Bernie Worrell – Keyboard Synth Pioneer (Exclusive Interview)

If you only know Bernie Worrell funking it up with Parliament-Funkadelic, then his new solo CD will certainly surprise you. Titled Elevation, it is a beautiful, zen-like journey via the keys of a baby grand piano. The conception of producer Bill Laswell, together they created an illuminating body of music featuring redefinitions of Coltrane’s “Alabama,” Charlie Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” and Carlos Santana’s “Samba Pa Ti,” alongside a couple of Worrell originals.

About to turn seventy years young, Worrell retains the spirit of someone just starting out his career, except with the wisdom only a man playing music since he was three years old can harbor. It’s always been in his bones and in his soul and he loves every moment of it. A humble man who has no desire to praise himself, Worrell thoroughly believes his talent was a gift from God. Listening to his mother play hymns at an absorbantly young age, he soon was playing Classical music, surpassing older, more learned students. Making his name under the leadership of George Clinton, Worrell has played with the Talking Heads, Bootsy Collins, Jack Bruce, Praxis, Les Claypool and many others, while currently maintaining his own Bernie Worrell Orchestra.

A member of the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, Worrell called in last week to talk with me about his new musical projects and how music and spirituality has led him down his life’s path. But first he had to walk outside at the eye clinic. “There was a child screaming,” he said with a chuckle.


So this is how a legend spends his days off, going to get his eye glasses?

One of the things (laughs)

I hear that you’re going to be 70 next month. So what has kept you doing this music thing for all these years?

Well, I love it and it’s the only thing I know how to do (laughs). And the last thing is bills (laughs). You know, I owe a lot of money, and we won’t get into that, but I’m thankful and grateful to be able to still play and make people happy.

bernieworrellcdYou have a new CD which came out in February. It’s beautiful and tranquil, very spiritual in nature. What was your mindset going into this?

Bill Laswell is who I collaborated with through the years. It was Bill’s idea. He came to me and asked me what I thought about doing an acoustic piano, baby grand project, just me. And I said, Ok (laughs). I thought about it for a few minutes and said ok. It was Bill’s concept and we made a list of songs and then we chose from each list which ones to do.

What song was the one you wanted to do the most?

I have no favorites but I picked “I’d Rather Be With You,” which is a Bootsy Collins song; “Samba Pa Ti,” which is my wife’s favorite song. I dedicated that to her. I love reggae and I love Bob Marley so we did “Redemption Song.” Bill picked out the Jazz selections – Mingus and Coletrane. And the other three are just originals off the top of my head.

How do you still create music? Is it the same way you’ve always went about composing music?

Yes, whether it’s live or a jam or recording, people in the industry, a lot of the engineers they either know already or got word how Bernie works. So I always tell them, “Press record,” cause the first thing off the top of my head, that’s what it will be. I play what is sent to me. I’m a vessel. The gift comes from God and I’m a vessel and the music comes through me. So everybody knows. The only thing is if I hear something I think is a mistake, or I know it’s a mistake at least to me, people say, “What are you talking about? It sounds fine.” (laughs) Cause I will start nit-picking. I guess that’s from that Classical training. And then people hear differently. That always used to bother me at first but I’ve stopped nit-picking now (laughs)

What do you love so much about the sound of a baby grand piano?

Well, I love sound period but what I love more than a grand piano, the Hammond organ sound and the clavinet sound, the mini Moog sound. I guess maybe for this project or when I was playing strictly Classical music in my early days, the way the notes would relay the expression from just the hammers hitting the strings, different nuances depending on your touch. If you could hit it softly or with a firmer touch, you get different resonances, just by touch. It’s very expressive and there’s no electronics, so the wood with the soundboard and the strings with no electricity.


Because of the music you are known for, most people don’t know that you played piano when you were three or that you wrote a concerto when you were eight. What steered you away from going in the Classical music direction?

My mother wanted me to be a Classical pianist but I didn’t like the way back in the day they put Classical music on a pedestal. I don’t like. No music is higher than the other. And just the highbrow approach or the way it was perceived. I said no. So I started in my lessons in college, I would play some Jazz or something off the wall. And my teacher loved it (laughs). From that I went into mixing music together. I mix music, all genres, because nothing is above, so I rebelled against this so-called highest form. I didn’t want to be a Classical pianist. I wanted to play music.

Who was the first person to realize that you had this special gift?

My mother. She’s the one that taught me the first scale and the word is I used to go to the piano and play it perfectly every day. She tried to find someone to teach me at age three and a half. She had some difficulty in finding somebody but finally did because at that time no one had ever taught anyone that young, at least in our area, the Jersey Shore. She found someone and I passed all the eighth grade students at the age of four. I had my first Classical concert at four years old.

When did YOU realize that you had this talent?

I never really thought about it (laughs). All I know is I’m playing. I realize now I play but I don’t talk about myself. Everybody else talks. I’m the humble type. I just know it’s a gift from God and it’s not all me, cause I don’t like people that are “I, I, I, I” and “me, me, me.” I don’t like that. I know it comes from something greater than me. We all have gifts, sculptor, teacher, we all have gifts. People need to get out of theirself.

Have you always been comfortable performing live?

