Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Bernie Worrell with Bill Laswell - Part 2 of 3

Since the early eighties, keyboard virtuoso Bernie Worrell has explored many musical universes with bassist, producer, conceptualist and overall musical visionary Bill Laswell. Indeed, Laswell has been the architect of quite a number of Worrell’s solo recordings, from Funk of Ages (Gramavision, 1991) and Blacktronic Science (Gramavision, 1993) to Pieces of Woo (CMP, 1993) and Free Agent – A Spaced Odyssey (Polystar, 1997). Here is the second part of three posts devoted to some of the more interesting Bill Laswell productions that are aided and abetted in some significant way by keyboard wizard Bernie Worrell.

Transmutation (Mutatus Mutandis) - Praxis (Axiom/1992): Bill Laswell originally conceived Praxis in 1984 as a drum-driven sample fest. The result was something like metal-edged dance music, but, seemingly, it never caught on. When Praxis resurfaced in 1992, it emerged as this sort of super group, fronted by guitar shredder Buckethead (Brian Patrick Carroll) and former Godflesh/Primus/Guns N’ Roses drummer Brain (Bryan Mantia) – who are both constants in the group’s later performances – with former P-Funksters Bootsy Collins on Space Bass and vocals and Bernie Worrell on keyboards. Starting here, Praxis evolved more into a sort of jam band that succinctly fuses rock, metal, funk and jazz together, not entirely dissimilar to John Zorn’s Naked City, except Praxis blends the disparate music much more successfully than Naked City’s Cuisinart (chew it up and spit it out) approach. And Praxis has the funk that holds it all together. Ain’t no funk in Naked City. Not much soul either. While Praxis occasionally makes for some un-easy listening, it is never uninteresting. As one of four leaders, Bernie Worrell’s presence is more prominent here than most of his non-solo appearances often allow. Worrell is listed as co-writer on a whopping five of the album’s nine tracks (“Dead Man Walking,” “Seven Laws of Woo,” “The Interworld and the New Innocence,” “Giant Robot/Machines in the Modern City/Godzilla”and 16-minute anthem “After Shock (Chaos Never Died”) and his organ factors throughout most of the record but is most prominent on “Stimulation Loop,” “Animal Behavior,” “Seven Laws of Woo” and “After Shock.” There’s also Worrell’s tasty electric piano on “Crash Victim,” the synthesizer on “The Interworld and the New Innocence” and “Machines in the Modern City” and the exciting clavinet on “After Shock.” The album’s highlights are many and include the funky “Animal Behavior,” a feature for Bootsy Collins that evolves into a guitar anthem, allowing Buckethead to beautifully resurrect the ghost of Eddie Hazel, the groove-laden “Dead Man Walking,” the Funkadelic redux of “Seven Laws of Woo,” the doomed groove of the exploratory “The Interworld and the New Innocence,” which finds Bootsy nicely setting the pace on Space Bass, and the exceptionally fine rough-edged jazz funk meets free jazz of “After Shock (Chaos Never Died),” an extended and welcome feature almost exclusively for Bernie Worrell. All in all, this is an exceptional album which, unfortunately, may be a bit difficult to track down (affordably) now. Bernie Worrell can also be heard on the Praxis albums Sacrifist (Subharmonic, 1994) and Tennessee 2004 (ROIR, 2007).

Hallucination Engine - Material (Axiom/1994): You never know what you’re going to get with a Material album other than Bill Laswell’s presence, his unbelievably diverse musical mood swings and the eclectic musicians he chooses to accomplish the job. Here, Laswell is aiming for some sort of world fusion music in the spirit of Weather Report with an updated concentration on the middle-eastern flavored dub he seemed to be favoring at the time. The Weather Report connection is brought to the fore by the presence of Wayne Shorter on several tracks and a cover of the group’s funky 1974 classic “Cucumber Slumber.” Bernie Worrell figures marvelously on “Cucumber Slumber,” undoubtedly the album’s highlight, providing the electric piano backbone that makes this engaging romp, cleverly Laswell-ized, very much worth exploring. Worrell also provides funky electric piano doodles behind William S. Burroughs on “Words of Advice” and Hammond organ washes to an unusual but haunting cover of John Coltrane’s “Naima,” which Laswell takes the lead on bass and presents in a way as to suggest Joe Zawinul’s “In A Silent Way.” Much of the remainder of this 67-minute CD stays in the Middle Eastern dub mode, which is, depending on your point of view, either a good thing or a bad thing. While it’s been a while since a new Material disc has appeared, Worrell can also be heard ever so briefly on The Third Power (Axiom, 1991) and on “All That Future” from Intonarumori (Palm Pictures, 1999).

Funkcronomicon - Axiom Funk (Axiom/1995): This little-known collective arrived late in the funk lexicon, at least a decade and a half after the era’s golden years had ended, but truly stands as one of the finest and most essential documents of funk there is. More or less a compilation of previously released nuggets of hot funk (originally performed under any number of names), coupled with a bevy of previously unissued slices of good groove, the two-disc Funkcronomicon represents nothing less than a full-fledged P-Funk reunion, conceived and directed by Bill Laswell. The P-Funksters aren’t necessarily “together,” but effectively populate a variety of Bill Laswell productions that, given their parentage, effectively coalesce into something of a P-Funk update (note the way Pedro Bell’s cover either cleverly or oddly places “Axiom Funk” overtop what is obviously a Funkadelic logo). On board here are P-Funksters George Clinton (on two tracks), Bootsy Collins (on nine tracks), Bernie Worrell (on eight tracks), Eddie Hazel (on three tracks, all with Bernie Worrell, which must have been recorded right before his 1992 death from internal bleeding and liver failure), Gary “Mudbone” Cooper (on three tracks), Blackbyrd McKnight (on three tracks), Gary Shider (on two tracks), Maceo Parker (on two tracks) and Michael Hampton, Sly Stone and Fred Wesley each on one track apiece. Only “Telling Time,” a funky enough tune itself, originally from Nicky Skopelitus’s Ekstasis (Axiom, 1993), features no P-Funk connection whatsoever. Bernie Worrell’s presence here, as it was with Parliament/Funkadelic, is substantial, a necessary grounding in the band’s free-form flights of fancy – which often account for its best moments. Worrell dominates “Order Within The Universe,” the genuinely perfect black rock of “Orbitron Attack” (also featuring Eddie Hazel, Bootsy Collins and Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey), “Cosmic Slop” (originally from the Material album The Third Power - Axiom, 1991), “Pray My Soul” (with Eddie Hazel, the obligatory “Maggot Brain” styled piece), George Clinton’s “Hideous Mutant Freekz” (the previously unreleased theme from the 1993 film Freaked), Maceo Parker’s “Sax Machine” (like “Tell The World,” originally from the Maceo Parker disc For All The King’s Men - 4th & B’way, 1990), “Animal Behavior” (originally from the Praxis album Transmutation (Mutatus Mutandis) - Axiom, 1992) and “Sacred to the Pain” (with Eddie Hazel and Umar Bin Hassan). Additional highlights of the Funkcronimicon abound and include George Clinton’s “Under The Influence” (with Herbie Hancock, Sly & Robbie and the brilliant chant “funk ‘em just to see the look on their face”), Bootsy Collins’ deliriously perfect take on Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” (which also appears on the 1996 soundtrack album Stealing Beauty and was remixed for Altered Beats – Assassin Knowledges of the Remanipulated, Axiom/1996), Bootsy’s phenomenal “Free-Bass” with a stunning guitar manned by one Menace (the Dawg of the C) on, appropriately enough, stun guitar, and Blackbyrd McKnight’s tremendous solo piece “Blackout,” a reminder of those bracing mid-period Funkadelic romps he helmed ever so effortlessly. The interesting “Jungle Free-Bass,” a feature for the dueling basses of Bootsy Collins and Bill Laswell (no drummer is credited), seems to be a sequel or response to the far superior “Jungle Bass” (4th & B’way), which is inexplicably not included here and would probably make Funkcronomicon absolutely essential. P-Funk fans may also want to check out the Billy “Bass” Nelson-led Funkadelic update Out Of The Dark (Black Arc/Ryko, 1993), listed under the name of O.G. Funk. Bill Laswell produces and Bernie Worrell participates. It’s debatable how essential this is (a little too much singing and hip-hop for these tastes). But Worrell provides organ washes on “Funk Is In The House,” “I Wanna Know” (based on Funkadelic’s “I Wanna Know If It’s Good To You?), “Out of the Dark,” the Stones-sounding “I’ve Been Alone,” “Don’t Take Your Love From Me” and synth on “Funkadelic Groupie” It may be good for some, but not necessarily for Bernie Worrell listeners hoping to hear either his playing or influence. Funkcronomicon, however, is far more interesting and essential as a document of the classic black rock and soulful music known as funk, though it may be inexplicably hard to find these days.

