George Duke: Beautiful Mess

It’s a beautiful day in beautiful downtown Burbank, and it’s business-as-usual at NBC studios. Jay Leno has finished his daily gig, and sits in one of his swank rides, talking to a stagehand in the parking lot. Inside the building, George Duke is sitting in the hallway with his peeps, waiting to be called in for an appearance on Later. Word has gotten around NBC that Duke is in the house, and technicians stop by to pay respects. One talks about Duke’s career, going back to his mid-’70s gig with vocalist Flora Purim. Another one stops by, excitedly shaking Duke’s hand: “I heard you were here. Finally, they got a real musician in here.”

He was on the show promoting both his own new album and the new one by the sensational R&B singer Rachelle Ferrell, Individuality (Can I Be Me?) (Capitol), which he produced. In the jazz world, generally, Duke is commonly regarded as a bold and flexible musician who made some promising music in the ’70s (including as keyboardist with one of Frank Zappa’s more jazz-inclined bands and Cannonball Adderley), but who strayed from the flock. He had an interesting foray into the funk/fusion world, but then drifted away from jazz, proper, getting lost in the world of producing R&B records for the likes of Jeffrey Osborne, Deniece Williams, Anita Baker and others.

But it’s hard to listen to an album like Duke’s new one, Cool (Warner Brothers), and miss the central jazz connections. In effect, the album is the work of a musician, at age 50, looking backward and forward at a career that has freely crossed idiomatic state lines.

A week after the Later taping, Duke was all dressed-up with his wife, Corrine, and son, Rashid, at the Universal Hilton. He was there to receive a Lifetime Achievement award from the annual Multi-Cultural Prism Awards. President Clinton was slated to speak there, but the Middle East crisis intervened. Magic Johnson was also among the honorees. But it was Duke who lit up the place, briefly, with a compact performance of music that made him, and vice versa. In the medley were snippets of hits, like Jeffrey Osborne’s “On the Wings of Love” and his own hit “Sweet Baby,” done with Stanley Clarke, but he opened up with a swing vamp, alluding to his earliest influence. As presenter, Osborne noted in his introduction that Duke’s seminal musical inspiration was a Duke Ellington concert his mother took him to when he was a four-year-old.

The next day at the house/studio/compound in Hollywood where he has worked for many years, Duke sat down for an interview. He was taking a break from a particularly thorny mix on a tune for a Dianne Reeves album for Blue Note—a Sarah Vaughan tribute—that he was racing to meet the deadline on. While his trusty engineer got busy, Duke repaired to the studio to chat, surrounded by such “antique” keyboards as an Arp Odyssey, a Micromoog, a Rhodes, an old Wurlitzer and, of course, a grand piano.

These implements, dusted off and handled with great musical care, are heard all over Cool, which has a notably autobiographical, concept-album quality to it. It opens with “Marin City”—the Bay Area burg Duke was born and raised in—and continues with vocal tracks sprinkled with tasty jazz riffs on analog synths and piano. Old-school R&B touches abound, from Duke’s own Curtis Mayfield-like singing and a loose, organic production atmosphere that recalls Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone, to instrumental tracks that include a computer-colored Brazilian tune written by and featuring Flora Purim (“If You Will”), and cool-jazz-groove candy of Duke’s own invention. It may have no place on the narrowly segmented radio dial as we presently know it, but more’s the power, thanks to its willfully eclectic nature.

Duke, who has enjoyed a healthy pact with radio over the past 20 years, currently finds himself in a strange transitional situation. He’s an advocate of radio finding a healthier sense of balance to showcase music outside the tightly dictated confines of style and fashion. His records have a hard time accommodating the current urban radio format; Duke’s own tunes aren’t natural bedfellows with the inane demands of the “Wave” format. On the R&B front, he says: “I’m not trying to sell music to teenagers. I’m 50 years old. But there’s a large segment of the music population that’s not being serviced. They need to be creative about finding ways to get this music out there. If not, we’re in real big trouble.”

