On Saturday June 25, Bernie Worrell was trending on Facebook, but for the worst possible reason. The keyboard innovator with Parliament-Funkadelic, Talking Heads, Praxis, Ginger Baker, and so many other great musicians had died the previous day after a long battle with lung cancer in Everson, Washington. Worrell was 72. He joins a long list of musical luminaries who've passed away in 2016: David Bowie, Prince, Phife Dawg, Merle Haggard, Maurice White, Paul Kantner, Prince Be, and Keith Emerson, the flamboyant ELP keyboardist whom Worrell claimed was an inspiration for his own playing.
Especially for his tenure in P-Funk, Worrell exerted a vast influence on funk and hiphop—few musicians have been more frequently sampled—with vamps and motifs that displayed a classical rigor and flamboyant melodiousness amid their catalytic rhythmic heft. If Bernie had only done Parliament's "Flash Light," he'd still deserve Hall of Fame status. (Stranger freelancer Michaelangelo Matos compiled 10 songs that reflect Worrell's fierce virtuosity and range for Billboard.)
Seattle producer/musician Randall Dunn had the privilege of recording some of Worrell's last sessions at Avast! Studio with the band Khu.éex' over the last year-and-a-half. We met up Saturday to discuss the influence Worrell has had on his musical life and on the music world in general.
"If you just take the synthesizer and the impact he's had on how people play that instrument, it's every bit as powerful as any synth player," Dunn says. "It was kind of a ubiquitous sound from about '73 to '88, then it got resurfaced again through sampling. Snoop Dogg and a lot of West Coast rap... it's all him.
"The last session we had," Dunn continues, "I was telling him, it's cool to record you because you've always been in my life, from when I smoked my first joint and listened to Maggot Brain in a car to now, recording him. I never realized how much synth playing was from him. I always thought it was John Carpenter, but playing a mono synth, I'm way more influenced by [Worrell] than any of that stuff that's hip now."
Dunn says that there are hours of unreleased material that Worrell recorded with him. "The new session, which I haven't even mixed, there are like 15 or 20 songs that are so incredible," he says. "Those are the last sessions we did. Those are among the last sessions he ever did, I guess. That was just Khu.éex's stuff we were doing. I think he had a solo album he was working on, too. We talked about doing something else, but he needed to work, mostly. Khu.éex' was work and some of the other things he did around that time were work. He was trying to make some money."
Did Dunn's sessions with Worrell differ in any significant way with other gigs he's had? "I've been fortunate to work with people who are in my record collection, people I love. So when you work with somebody like that, that's your elder. They have so much more experience than you. You think it's going to be really hard and challenging to you. And it is in some ways. But in some ways, it's very affirming. Because you realize that as you get older and better, you relax. You do so much more in a short amount of time than most people do their whole day. Bernie was able to play and improvise seven or eight songs a day, some of them from scratch. That's not something I see anymore. I don't see that level of playing anymore, outside the jazz community. I think even 10 or 15 years ago, the average rock musician was more competent."
Dunn also laments the lack of seriousness he witnesses among rock musicians, asserting that they're more interested in entertainment than in music. "People look at bands like Funkadelic and see the entertainment side and they pick up on that. But they don't understand that the people in that band were such incredible musicians from the church, from the R&B scene. Their skill level was so high. Bernie was kind of the musical director of Funkadelic, and of Talking Heads. He was the rehearsing guy, he knew everybody's parts. I don't see that kind of command as much as I used to. I see it in the older generations, but it's becoming more rare in the younger generations. I suppose every generation says that, but I see more acutely technologically based deficiencies these days than I've ever seen."
Dunn learned many things while working with Bernie. "Simplicity. Being okay with humor in music again. Intense grace. I learned that you can go for it even if you completely fuck up. Which I knew already. Sometimes you see people go for it and then say, 'How was that?' But he would just go deep, and at the end of it he would not be judging it. Either he knew that it was amazing or he knew that it wasn't really his decision to make. Sometimes he would just turn it on. I don't know what it was. A lot of times he'd be comping behind somebody, it would be mellow, and then all of a sudden you'd see him turn it on. When he would do that, you'd be like, 'Shit!' Either that's having that command as you get older or... I think he's always been that way, actually. It just got more refined.
