When you think about it, isn’t it astonishing how George Clinton, Eddie Hazel, Bernie Worrell and Bootsy Collins were all in the same band? Does that make P-Funk the Beatles or Stones of funk…or does it makes the Beatles and Stones the P-Funk of the rock world? Since those days, the Wizard of Woo has gone on to an eclectic career as a bandleader, playing his inimitably funky songs but also spending plenty of time on the edgier side of jazz. But Worrell also has a masters degree from New England Conservatory. His latest album, Elevation: The Upper Air is about as far from P-Funk as Air or the Cocteau Twins are. And that analogy fits, considering that on his first solo piano release, Worrell takes a spacious, lingering, minimalist approach to a mix of jazz standards, a handful of unexpected pop tunes and also a trio of originals. He’s playing a rare solo piano show, more or less an album release party, at the Stone at 8 PM on April 26; cover is $15.
He opens the album with lustrous, deep-space version of Joe Zawinul’s In a Silent Way, which makes the Miles Davis version sound positively frantic by comparison. Likewise, he takes a slow, heartfelt stroll through I’d Rather Be with You. And he slows down even further on Alabama, which he turns into equal parts Chopin, Satie and early gospel, drawing on the resonantly haunting quality of each of those idioms, down to a dirge-like rumble and then a stern, stately outro.
By slowing down Charles Mingus’ Goodbye Pork Pie Hat to the extent that he does here – it’s a little faster than the album’s first few tracks – he reveals every bit of its bittersweetly elegaic intensity. Light on Water is arguably strongest track here, both hypnotic and riveting in its focus and intensity: the way Worrell (ordinarily a guy who switches from idea to idea in a nanosecond) maintains an unwavering suspense is viscerally intense. And the way he reinvents Samba Pa Ti, slowly elevating it from a strikingly sad, elegaic reflection to a neoromantic glitter, is a clinic in how to go deep into a song and pull out a hidden meaning. He does he same in half the time later on with Wings.
The most minimalist and darkest, most Satie-esque track here is the spacious Realm of Sight: Worrell will hit a low lefthand chord and then let it ring out forever while he adds icy melody several octaves higher. He picks up the pace a little with I Wanna Go Outside, which reminds of Orrin Evans in a particularly pensive moment. And he reinvents Bob Marley’s Redemption Song as gospel. What a fascinating and unexpectedly heavy treat from one of the most entertaining keyboardists on the planet. And in case you need something to keep you awake, or a killer party playlist you can stream, head straight for Worrell’s amazing Bandcamp page.