My Old Friend: Celebrating George Duke
It would take this entire review, perhaps this entire page, to list all the musicians that the late pianist, composer and producer George Duke collaborated with and influenced across his five-decade career. Yet surely none is better suited to assemble a tribute album than Al Jarreau, whose kinship with Duke dates to the mid-1960s, when both were newcomers scrambling for gigs in San Francisco. And Jarreau does him proud, covering his lifelong pal’s various musical passions—postbop, fusion, Brazilian jazz, soul—while uniting with a who’s who of special guests, most of whom intersected frequently with Duke, often with historic consequences.
Appropriately, Jarreau opens with a lithe update, featuring Gerald Albright, of “My Old Friend,” a highlight of 1981’s landmark Breakin’ Away, which featured Duke. He teams twice with Dianne Reeves, Duke’s cousin and mentee, diving headlong into the jazz-funk joy of “Someday,” then shimmying through a spicy “Brazilian Love Affair.”
Stanley Clarke revisits his and Duke’s mighty duo days, first with the ballad “Sweet Baby” featuring Lalah Hathaway, and alongside Jeffrey Osborne on a twining of “Every Reason to Smile” and Osborne’s massive “On the Wings of Love,” which Duke produced, and played on, in 1982. The usually angelic Jarreau wades deep into the blues to fuse with Dr. John’s back-alley growl on a delightfully mud-splattered “You Touch My Brain.” And Duke himself makes a posthumous appearance, alongside Boney James on a mellow “Bring Me Joy.”
Together, the 10 tracks splendidly capture the breadth of Duke’s vibrant agility. Among them, the eulogistic summit is “Churchyheart,” a glorious reworking of “Backyard Ritual” (written by Duke for Miles’ Tutu), with Marcus Miller recalling the original by again doubling on bass and bass clarinet as Jarreau unfurls lyrics that embrace Duke’s life and legacy.