Oldies But Goldies: Bernie Worrell At BB Kings
True Groove owner Tomas Doncker and I have braved a winter snowstorm that became a blizzard and was followed by a Tundra like drop in temperatures to be sitting last night at BB Kings having a Nubian Princess, our waitress Mecca, whisper in our ear “Mississippi Mud Pie”. Mmmmm, mmmm… but it is not the Mecca Tomas and I are in search of tonight.
“Nothing is until it is and then after it is then it is” is how Pee Wee Ellis, the saxophonist with the James Brown Revue once put it and at BB King’s the Icons Of Funk, JB Horn trumpeter Fred Wesley, Meter Guitarist Leo Nocentelli and Parliament-P-Punk keyboard player Bernie Worrell, put the question of when what is is to the test with a two hour set interrupted by an overlong intermission, and taught us a lesson in the art of funk and improvisation. Call it the Mecca of funk
Leo warned us twice that we may never see this again, and though we had seen it once before, at the Iridium in 2011, you can see what he means. Buddha Dickens on bass and Adrian Harper on drums, support Leo for the first half hour as he plays two extensive jams, an amazing version of the Meters classic “Fire On The Bayou” takes a good ten minutes before we recognize it, with Leo, who seems to never strum, everything is notes played at dazzling speeds, call it frets on fire, never less than astounding; it is so precise, he doesn’t play bum notes, he doesn’t miss anything; Leo gets it all.
Bernie joins the band and if the mood takes him there is no better piano man than Bernie, and if it doesn’t he isn’t the best. Tonight, Bernie reminds us where the keyboard can be the lead instrument in a funk band; after the intermission he would perform a solo on, wait for it, “Let It Snow” and by the end of the evening is everywhere at once, including the only man playing melody!
But once Fred joins in for “Pass The Peas” the entire effort reaches another level. Fred, along with Maceo and Pee Wee, were the best horn section James Brown ever had which makes them the best horn section period, and it is a testament to Bernie and Leo that they can keep pace on the same stage as the master. The first set closes with a superb “Give Up The Funk”
But the best groove of the night is Leo and Buddha bringing it old school with just Adrian behind them, Buddha sounds like Larry Graham as he slaps his bass and the syncopated playing is all groove and movement all the time. The second is there to make a statement as the Icons get down to it and play extended dance funk for an hour, especially Bernie who comes as close as he can to hijacking the evening with the sort of bravado performance that should put Page McConnell, who I once saw with the Meters at this very venue, on notice, a schooling in virtuoso playing. Perhaps even greater, not two months after Bernie released his album of jazz classics rearranged for solo piano, the Bill Laswell produced Elevation (The Upper Air) Bernie performs an entirely different type of sound. This is amazing stuff indeed though not exactly a shocker for the 80s Talking Head sideman; the definition of protean.
On the second set the band hits its stride and focuses its “Funky D” all the way to the end of the evening where it abruptly ends just like a Stephen King novel with the evil doers dead and the heroes saying goodbye . Leo tells us “when this is over I want everyone to get on the phone, get on the internet and tell everyone about the shit they missed”. Alright, what they’ve missed is exactly what the Icons promised us: the funk and nothing but the funk. All the singing are chants, “house party”, “all the way”, “pass the peas”, melody is usually eschewed for beat, especially Fred who is playing sharp blasts of pure power during the final half hour of the evening, they are working towards a collective groove and also to a jazz like free association and they never don’t reach where they are going. You know how sometimes even the Allman Brothers don’t get where they are heading to, Icons ALWAYS DO.
While the club is slow for a show this big -doubtlessly because of the weather, everybody who is there is on the floor by the end of the evening and it becomes clear that two things are happening on stage.
1. Three masters of funk and a real good rhythm section are playing off each other in extensive jams and the result is the last number, “People Are Afraid” with its “rich are getting richer and poor are getting poor” 1921 catechism which seems to crawl to you on its stomach and then smack you on your face. By the end of the song, Worrell was playing a solo everybody who was there will remember as it mixed classical with funk and came out the other side.
2. But this is dance music and this is about dance you can use. So use it.
Leo claims we may never see this again and it goes back to the Pee Wee quote, it wasn’t till it became and now it was. Indeed, we may never see this again, shout it from Internet, this is the real deal. What a way to start the New Year.