such experimental groups as Praxis and Col. Claypools Bucket of Bernie Brains, and led his own Woo Warriors. This past summer, Worrell appeared at Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival as a member of the groove band Global Noize.Last month, Worrell launched his latest project, While in San Francisco to co-produce an album by the blues-rock trio Chow Nasty, Worrell took the opportunity to create a group of his own, Socialibrium. The band played its debut gig at San Franciscos Great American Music Hall, and used spare studio time to record several hours of spontaneous jams, which Worrell figures will become an album eventually. The tour stops Wednesday in Breckenridge, and continues with a show Thursday at 10 p.m. at Belly Up Aspen.Socialibrium is an experimental supergroup, along the lines of most of Worrells recent projects. Joining Worrell are guitarist Blackbyrd McKnight, Worrells successor as music director in P-Funk; drummer Brain, formerly of Primus; and TM Stevens, who played with Worrell in the Pretenders.The young Worrell was an unlikely candidate for any of these musical roles. After taking private piano lessons at the Juilliard School while a high school student, he attended the New England Conservatory of Music. He had a half semester to go when family circumstances forced his return to New Jersey; Worrell is currently working on an honorary degree. Worrell enjoyed classical music, but not the atmosphere that surrounded it.At the time, classical music was put on a pedestal, he said, and I didnt like that. One of my gifts is to mix everything I can mix a classical piece with a Jewish tune and a Gregorian chant with a jazz composition. I didnt like that holier-than-thou, this-is-better-than-that type thinking. Everything is equal.Worrell was on the road with R&B singer Maxine Brown when he heard from Clinton. A hairdresser with designs for a musical extravaganza, Clinton had just moved his operations to Detroit. He wanted his classically trained buddy to serve as ballast.The word funk I didnt know what that was, said Worrell. My mother didnt want me to join them. I was just playing. They made me bandleader. I was more strict.Worrell wrote string and horn arrangements, and co-produced the bands albums with Clinton. If he was indifferent to the scene, he enjoyed the music, which mixed R&B, hard rock and black-American consciousness in a nearly operatic way. And he loved the fact that he was on the road.I was out of the house; I was free, he said. All I liked about it was the freedom.The Socialibrium quartet is more of a musical dream, one Worrell has had in mind for years. But things take time; things happen in Gods time, he said. These are musicians who can play all different genres, like I do. Now we have a chance to take American music farther, and play it on the positive side.Last year, Worrell was offered the chance to take P-Funk a little farther. Clinton pleaded with Worrell to board the Mothership, as the ensemble is often called, in time for a European tour, but negotiations fell through.He was begging me to come back in with them, crack the whip a little, said Worrell. Impose a little email@example.com
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