He points to the recent success of a Montreux Jazz Festival pop-jazz roadshow he performed in last summer, along with Al Jarreau, David Sanborn and Joe Sample. Avid fans showed up, despite the lack of any particular product being promoted.

In short, the current musical scene, he says, is “not like what it was when I was coming up, when there was much more interest in diversity. See, I’m really a mess,” he laughs. “I like to do all different things, on the same record, on the same show. That’s why I did what I did last night [referring to his awards show medley]. I didn’t want to get up there and just do a medley of the hits I’ve been involved in over the years. I wanted to show where I started, with straightahead jazz. Anyway, it was designed to show the breadth of what I’ve been involved with, not just producing ‘On the Wings of Love.’”

Duke certainly put in his time as a genuine jazz snob. As a young pianist, he studied jazz and classical music in the Bay Area, determined to appease his jazz muse. “I was a straight-laced jazz player. I didn’t want to hear much of anything else. I didn’t want to know it. But as time went on, I was interested in other music and I had ideas. I thought, ‘What would happen if you put a rock beat on top of this jazz?’ But jazz was always a part of it. When fusion started, I was really into that.

“Basically, what happened was that I got together with people like Cannonball Adderley and Frank Zappa. They totally broke down my walls. Cannonball would say, ‘Man, you ought to listen to this.’ I began to see how Miles Davis changed things. He was genuinely interested in different kinds of music. In talking to him, he kept saying, ‘Man, I want to do some of this kind of music. Write me a song like that.’ The walls just came down, and I had a realization that ‘I’m really too jaded.’ Fortunately, this happened early on.”

A bigger turning point came after Duke talked his way into the band led by the then-wunderkind violinist from France, Jean-Luc Ponty. In 1968, Ponty’s group, with Duke in tow, played a gig at a Sunset Boulevard club called Thee Experience. In the audience were future collaborators of Duke’s, including Quincy Jones and Gerald Wilson, as well as Frank Zappa.

Zappa was impressed with Ponty and asked him to play with him, and Ponty insisted that Duke come along. Duke remembers playing a concert with Zappa at UCLA. “It was kind of like contemporary classical music. I thought, ‘Oh, this is what it is? This is great.’ Several months later, he asked me to join the Mothers. I said, ‘The who?’ He says, ‘No, the Mothers.’ [Laughs]. He asked me to come down to rehearsal, and I said, ‘Well, what does it pay?’ He said, ‘We’ll give you $250 a concert.’ You kitten’ me? I was making $25 a gig as a jazz musician. I came down to rehearsal and the first thing he had me play— I had done this orchestral thing with him before—and he says, ‘Ok, play this.’ [Plays a simple rock-and-roll triadic vamp on his piano]. I was like, ‘Uhh… I can’t do this, man.’ He says, ‘Something wrong with your hand? Oh, you mean it’s beneath you?’ I said, ‘Well, I didn’t go to school all this time to do this kind of stuff.’ He says, ‘You want to do the job? Play that part.’

“I was in L.A. The money was ringing through my head, and I started playing,” says Duke as he pounds out simple chords. “After a while, I started laughing. I loosened up. He just broke me down. He said, ‘You’re far too serious. Just because you can play a lot of scales you’ve studied doesn’t mean you can’t have a sense of humor.’ The long and short of it was that he totally destroyed all of that in me. I became very open.”

After a two-year stint with Adderley, Duke rejoined Zappa for what would be a more fusionlike band, creating Zappa’s best-selling records Apostrophe and Over-Night Sensation. “When I was with Frank, most people thought I was Billy Preston. Over in Europe, they’d say, ‘Billy, Billy…’ They thought I was him, because I had this Afro, and there weren’t a lot of us who were visible at that time. I was the black guy in the group, so I must be Billy Preston.” With the input of Duke and Chester Thompson, these Mothers had soul and jazz chops to spare, but Zappa always resisted the j-word. “He said, ‘I’m not playing jazz,’” laughs Duke. “He never would admit he was playing jazz. Incredible musician, that guy was.”