Pretty much, yes. I never play by myself. I like to play with people because playing to me is not just about you, it’s about sharing and listening to the other person and sharing the ideas and creating that way. We play off each other. That’s what makes it so beautiful. I like to play whether it’s a trio, a quartet or fifteen people (laughs). That could be nerve-wracking but … (laughs)


When you were in Parliament-Funkadelic, what did you pick up from George Clinton in terms of being a performer and a bandleader?

George gave a lot of freedom to everyone, almost everyone. His ability to pick out different combinations or different groupings of musicians for a certain song, whether be recording or with an instrument or vocally, a combination of people, because of the sound of the instrument or the sound and textures of the voice. That’s something I got from him and he’s a conceptualist. I don’t do the concept thing. My concept is when I play, that’ the concept. You’re going to get whatever you hear (laughs). George and Bill Laswell are a lot alike like that. And David Byrne. They’re conceptualists.

What was it like going from all these people in Parliament then going into a band like Talking Heads? Because you changed that band, or what you brought to them changed that band.

That’s what they say, yeah (laughs). They only had maybe five or six more people less (laughs). The big band was about nine, or maybe a little more than that, I’ve got to count it. But they worked sort of the same, similarly, in the studio creating new material, which was similar to P-Funk, and of course I had all the freedom I wanted. But that’s why they called me in the first place, to bring that thang (laughs). They’re P-Funk fans I found out a couple years later after I joined, I found out they were P-Funk fans. They used to sneak into P-Funk shows. I didn’t know that when I first joined them. They told me later.

You played on Jack Bruce’s albums before.

I love him, I miss him. We’ve done a lot of stuff together. Jack is real nice but just don’t talk about the English cause Jack is Scottish. They don’t like each other (laughs). Jack is a true Scotsman.

I know that you probably love every city that you have ever played in but which city really speaks to your soul?

There’s a few, there’s no favorite. I like San Francisco, I like Montreux, Brazil. I like Tokyo. I love Japan. I’d rather live in Japan than the States.

Why is that?

Because they are orderly, they’re clean, they’re honest, there’s respect for the children and the elderly. Their work ethic, you can’t beat it.

When you were first starting out, what gave you the biggest rush – was it performing or the traveling or just being around all these creative people?

I think it was a combination of all three. Being on the road and being able to see different places, the architecture, the landscape, the different dialects, different languages; then playing in different coliseums and clubs and feeling the vibrations, not only giving but receiving from the audience back to you. The appreciation and the smiles. They can get wild too (laughs) Too much beer or whatever (laughs)

Since you were so innovative and so much fun with these sounds that you were creating, do you like how the music has evolved into a lot more electronic?

I’m going to say it’s what it is and things have to evolve. They can’t stay the same. But I’m not too keen on it. I like some of this electronic music but I’m not real keen on it. I’d rather analog than digital. But of course we mixed the analog with the digital. I just wish they were more hands on an instrument, whether it be keyboards or guitar or bass or drums, because it needs that human touch rather than pushing a button. You push it, you’re at a disadvantage cause the rudiments, kids don’t even know. They can push a button and it will give them a chord but they don’t even know what chord or what makes up a chord – the root, the third and the fifth – stuff like that. I feel they’re missing out because they could do so much more if they knew more basic information and then they could do a lot more with the machinery, the technology that they have, a bit the old school way.

I think some of it misses the soul of a song.

Right and it’s cold.

How do you see your music changing and evolving as you’ve gotten older?

I don’t know if it’s evolving. Like I say, I just play what comes to me. I don’t think about it evolving. My mind doesn’t work that way. I just play for whatever the occasion, whatever type of music it is. I play what’s sent. I guess the other stuff is for the critics or whatever (laughs). I don’t think about that, cause it’s a waste of time to me.

When you were young, getting into your music, what was THE song or album that literally changed your life?

There were a couple: Ray Charles “What’d I Say,” The Beatles when they first appeared on Ed Sullivan because their music contained Classical, pop, R&B. It had what appealed to me. It wasn’t just one thing. And Jimi Hendrix.

Since you mentioned The Beatles, and they just celebrated their 50th anniversary of coming to America. What is your favorite Beatles song?

There is no favorite. There are a lot of favorites (laughs). I like variety (laughs). But to name a few, “Come Together,” “Let It Be,” “Fool On The Hill,” “Yellow Submarine,” “Rocky Raccoon.” (laughs)

Do you remember the first BIG star or musician that you ever met?

Let’s see, I met a lot of the Motown people because P-Funk were stationed, our headquarters, was in Detroit for a minute there. So I met a lot of the Motown crew. I met a lot of the Philadelphia sound, a lot of their artists; Isaac Hayes. When I was in college, I used to play the nightclubs in Boston and I was part of the house band for Dionne Warwick. I got to sing with Dionne. And I played behind Moms Mabley. You may be too young for that but she was a famous black female comedienne. This was like in college days and I was Musical Director for Maxine Brown. She was a famous R&B vocalist.

You have another CD coming out this spring. Can you tell us a little about that?

My group, the Bernie Worrell Orchestra, you can go on the website and learn about the orchestra. They’re a nine piece group. I call them my kids cause they’re all in their twenties and they can play all different types of music. There’s a new CD coming out hopefully by the end of March. We’re working on that as we speak. I have a session tonight. But you’ll see all that on the website []

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