WBGO Blog
  • Bernie Worrell, 'Wizard Of Woo,' Dies At 72

    June 24, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

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    Bernie Worrell performs at the Black Rock Coalition Presents: All The Woo In The World — An All-Star Celebration benefit concert on April 4 in New York City. The concert was raising money for Worrell's medical costs. (Image Credit: Al Pereira/WireImage)

    Keyboardist and composer Bernie Worrell, who helped shape the sound of the band Parliament-Funkadelic and influenced countless artists across a wide range of genres, died Friday at 72.

    Worrell announced earlier this year that he had been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer.

    His musical life began early — according to his official biography, he started studying piano at age 3, wrote his first concerto at age 8 and performed with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., at 10.

    The classically trained keyboardist (he studied at Juilliard and the New England Conservatory of Music) made his name — and an indelible mark on music — in the world of P-Funk.

    Worrell, aka "The Wizard of Woo," was an early member of Parliament-Funkadelic, George Clinton's sprawling, theatrical and wildly influential funk collective.

    The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame notes that Parliament and Funkadelic "prefigured everything from rap and hip-hop to techno and alternative," with latter-day disciples including Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Worrell was one of the key collaborators shaping the sounds of the collective.

    He was particularly famous for his innovative embrace of the sounds of synthesizers.

    In the 1980s, Worrell helped reshape the sound of the Talking Heads and became a regular member of their expanded lineup.

    Even if you don't know Worrell, you've probably heard his work. As a studio musician he contributed to scores of albums, and P-Funk songs are frequently sampled on hip-hop tracks.

    In 1991, when his second solo album came out, Worrell spoke to reporter Andy Lyman for Morning Edition. Worrell said his mastery of musical fundamentals was central to his genre-mashing work.

    "The art of creating is not just pushing a button," he said. "We're going to lose
    the art of creating — composing — because they won't even know how to make a chord. The chords are already just on a button. What is the root? What's the third? What's the fifth of the chord?

    "I feel that a lot of artists and parents who are interested in music should get music back into the mainstream in school systems," he said. "That's being lost also."

    You can hear that whole piece, which also explores the social awareness of Parliament/Funkadelic as well as Worrell's lasting influence on the Talking Heads, here:

    In January, Worrell announced that he had been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. An online fundraiser and star-studded benefit concert helped cover his medical expenses — and gave many in the music community a chance to honor his life while he was still there to hear it.

    George Clinton and Bootsy Collins of P-Funk, David Byrne and Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads, Fred Schneider of the B-52s, Buckethead, Living Colour and Questlove, among others, performed at the "All The WOO In The World" benefit concert in April. And Worrell played too, of course.

    The crowd shouted "We love you, Bernie!" as he struggled for words, holding a proclamation from the mayor of Newark, N.J., in his honor. "I don't know what to --" Worrell said.

    "Thank you," he finally said. "I love you, too."

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • Beyond Country And Blues: The Jazz Legacy Of Houston, Texas

    June 23, 2016

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    Though not well known for its jazz scene, Houston, Texas has produced some of America's best jazz musicians, including Jason Moran. (Image Credit: Courtesy of the artist)

    When you think of the sound of Houston, Texas, you might think of country and western music. Maybe you've heard of bluesmen like Johnny Copeland and Albert Collins or gospel stars like Yolanda Adams. Or, you know, Beyoncé?

    But Houston has also produced some of the biggest jazz musicians of today, according to the host of Jazz Night in America, composer and bassist Christian McBride.

    "It seems to me that over the last 15 to 20 years, there has been an onslaught of these great musicians from Houston on the jazz scene," McBride says, pointing to the rise of artists like Jason Moran, Robert Glasper and Eric Harland. "All of a sudden you're thinking, where did all these cats from Houston come from all of a sudden? Especially considering Houston is not always a usual stop on most guys' tour schedules, how are all these bad cats coming from out there?"

    With a little help from Jason Moran himself, McBride joined NPR's Audie Cornish to consider some of the brightest jazz stars in Houston's history, including saxophonist Billy Harper, pianist Helen Sung and more. Hear their full conversation at the audio link.

