WELCOME TO THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF WOO
By Corinne Heft
This past week I had the opportunity to speak with funk legend Bernie Worrell. For the funk-ignorant, Bernie Worrell was/is the keyboardist for the supergroup Parliament-Funkadelic (P-Funk), that seventies phenomena which showered the people with all things funky and wild.
A child prodigy, Worrell studied music at the New England Conservatory of Music as well as Julliard. Coincidentally he was from the same N.J. town as the patriarch of Parliament-Funkadelic, George Clinton, and the two met while Worrell was still in his teens. Worrell's conservative background mixed with Clinton's revolutionary sounds, which were heavy in bass, dripping guitar, and rhythmic percussion, to create a new sound which funk scholar Ricky Vincent describes in his book Funk: "Worrell's competence in classical European Musical forms collided and combined with [Parliament's] twisted black urban sensibilities to generate a bizarre dichotomy of perspectives-as if Shakespeare and stagger Lee were dropping acid together in da hood." This result was something like the music industry had never heard before.
It is Bernie Worrell who is attributed with creating "the ultimate funk effect," the synthesizer bass line. Worrell's bass line was composed of stacked bass tones; this created a more powerful bass sound than that created with the traditional bass guitar.
Worrell was an integral part of Parliament-Funkadelic and recorded over fifty albums with Parliament-Funkadelic and some other side projects which were spawned as a result of the supergroup's musically endowed gene pool.
Among several other projects, Worrell is currently leading The Woo Warriors, an eclectic group of virtuoso musicians pushing funk's limits into the new millennium. Consisting of two keyboardists, Worrell and his protege, La Mar Mitchell, guitarist Dave Fiuczynski ("Fuze") of The Screaming Headless Torsos, Van Romaine who has drummed with Naughty by Nature, The Steve Morse Band and Blood, Sweat & Tears, and bassist Winston Roye who has played for Herbie Hancock, Joan Osborne and Queen Latifah, to name a few. The band also boasts vocalist Catherine Russell ("Cat") who has done projects with the likes of Madonna, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, and Chaka Khan.
I called Bernie at his New Jersey home to get the low down on Woo. First off I needed to know just what exactly is Woo? "Woo is a vibe or feeling that draws people into whatever your wooing....food, money, sex. It's a type of feeling that draws you into something you like to feel good with," explained Worrell. The Woo Warriors themselves are all about "versatility". There are many different elements which are coming together including comedy, classical, funk, country, and rock. Worrell described their performances as being "like a variety show".
We discussed the evolution of funk over the past twenty years. . Worrell commented, "everything is always evolving...[funk evolves] from people being introduced to it and feeling it. This is the main point of funk conception, once they feel it other things come to them." Funk definitely seems to be having a comeback based on the success of smaller groove bands. Furthermore, rap artists have brought funk to the mainstream as rap artists "intertwine" funk samplings into their songs.
Worrell enjoys playing all types of music including classical and jazz. He also dabbles on drums and bass guitar. As for recent bands, Worrell is impressed by the Fujees, but like myself, he is more into classic rock, and spends alot of time listing to Hendrix, Cream and Led Zeppelin. He also is a fan of Reggae. He and his wife/manager, Judie have a 22 year old son Bassl who is "into the rap scene," but definitely groove's on dad's funky past. "He's into it...he gets off on Bootsy [Collins]," says dad.
While Worrell is bringing funk and Woo into the 21st century, he's trying to keep the 21st century out of the music. Although he's becoming more "computer friendly," Worrell only uses computers minimally, mostly when recording. Computers can copy the sounds, "so you only need to play a few bars. It takes away from the feel, but then again it saves time." If there is one thing Worrell needs its time conservation because he is one busy guy. Aside from his Woo Warriors, Worrell has a new solo CD called Free Agent. It's already been released in Japan, and will soon be available in the US on the Rykodisc label. The music on Free Agent is described by Worrell as "ambient with funk undertones mixed with African sounds." He's also playing with a band called 3rd Rail ; he's in the studio with AZA which also features Reel Calhoun, the drummer from Living Color, and T.M Stevens, "bass player extrodinaire". He will also be touring in Europe and Japan. All this music leaves little time for Worrell's hobbies: horseback riding and fishing.
Worrell and his Woo Warriors unleashed some furious funk for a very intimate crowd at Club Toast. Their original compositions might be described as Primus meets the Brand New Heavies. Catherine Russell's vocals were powerful, and it is no surprise that she has performed in Broadway musicals. Worrell and Mitchell proved that two keyboards are better than one. The thing I noticed the most was the terrific interplay between band members. They were really feeding off one another, and constantly smiling while wildly jamming on their instruments. Along with some vibrant originals, fans were treated to some oldies but goodies: "Tear the Roof Off The Sucker," "Flashlight," "Can You Get To That," and several goodies off the 1972 Funkadelic album America Eats Its Young: including "You Hit the Nail on the Head," and "If You Don't Like the Effect, Don't Produce the Cause."
Bernie Worrell and The Woo Warriors showed Vermont that funk is alive and well, and will undoubtedly groove us into the next millennium.