Listening to Bernie Worrell play keyboards was like taking a trip into outer space. Sure, he spent the better of a career perfecting, dissecting and retooling all manners of groove. But at his best, Worrell took flight. The sounds he created left earthbound rhythm behind and went bouncing around the cosmos, unfurling in waves and textures that were distinctly his own.
Take the way his synthesizer work on the Talking Heads classic Burning Down the House blasted through the melody like a theremin at the song’s conclusion or examine his early ‘70s work with Funkadelic, George Clinton’s evil twin counterpart band to Parliament that threw funk into a psychedelic blender. Better still, give a listen to the scores of other projects he has been a part of, from world beat sessions with Fela Kuti to collaborations with former Lexington groove troupe Catawampus Universe. Worrell was always the player that knocked a groove or a melody on its ear with a progressive charge that was orchestral in its expansiveness, elemental in its sense of soul and unendingly playful in its sentiment.
Best of all, Worrell’s appeal was remarkably diverse. As one of the chief musical architects in Clinton’s Parliament ranks, he helped refine funk music for R&B crowds. Witness the still exquisite party anthem Flash Light for proof. But for artsy, post new wave audiences, there was his work with Talking Heads – specifically, the headier groove experiments on 1983’s Speaking in Tongues and the landmark concert film Stop Making Sense made from the record’s subsequent tour. Worrell played Lexington with both bands in 1977 and 1983, respectively.
But his best local viewing came through a series of club shows in the late ‘90s at the long-defunct Lynagh’s Music Club with his Woo Warriors band. Worrell may not have been in prizefighting form at those performances as he so clearly was in Stop Making Sense. But the club appearances, executed as career overviews of sorts, were ripe with animation and invention that presented Worrell without the Clinton sideshow of his Parliament-Funkadelic years.
Lexington also provided a famed non-appearance for the keyboardist. Having been recruited by Chrissie Hynde for the Pretenders’ underrated 1986 comeback album Get Close, Worrell and bassist T.M. Stevens were sacked from the band just prior to its January 1987 performance at Memorial Coliseum with Iggy Pop. Hynde even held court for two days of rehearsals at the venue to work in replacements.
All of these adventures added up to an unrelenting original voice – so much so that when news broke of Worrell’s death yesterday at age 72, the tune I reached for first was the live version of Crosseyed and Painless that served as the finale to Stop Making Sense. It began with sunshine and psychedelia then jumped lines into the most feverish funk Talking Heads ever recorded. Worrell isn’t even that present as a soloist on the performance. But listen to the groove and all the profound color surrounding it. That’s where you heard him – in the engine room making the music soar like a rocketship.