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • Return Of The Jazz Harp

    June 17, 2016

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    Brandee Younger and Edmar Castañeda. (Image Credit: Courtesy of the artists)

    The harp may be one of the most ancient musical instruments, but it isn't particularly prominent in jazz. Despite the mid-century emergence of innovators Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane, the harp has remained on the fringe. But two contemporary performers are changing that: Brandee Younger, who explores the textual modes defined by Ashby and Coltrane, and Edmar Castañeda, a Colombian-born folkloric virtuoso.

    Jazz Night In America splits the hour with two concerts from Jazz at Lincoln Center, featuring Younger and Castañeda, respectively.

    Copyright 2016 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

  • First Listen: Allen Toussaint, 'American Tunes'

    June 2, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

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    Allen Toussaint's new album, American Tunes, comes out June 10. (Image Credit: Courtesy of the artist)

    In the last decade or so of his life, the record producer, composer, songwriter and arranger Allen Toussaint started playing a lot more live shows. The root cause was sad — a consequence of relocating from his native New Orleans after hurricane-related flooding — but the performances were everyday magic. Often it would be just him at the piano as he played a broad selection of his hits, his non-hits, songs he had a hand in, songs he just liked. He would sing without affectation, tell stories as one would at the dinner table, and deviate frequently. It was obvious that he was a master musician, able to play Romantic classical masterpieces and Professor Longhair rhumba riffs in the same breath. He was also hosting you at his salon, with a genuine gentlemanly manner and a wink of vast experience.

    American Tunes, released posthumously following his death last November, isn't designed to capture or simulate a live concert experience. But it does present a side of Toussaint he seemed to emphasize at those shows — an almost retrospective, autumnal focus on the ideas which made him and his music. This is a program of largely all-time-classic songs from jazz and pop history, emphasizing his hometown and personal hero Professor Longhair. Ellingtonia staples "Come Sunday" and "Lotus Blossom" are in the mix with "Big Chief" and "Mardi Gras In New Orleans"; equally on the level are tunes by fellow pianist-composer-virtuosi Fats Waller, Bill Evans, Earl Hines and even New Orleans' own Louis Moreau Gottschalk. It's hard not to read a subtext here: that all these songs belonged in the canon which gave rise to Toussaint and his city, and thus to the bigger picture of important American tunes.

    This project was recorded with producer Joe Henry in two parts: one a solo session and the other with a rhythm section (bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose) joined by special guests with their own slanted Americana: Bill Frisell, Charles Lloyd, Greg Leisz, Rhiannon Giddens, Van Dyke Parks. The delivery is generally elegant, as expected, with little mess around the edges, and taken alone the acoustic politeness could grow frustrating from a central architect of R&B and funk. (Toussaint's digressive, legato reading of "Big Chief" stands out.) But dapper and refined were his personal aesthetic guidelines in life as in music; this is his tribute, after all.

    Toward the end, Toussaint selects "Southern Nights," a signature song and also a 1977 hit for country singer Glen Campbell. It's one of the few songs Toussaint ever wrote specifically for himself to perform (apparently inspired by fellow behind-the-scenester Van Dyke Parks' directive to "consider that you were going to die in two weeks"), and he initially saw little commercial potential for the languid pentatonic melody. He would play it toward the end of concerts, taking a long time to tell the story behind it, and the imagery of his unhurried porch-sits felt transportive. But here, it's just a florid instrumental, and only the penultimate song Toussaint chose. The record actually ends on a spare arrangement of Paul Simon's "American Tune," a poetic sketch of world-weariness and hoping against hope. Is that another cheeky wink? The bridge, after all, does include these lines:

    And I dreamed I was dying
    And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
    And looking back down at me
    Smiled reassuringly

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
  • Leroy Jones' New Orleans Strut

    May 20, 2016

    Trumpeter Leroy Jones was playing in New Orleans back when Bourbon Street was lined with jazz clubs. The city has changed since then — Bourbon Street is a prime example — and Jones has evolved with it. From second lines with the Fairview Baptist Church Marching Band and the Hurricane Brass Band, club gigs with modern combos and tours with Harry Connick Jr., he's been a part of many jazz scenes.

    Jazz Night In America takes in a set with Jones' sextet at the Dew Drop Social & Benevolent Jazz Hall in Mandeville, La., across the lake from New Orleans. We hear the story of the venue, a small wooden room which has hosted jazz performances for more than a century, and the stories of Jones, a well-loved presence in his hometown.

    Copyright 2016 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.