A week ago, while driving through the parched landscape of the high desert from Bishop to San Bernardino, the two-disc Axiom Funk compilation, Funkcronomicon, provided an unusual soundtrack to the bare hills, Joshua Trees, and the endless ribbon of asphalt that rolled on through the hours.
The great keyboardist Bernie Worrell, the "Wizard of Woo," died today at age 72 from lung cancer. A classical piano prodigy who studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music, Worrell was propelled to fame with this central role in funkmeister George Clinton's masterful ensemble, Parliament/Funkadelic, for many years.
In the early 1990s, Worrell joined forces with fellow P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins; D.J. Af Next Man Flip, formerly Afrika Baby Bam of the great hip-hop group Jungle Brothers; drummer Brain (Bryan Mantia, later with Primus, Guns 'N Roses and others) and the phenomenal guitarist Buckethead in the Bill-Laswell produced collective, Praxis.
1992's debut record by the group, Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis), was mind-blowing and innovative a quarter century ago and is still striking today. The recording is full of interesting and strangely complementary mixes of metal, hip-hop, funk, electronics and other elements and takes great advantage of the talents of its five disparate, but well-synchronized members.
Worrell's organ, clavinet and synthesizer works particularly well as a foil for Buckethead's amazing pyrotechnics and the steady backing of Collins and Brain. Laswell's production work is excellent, providing the right level of mixing for each performer and leaving space in the final product to hear the ensemble in all of its remarkable glory.
"Animal Behavior", with Collins' typically humorous vocal, is the closest thing to a standard tune on the album and its relaxed funk groove included some tasty Worrell organ playing. The end of the tune features some beautiful melodic guitar work from Buckethead. "Crash Victim/Black Science Navigator" is a crazed conglomeration of shredding guitar, sharp organ, and a strong, steady beat from the rhythm section, before Af Next Man Flip does his thing on the second half.
Worrell gets the spotlight in "Seven Laws of Woo," a play on his nickname, and the tune then heads into a metal-inflected jam that rocks hard and has another great Buckethead solo. "Dead Man Walking" highlights Buckethead's astounding guitar abilities before the tune hits a solid funk groove punctuated by all kinds of electronic sounds and turntable work. The "Interworld and the New Innocence" features some more delicate and memorable playing by Buckethead before the band breaks out into a harder-rocking section, where Worrell gets a clavinet workout with his organ accompaniment. The record's 16-minute epic, "After Shock (Chaos Never Died)" includes some more fine Worrell workouts, including some haunting organ playing.
The whole album is fantastic, showcasing the strengths of the quintet with Laswell's crystalline production serving the proceedings very well. This is one of many apt testimonials to the amazing talent of Bernie Worrell.