Back to the Woo - The Synth Funk Seduction of Bernie Worrell - KeyboardMag

Back to the Woo - The Synth Funk Seduction of Bernie Worrell

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Bernie Worrell sometimes wonders how he got so pigeonholed. In many ways, he still thinks of himself as the classically trained piano whiz kid who wrote concertos and performed as a symphonic soloist while still in his single-digits. He seems surprised that neither journalists nor fans pick up on his mastery of the solo piano repertoire and its often not-so-subtle influence on his live and recorded performances. In his Woo-niverse, as he views and pronounces it, melodic ideas spring forth, contrapuntal lines intertwine, and colors advance and recede.

"My sense of orchestration comes from playing Bach fugues," he explains, his soft voice indicating that you'd have to be pretty thick not to see it for yourself. "You get a sense of color and textures when you study classical music, as I have. You've got your woodwind section, the strings, the horns, the percussion — if you've been brought up around that, you're aware of different textures”

Could the confusion have something to do with Bernie's partial responsibility for such tunes as "Get Off Your Ass and Jam," "Give Up the Funk,""Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication," and "P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)"? Perhaps it's related to his long association with Funkadelic, Parliament, and other George Clinton-mediated super-funk projects? Or maybe it's due to the fact that Bernie was the first person known for playing bass lines on a Minimoog, defining the formula for packing a dance floor?

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Confusion, schmoosion. It's just hard to remember all those opus numbers while you're shakin' yer booty, which is what Bernie is enticing us to do, anyway. And to help, he's been taking his band, the Woo Warriors, to clubs in Europe, Japan, and nationwide for the past couple of years. (Yes, "Woo" means woo. It's Bernie's nom de funk, too.) With a second keyboardist (Gregg Fitz, Amp Fiddler, and LaMar Mitchell have all held the chair at various times), and a stable of major funk talent on drums, bass, guitar, and vocals, Bernie has set out to woo the funk world again. A healthy dose of classic P-funk titles mixed with tunes from Sly Stone, Talking Heads, and Jimi Hendrix gives Bernie just the right amount of structure and freedom to strut his unique blend of grooving Clay madness, cartoon-like synth lead lines, and improvised wizardry.

Whether or not you've ever picked up on the Bach fugue influence, it's likely that you've fallen under Bernie's spell at one time or another. His bass lines are works of in-the-pocket art, and though they're widely imitated and sampled, it's unlikely that you'll ever hear more grooving lines than those in the

Parliament hits "Flash Light" and "Aqua Boogie" (see Example 1, page 72). His wah-drenched Clay parts are among the funkiest things you'll ever hear. You may not think of J.S. Bach when you hear the Wizard of Woo play, but just try to count the parts he's laying down.

Bernie acknowledges the effect that his playing and the subsequent synth bass revolution of the mid-'70s had on bass players. "I didn't mean to displace bass players," he says. "It was a fluke. It just happened. Everybody heard it and it was a big hit. Then I started getting calls for all these sessions, and I'd say, `Wassup, where are all the bass players?"

Another Woo trademark from the P-funk years is his ability to take an abrasive or obnoxious synth sound and use it to express a melodic idea, the humor and irony of it adding to the funkiness of the groove. Then as now, one of his preferred synths for this was the ARP Pro Soloist. With aftertouch modulating the filter and LFO, Bernie gets a vocal quality that at times can sound like talking or laughing — although the lines themselves are often enough to break up the room (see Examples 2 – 5 on pages 72 – 74).

In fact, one of the goals of the Warriors is to provide Bernie with a place to cut it up. "With the Woo Warriors," he says, "I can have more of a slapstick comedy routine, like my hero, Victor Borges. I'd even like to have a musical sitcom someday” Every member of the Woo Warriors seems plugged into this philosophy; catch them live and you're likely to hear quotes from cartoon themes such as "Popeye," "Peanuts," and "The Flintstones" in the middle of a guitar or bass solo. He himself is prone to quoting Peter and the Wolf, My Fair Lady, Chopin waltzes, and other gems from his classical upbringing.

