Surprise and delight are two of Bernie Worrell's trademarks. Whether playing with the Parliament-Funkadelic gang, working with ensembles from Talking Heads and Gov't Mule to one of longtime collaborator Bill Laswell's ensembles, or making his own records, Worrell's signature has been using various keyboards to deliver a rhythmically knotty and harmonically rich sensibility to virtually everything he's ever played on. Playing jazz isn't new for him, either -- he delivered a recording of standards in 2011 -- but playing acoustic solo piano on record is. Impeccably recorded by Jason Corsaro for M.O.D. Technologies, Elevation: The Upper Air features Worrell in this unlikely and intimate scenario, playing a recital of eight interpretations and performing three of his own works. He wastes no time putting himself on the tightrope, opening with Joe Zawinul's iconic "In a Silent Way." Worrell lets all of its intended space resonate between notes and chromatic voicings without attempting to force a thing, and one can hear what so attracted Miles Davis to it initially. This is followed by an elegant, balladic reading of George Clinton's and Bootsy Collins' "I'd Rather Be with You," adding canny melodic twists and turns including a rumbling, dissonant, low-register cadenza. John Coltrane's "Alabama" is rendered with a panoramic yet intimate modal mystery. Worrell's left hand delivers a droning line of dark ostinati while his right fills the middle register with a haunted, Eastern-tinged take on the melody. He answers all this drama with Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," giving each chord and single note empathic resonance and imbuing it with tenderness. His gift for more subtly textured melodies are rendered gorgeously in the romance of Carlos Santana's "Samba Pa Ti," Stan Vincent's lithely affirmative "Ooh Child," and the gospel framework that cleverly houses Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." The pianist's compositions are full of minor modes and mysterious suggestions. "Wings" features his pedal technique to dazzling effect, bending notes and chords to suit a nearly classical dynamic and glorious lyric impressionism, while "Light on Water" carries a low-end drone throughout as a sparse, dramatic, harmonic statement is expressed with economy and grace. "Realm of Sight" is for all intents and purposes a nocturne, full of ambiguity and suggestion, leaving room for the listener to roam inside its alluring, skeletally sketched corridors. In sum, Elevation: The Upper Air is Worrell's opus. While showcasing his piano skills in this most unforgiving mode of presentation, he is often understated, but never less than authoritative. He creates an irresistible, seductive encounter for listeners via his magical, even visionary soundworld.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek