Bernie Worrell: Jazz Standards @ The Bitter End (01.20.11)
For music heads like us, it is nights like these that we live for, nights like these that we crave! A night where one of your favorite musicians step outside of his genre to show you a softer side. A night where one of your favorite musicians surprisingly joins a stage he wasn’t slated to be on. It is the moment when the music takes a drastic turn in the most unexpected ways and the musicians you love show you that they have more to give in a way you could imagine.
On this night, Bernie Worrell, a founding member of Parliament/Funkadelic and well known for his work with The Talking Heads, would carry into his musical world and show us just how he interprets Jazz Standards.
As I entered The Bitter End, a venue I had never frequented prior to this night, I recall feeling a musical presence immediately. I can’t put this sentiment into words really but in hindsight, without really knowing who I was seeing at first and eventually figuring out just who all I was going to see that night, you might possibly understand how I felt the power of all that talent in that room. There were some heavy, HEAVY hitters joining Bernie Worrell on stage this night.
The Bitter End is a famous place! Apparently, it is Manhattan’s longest running Rock Club even though tonight we would be delivered jazz mixed with a bit of the FUNK! The venue itself is small with a typical bar atmosphere towards the front. Continuing past the bar, the stage is situated on the right side of the venue surrounded by few tables and booths. The place was not large by any means, perhaps able to hold a few hundred people, less then 100 seats to be sure.
Upon settling into our table, I took a moment and introduced myself to Bernie’s wife, Judie Worrell. Such a vibrant creature, she was wearing fuzzy raver boots and purple tights. I liked her immediately. We discussed the set and made a plan to talk after the show. For now, I wanted to focus.
Bernie Worrell and Friends @ The Bitter End
Bernie’s rig was situated on the left side of the stage, a peninsula of keys consisting of a Mini Moog, Hohner Clavinet, ARP Pro Soloist, Kawai PH 50 (keyboard on top of the other keyboard), a Baby Grand and a Melodica (handheld).
He slipped into the seat, alone on stage, and proceeded to start the show with the gorgeous solo piano piece “Take the A Train”, a signature song of The Duke Ellington Orchestra and written by Billy “Sweet Pea” Strayhorn. I was speechless. Completely taken aback. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but watching Bernie Worrell, the king of funky keys, sitting there playing this beautiful jazz arrangement, sitting only a few feet from us, it was very special. It was an elegant moment for an otherwise dive-y bar/location.
Worrell studied both jazz and classical music at New England Conservatory of Music which makes me love him even more. After the lovely solo piano intro, the rest of the stage filled up with the remaining musicians that would provide a superb complimentary background to Bernie’s performance. A wonderful surprise was revealed as Will Bernard took the stage with his guitar. This is one of my favorite jazz guitarists on the NY scene and a complete surprise as, I believe, Smokey Hormell was slated to play. This cemented the night in my mind.
Bernie Worrell is a man full of flavor. He was wearing leather pants, purple and gold Nike kicks, a styling hat, and this trippy fish jacket. Oh man, I wish I could describe his jacket. But alas… the picture must suffice. Bernie introduced all the men on stage graciously. Apparently, the baby faced mutton chop wearin’ drummer Evan Taylor, was to thank for this night of music. It was his idea to put this project together and Bernie was ecstatic over this fact. So was the audience!
“It’s so GREAT to be able to play with these youngsters” ~ Bernie Worrell
The second song, wonderfully caught on video (thank you labellemusic), was Benny Golson‘s “Killer Joe.” The Chop Horns, consisting of Dave Watson and Daryl Dixon stood in front Steven Cage in the middle. I was unaware of who many of these artists were until tonight. I knew Bernie of course, and Will Bernard. But the other musicians on stage would proceed to slay me with their talent.
“Well, here we go!” screams Bernie as they head into “Aqua De Beber.” Andrew Kimball on bass took the first solo on this a bossa-nova jazz standard. I was shocked at how well the horns blended into the room. I was thinking that with horns like this in such a small space that we were going to be blasted. But either the sound guy works magic or this trio was just on point with each other because they melded seamlessly and never once overpowered any other part of the stage. It was here that the Parliament/Funkadelic side of Bernie Worrell came alive, producing his signature sound, bending the notes and giving us a trippy, spacey vibe behind the jazz. Will Bernard took his first solo and everything seemed to come together.
The Chop Horns exit and we got a salsa vibe radiating from the stage. The hearty jazz standard “Take Five” had Bernie standing and playing the synthesizer. Bernie went a little wild on his machine as he played the meat of the song on his keys the only way Bernie could and the crowd went wild. Shooting back to the Baby Grand, he manipulated the notes with one of his many contraptions. The rest of band just floating in the background, all eyes were on Bernie. I thought the song had changed but Will and Co. had just laid out their instruments. It got really heady in there. This jazz standard had been touched by a funkadelic angel. It’s flavor was 110% Bernie’s.-+
“You’re My Thrill” was next. A favorite song of mine for the ladies to sing even though we would get no singing here. It has been covered by Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and just the complete cream of the female voice crop. Bernie was back on his synthesizer for this song and only he played the opening of the song as JT Lewis provided the beat. At some point during this song, there seemed to be a bit of mis-communication that led to Bernie going rouge on part of the song. They were trying to figure out when to head into the bridge of the song. As Bernie flew through a solo on the Moog, Will Bernard tipped his hat to the keys genius, as if to say: “This is your time, do your thing music god!” And then Bernie looks up and realizes that all eyes are on him and they head into the bridge.
Will Bernard soloed into the second bridge and he really took his liberties with his guitar, overpowering any other guitar that was on stage. I got to be honest, I can’t even recall hearing another guitar let alone focusing on another guitar. Honestly though, Andrew Kimball was probably stoked to be playing along side Will Bernard. He is THE MAN after all.
Then came a drum solo that had me silently flipping out. Being a closet drummer lover, I LOVE drum solos/drum battles. JT Lewis was this drummer’s name and I left The Bitter End so wrapped up in his sound, I can’t describe it. I couldn’t wait to go research him. I recall leaning over to Maurice and asking, “Who is this guy!?!” Maurice preceded to hand me his Iphone showing a never-ending, big named list of the projects that Mr. Lewis had been a part of. The man has performed/recorded with over two hundred artists from all genres. The list Maurice showed me was endless. I hope you check him out. Wish I could link a site to his name but the man doesn’t have a website? He is so acclaimed yet no website? If you are seeing this Mr. Lewis, please have your staff create a sanctuary for us to go and listen to your beats or find where you will be performing next. You are amazing.
The Chop Horns were back on stage now for “All the Things You Are.” This song was originally released through a Broadway play, Very Warm For May . So fun! I LOVE BROADWAY. As the sultry song began, Dave Watson took to the microphone, announcing that Darryl Dixon was the horn player for Parliament/Funkadelic‘s “Flashlight.” Thunderous applause came from that tiny venue. You have to love when artist talk to us, give us back-stories, emotions become involved, you are part of the music, the culture, if only for a minute in time. You’ve played some part in making that musician who he is while the musicians enhance our moment in time through entertainment. Such a symbiotic relationship between artist and fan.
Bernie teases “Flashlight” and they plug his CD. “It’s all about all of us,” says Bernie. Bernie feels the symbiotic thing I was talking about, doesn’t he haha? A funky flavorful jam with horns and Bernie bending his sounds with his many contraptions. I noticed the night got progressively funkier and obscure as it progressed.
Bernie directs a compliment towards Daryl Dixon. “I knew what he had when he first joined P-Funk.” There were smiles. It was a touching moment and you could see the thanks in Daryl’s eyes as he smiled back at Bernie. Bernie then intro’d the solo to “Bye Bye Blackbird”, another one of my personal favorite ballads!!! A little confused, I leaned over to Maurice Brown, a SUPERB trumpet player from Chicago who joined our musical krewe that night, and asked him if his trumpet “had that wide base like that as well.” He proceeded to tell me that the instrument I was looking at in Steven Cage’s hand was a flugelhorn, not a trumpet. Learn something new everyday! Dave Watson had changed to a flute to close the song and once his lips finally pulled away from his instrument, he said: “That song was like a pretty woman…you don’t ever want to let her go.”
Bernie brought the Melodica to his lips for “Moon River”, but not before throwing out an intro on the keyboard. Oh, how I LOVE this song. The one thing I took away from this song was the fact that Bernie is passionate. His eyes close as he slowly and severely played the Melodica. I am not the biggest fan of this instrument as it sometimes sounds childish but Bernie took this song and ran with it. Quietly, softly, romantically. I found myself very moved in the moment. Bernie requested a glockenspiel solo from Glen Fittin and the xylophone raged in a soothing manner.
The show had started off as jazzy and cool as it could have been and gradually, over the course of the show it got funkier, more obscure. And then Bernie brought it. He brought the jazzy funk goodness into “Watermelon Man”. Everyone was back on stage, Bernie was on his synthesizer and the horns were in full blast. I loved watching Daryl Dixon move as he played, with confidence and grace in his jiving moves.
At this moment, and many other moments throughout the night, I realized how desperately I wish there had been a taper present. I was sad for everyone outside of this little hole-in-the-wall venue. They were missing this great show. Bernie turns to the Rhodes, called out to The Chop Horns and Will Bernard charged through on his guitar. This was a spectacular funky ending to an otherwise wonderful jazz performance touched by a funk god!
When the show was over, everyone was on their feet. This was both completely unexpected and expected at the same time. I was blown away over the quality of sound, the quality of music but at the same time, I knew this was going to be special and that is why I was here.
1) Take A Train
2) Killer Joe
3) Aqua De Beber
4) Take Five
5) You’re My Thrill
6) All The Things You Are
7) Bye Bye Blackbird
8) Moon River
9) Watermelon Man