Bernie is also responsible for another widely imitated P-funk characteristic: the use of multiple tonalities. In many of their songs from the mid-‘70s, Bernie can be heard playing in keys unrelated to that of the rest of the band, modulating wildly over a long vamp, or just plain going outside. With all of the other traditionally unpredictable elements of George Clinton production occurring simultaneously, such subtleties may be lost on first listen. But they certainly didn’t escape the notice of many bands and producers who came later, notably Prince.

The Wizard of Woo is less enthusiastic about what has become hip-hop’s general disregard for tonality, thought. “A lot of these kids today, they just know how to push a button,” he laments. “They don’t know how to make a chord. They don’t even know how to come up with things that match keys! In Jazz, we do that avant-garde stuff on purpose”, he says. “It means something. But the hip-hop dissonance- does it bother me? Yes. I don’t like it. I’ve got perfect pitch, so it can be gratin to me. Unless it’s done on purpose”.

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Bernie’s influence over the Parliament/ Funkadelic mayhem goes deeper than the parts he played. Bernie was an integral part of the production team that included Clinton and bassist Bootsy Collins. "Those sessions were wild and crazy," he recalls with a laugh. "Too many people. Coming from the classical world, I felt I had to organize things, because all that was going on was a groove feeling. I had to bring a little order into it, a little discipline. Everything was so loud, and we had so many players! We had three or four guitars, three drummers, so we had to use different combinations of people to get through the sessions. That's why we did so many things, and that's why there were so many offshoot groups."

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Songwriting was very groove-oriented with P-funk. "We'd just start out jamming and we'd roll tape;' he recalls. "Then we'd formulate it later. A lot of the time there'd just be drums, Bootsy [Collins, bassist], and myself. I'd work out the changes, then we'd start overdubbing, then George would come in and do a scratch vocal. He'd hum a part and I'd write it down, translate it to the rest of the musicians. They'd do vocals, and put his parts down. Then we'd do more overdubbing”.
One of Bernie's favorite albums from that period is Funkadelic's America Eats Its Young. "I was really going strong, classically," he explains. "There are a lot of worked-out counter-melodies on some of those tunes. Cordell Mosson [bassist] and Tyrone Lampkin were pretty accomplished jazzers, so we could do a lot more on that album”.

Horn and string arranging chores naturally fell to the man with the orchestral background. "I had [James Brown horn players] Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker and the Brecker brothers play on some of the same sessions”, he recalls. "It was great writing charts for that horn section; it was a dream come true. There was so much mutual respect. I'd studied orchestration, but even so, they felt that my charts were maybe a bit difficult. Fred and Maceo would always say, 'Oh, boy, get your chops out’, every-time I'd give them an arrangement. Whenever I'd see Michael Brecker in the street, he'd say, ‘Man, I'll never forget that session.’"

Even when talking about the origins of the Parliament sound, Bernie is wary of being pigeonholed. "We were into funk then, sure," he says. "But we were raw funk and psychedelia. We were into Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Hendrix mixed with funk. Just like Zeppelin used some of our riffs, we incorporated some of their ideas into our thing. Eddie Hazel [guitarist] had his own thing, but sometimes he would get that Jimmy Page thing going. Tiki Fulwood [drummer] had a big, heavy Bonham-type sound. That mixed with this classical dude — me —and whatever R&B influence I had, and the sound became a legend.”

In fact, P-funk was closer to the heavy rock scene than you might think. "We used to hang with MC5, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, and Ted Nugent. We'd do outdoor shows with Ted. We were there with the wild man with the boar's heads on his Marshall stacks! In fact, we were sitting in his trailer with him when his guitar, the fat white Gibson, was stolen.”

That said, the Funkmeister does have opinions about what funk is. "Funk is a feel. A lot of people say it's the way I voice chords. But the voicings come from classical, jazz, and funk. People say I have interesting voicings, but it just comes from classical music. Plus, it's got to do with where you place things, rhythmically —ahead of the beat or behind the beat — and in terms of the register.

"It doesn't take a lot of chops to play funk, R&B, or rock. You don't have to be a virtuoso — you definitely don't want to be all notes and no feeling. But you need your basics. I'd suggest learning your rudiments: harmony, theory, and scales. Take your favorite record or song, and just study it. Dissect it. See how the chords are voiced.

"I don't want to tell anybody what they should do," he demurs. "This is just what I'd do. Everybody's going to do something different. But I do like showing people what they could do."