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Bernie Worrell: The Wizard Of Woo Plays Standards

P-Funk veteran Bernie Worrell performs songs from his latest album, Standards. (WBGO)

When Bernie Worrell plays his assortment of analog keyboards –- the signature Mini Moog, the clavinet with comics lacquered over the black and white keys, and his newest toy, the Mopho –- you might expect him to play the music that made him famous as a member of Parliament-Funkadelic. Everybody knows "Flash Light," right?

But Dr. Woo performing jazz standards? It might come as a surprise to everyone but the 67-year-old funk legend. "I used to do that back in the college days, and it's good to be back doing it again," Worrell says. "Jazz, R&B and Latin. It was a revue. I was part of the house group at Basin Street in Boston. It was an organ trio with Tillmon Williams (father of jazz drummer Tony Williams) and drums. I got to play behind Pigmeat Markham, Moms Mabley, Tammi Terrell (Montgomery at the time), Chuck Jackson. I'd do that on the weekends."

Bernie Worrell visited WBGO for The Checkout, and he brought 10 musicians with him. They played music from Worrell's new Standards record, including a version of Herbie Hancock's classic "Watermelon Man" that Worrell describes as "No seeds, but very sweet." The Jerome Kern-penned chestnut "All the Things You Are" also gets a funky workout from the full band — including tight horn arrangements from the Chops Horns, a small combo led by Darryl Dixon (who played the solo on the P-Funk clan's original "Flash Light").

When the band's session finished, Worrell sat at the Steinway and spot-arranged a solo version of Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train," bringing him back to his jazz roots. "I must have been around 8 years old, listening to my parents' 33 1/3 collection. I used to hear Cab Calloway and some Basie and Ellington every now and then around the house."

It begins with a quick echo of the "Woody Woodpecker" theme song. Worrell had been tinkering with cartoon themes throughout the studio session. "I'm a big fan of Victor Borge," he says. "He was a serious and seriously funny keyboardist. He was classically trained, but could play anything. He mixed comedy with the seriousness of it all. I'm like that. I get serious, and I've got to break it up."

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