South Delta Space Age - Third Rail (Antilles/1995): Guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer invariably moves far beyond the confines of traditional jazz – even when he makes what others call “jazz” records. His music often veers wildly and happily into all-out rock, the avant garde, R&B, blues and sometimes, as in the case of South Delta Space Age, funk rock – something he’d probably call “black rock.” His guitar, a curiously fascinating mix of some of the swamp blues players like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and the more outré jazz melodicism of say Sonny Sharock or even Gabor Szabo, always seems to contradict the settings he’s placed in, yet still sounds refreshingly at home in whatever groove he’s jamming on. Despite a notable yet brief stint with Ornette Coleman, Ulmer’s playing and music too often gets labeled as harmolodic, though it is always much closer to some of the rock-funk-soul experimentalism that Jimi Hendrix never gets enough credit for and a combination of some of the more outward bound guitarists in jazz, funk, rock and blues. “Jazz is the teacher,” he says. “Funk is the preacher.” So while it must be cool to be credited with Coleman’s patented aphorism, there’s very little aural evidence – outside of, possibly, 1978’s Tales of Captain Black, which also features Coleman – where Ulmer proves that harmolodics is his métier or even something he’s interested in exploring. Under Bill Laswell’s direction, Ulmer conceived Third Rail, vividly bringing his funk rock to life with a cast featuring Ulmer on guitar and vocals (for about half the album’s nine tracks), Bernie Worrell and Amina Claudine Myers on organ and other keyboards, Bill Laswell on bass and famed Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste on drums and percussion. It’s a heady brew that updates the earliest of the Funkadelic grooves for an entirely new audience approaching the turn of the century. Half the songs feature vocals, despite the barest minimum of lyrical content, and are – rather unfortunately – helmed by the less-than capable bluesy vocalisms of Ulmer himself. Pretty much all of it (except the seemingly out-of-place ballad “Please Tell Her”) falls into the funk-rock or Johnny “Guitar” Watson-like blues-funk realm. There are a number of Hammond B-3 organ solos (“Grounded,” “In The Name Of,” the P-Funk-ish “Itchin;” “Blues March” and “Lord Thank You”) that surely sound like Bernie Worrell did back at his very best during his Funkadelic glory days. It could be Myers just as easily as Worrell. But my money is on Worrell. The breaks smoke like only Bernie Worrell can. Worrell is also prominent on clavinet for the bizarre, post P-Funk rant of “Dusted” and Bill Laswell offers a particularly notable reconstruction of (and tribute to) Bootsy Collins’ watery Space Bass on “Blues March.” This is a rare example of mostly strong latter day funk that any funkateer or Blood fan will recognize and appreciate right away. It might be a bit more prickly, though, for other listeners to get or even get down with. But its their loss. There’s something funky going on here and it’s worth hearing. The Third Rail collective would reconvene not too long hereafter, with Modeliste replaced by P-Funk veteran Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey on drums, under Ulmer’s own name for Blue Blood (Innerhythmic, 2001).

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