"He said some stuff about music and gratitude toward the people you're working with, environment—all those things resonate deeply with me. He was a very loving person. He found his way to love and connect with people through music. That's really inspiring. A lot of times with music these days, especially rock, people don't talk like that as much as they used to. It's either relegated to hippies or jam bands or something else. It's not cool to be like that, I guess. But it really is what music is. So being able to connect with him in that way, you have this layer of music and craftsmanship, but deep down, you just connect on a pure love for sound.
"His concepts of harmony, people don't have that as much anymore. People don't have the vocabulary in modern music, in pop music or rock that he has—the vocabulary of church music, classical music. The funny thing about him is, the way he came to the synthesizer is because he got into Emerson Lake & Palmer. He was completely into prog and not a lot of people know that about him. And when you put that together with growing up with church and R&B music, it totally makes sense. We could have a conversation about King Crimson, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Rivers. You could have this deep conversation about any form of music with Bernie. People in the '70s, '80s, and even into the '90s moved through music as a voice rather than genres or scenes. That's something that's lacking these days. Bernie made me think about that a lot."
Dunn says he could detect a slight diminishment of Bernie's skills in those final sessions because his arthritis had worsened. However, the "ideas were all there, but the body may have prevented him here and there from really putting it out there. But if that was him diminished, he's still a thousand times better than anyone else I've ever worked with or seen. His mastery of the B3 [Hammond organ] and the clavinet, his concepts of rhythm, are super-advanced and beautiful. He's the man."
If Bernie had any crazy, memorable stories about his days with Funkadelic, Talking Heads, Ginger Baker, or Fela Kuti, etc., he preferred that Dunn not relay them. "He was always very nice about everybody. He told some good debauchery stories that I'll leave secret. [laughs] He told me that Talking Heads 'liked to get up on those tours.'"
Because Worrell was a bit older than most of the guys in Funkadelic, "he was basically the babysitter," Dunn says. "He had to wake people up and make sure they got to the gig. He said it was horrible. I can only imagine. From tour managing Sunn O))), I know what he's talking about. But Bernie was always gracious. 'But they were the best,' he would say. I never heard him talk bad shit about anybody, even George Clinton. He would move around it, like judo."
Seattle saxophonist Skerik had the good fortune to play with Worrell in Khu.éex'. He'd met Worrell in 2000 or 2001 while on tour with Les Claypool at Bonnaroo; Bernie was playing there in his group Woo Warriors, and Skerik sat in with them for a bit for that performance. "He was the sweetest person in the world," Skerik said in a phone interview. "He was a pure conduit of music. I've never seen anything like it.
"I don't mean to say that in a way to demean the other musicians I play with," he continued. "He just had this really special connection to wherever music comes from, this unknown energy, this spirit, he had such a strong link to it. Every time he did an overdub [in the Avast! Studio], a whole crowd of people would assemble. I don't even know where they came from. But they were watching him as if it were a concert. He'd be in the performance room and we'd be isolated in the control room. There would always be applause after he got done playing. They couldn't believe what he was doing. He could always do it perfectly in one take. It was incredible. Bernie's like Charlie Parker in terms of being able to improvise upon any kind of music."
Skerik stressed how much fun it was to play live with Worrell, who entered Khu.éex' thanks to the tireless efforts of the band's bassist (and a renowned glass artist), Preston Singletary, who flew Bernie to Washington many times to jam with them before the late musician moved to this state. "He loved to interject all kinds of humor and creativity, just crazy shit. There was no limit. I've been reading people's dedications to Bernie online and a lot of times they refer to him as a funk musician, but he's so beyond any one genre. He's a classically trained child prodigy who was playing with symphonies. Then he was a musical director for Maxine Brown. His understanding of music theory and harmony was very deep. He could interject any style at any time into any style of music he was playing at any time—which is incredible"
Skerik recounts how Lupe Flores from Wild Powwers used to see Worrell at her workplace, Hattie's Hat, because he would stay in the hotel across the street. "He would come in there and play his melodica with everybody and hang out," Skerik says. "He was getting a lot of love, and spiritual support here."
At one point in our interview, Skerik became too choked up with emotion to speak. He eventually regained his composure and said, "All of us feel so thankful and lucky to have this three-year experience with him. It's really a gift. I can't even believe it happened."