After Zappa, Duke went on to play his own increasingly funky variations on fusion with drummer Billy Cobham, in bands that included a young John Scofield in his first high-profile gig. As the ’70s progressed, Duke began to lean away from fusion, towards funkier turf, partly inspired by Parliament/Funkadelic, in whose groove and humor he saw a parallel with the lingering Zappa influence.

But there was more to his funk evolution. “I said, ‘Man, I want a larger black audience. I want to see some people of my nationality. I just wanted to grab them, and then let me take them on a trip to some other kind of music that, if they were exposed to it, they would like. That was my whole thing. I’m still about the same thing.”

He struck a chord with the album Reach for It, which put Duke’s name in another league, but pushed him further away from jazz. As the disco era put a new spin on the R&B market, Duke decided to try his hand at production, first with jazz artists Raul De Souza and Dee Dee Bridgewater, and then his career-turning brush with none other than those disco icons Taste of Honey. The single “Sukiyaki” racked up $2 million in sales. “As a result, the phone started ringing. It’s as simple as that.” It has rung ever since, and Duke’s jazz career was put on hold. The list included hipsters as well as popsters like Barry Manilow, all seeking his magic and musical touch. There have been high artistic points, as with his work on Miles Davis’ Amandla in 1989.

On his own, Duke has made a few nice albums in the ’90s for Warner Brothers, including the perky Snapshot in 1992, followed by the ambitious orchestral project Muir Woods Suite. This year, he squeezed his own record in, while also producing Ferrell and Reeves and was about to begin the next Anita Baker project.

Does he find himself evermore drawn back to jazz these days, making up for lost time? “Well, I don’t know if I’d call it jazz, per se. I’m drawn toward doing some things I haven’t done. I would love to go to Africa and work with some African musicians, or down to South America and do some reggae or music from Trinidad or some other local areas. I’d like to do what I do within their environment and come up with something that interests me. That’s kind of interesting to me now. And I have a couple of orchestral pieces I want to do.

“I don’t know what my next record will be, but since I do have the possibility of doing something different every other record or so, I’m thinking about going to Africa or Trinidad or both and doing some of that kind of stuff. I’m kind of feeling that right now. And I want to do a serious fusion record, with all the original guys, get them in here and do a real tight, interesting kind of fusion record, all instrumental.”

By staid industry standards, Duke remains “messed up,” still conflicted about whether to follow an R&B course or a more jazz-colored one. You might find him doing the occasional stint at the Blue Note in New York or Catalina’s Bar and Grill, one of L.A.’s top jazz rooms—as he did after the release of 1998’s \After Hours. But his manager doesn’t like him to confuse matters or alienate promoters. Looking down from 50, Duke must wonder: What’s a child of the eclectic ’60s and ’70s, and also a gifted, studied musician, to do? “If I was to do a regular show, it would be pretty mixed up,” he shrugs. “It’s difficult to do that now. It’s all about packaging.”

Listening Pleasures

Miles Davis: Four and More (Columbia)
Sly and the Family Stone: There’s A Riot Goin' On (Epic)
Milton Nascimento: Courage (A&M)

Gearbox

7-foot Bosendorfer; Fender Rhodes; Arp Odyssey; Minimoog; Memorymoog; Roland Super Jupiter, A90, JD-990 & JV-1080, D550; EMU-E4X Turbo Sampler, Morpheus and Procussion, Planet Phatt & Vintage Keys; Korg Trinity, Wave SR and M1R; Ensoniq-MR-Rak; Wurlitzer Electric Piano; Kurzweil PC2X; General Music Equinox; Echoplex; various Mooger Fooger effects pedals.

Originally published in January/February 2001

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