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George Duke: The Complete 1970s Epic Albums Collection

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What perfect timing for two grand box sets of classic jazz-funk and fusion. Whether they realize it or not, current groove-savvy artists like Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding, Flying Lotus and Thundercat are indebted to the ’70s work of keyboardist George Duke and bass virtuoso Stanley Clarke. These boxes are ground zero for the meld of jazz, neo-soul, hip-hop and electronic music that defines today’s DJ culture (and the forward-looking jazz mindful of that culture).

The six titles in Duke’s box, released between 1977 and 1979, pick up where the ace keyboardist and composer left off with his transitional MPS LPs. After playing with Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins and Frank Zappa, he had already developed a knack for fusing soul-jazz with prog-rock, but he was also displaying his love for gutbucket blues, as on 1975’s Johnny “Guitar” Watson-aided I Love the Blues, She Heard My Cry. Whiffs of that blues sensibility can be heard on 1977’s From Me to You, Duke’s first Epic LP, especially on the hazy “What Do You Really Fear?” and the rock-inflected “Sing It.” But on From Me to You, Duke also exhibits a burgeoning gift for singing glowing pop melodies. Around an array of synthesizers, displaying exemplary improvisational chops and an airy FM-radio falsetto, he finds unlikely links between Bernie Worrell and Joe Jackson.

Duke’s two following LPs, Reach for It (1977) and especially Don’t Let Go (1978), allowed him to break through commercially. In the ways of funk and straight-up R&B, these albums often trump Herbie Hancock’s late Headhunters material and Donald Byrd’s Mizell brothers-produced LPs. (Of course, these Duke records also attracted their fair share of haters from among the hardcore jazz cognoscenti; taken for what they are, however-advanced funk exercises-both LPs succeed.) The latter album finds Duke fronting his most formidable unit, with Leon “Ndugu” Chancler and a teenaged Sheila E. holding the slippery drum and percussion rhythms alongside Byron Miller’s rubbery bass and Charles “Icarus” Johnson’s crisp electric guitar. Singers Josie James, Lynn Davis and Napoleon Murphy Brock beef up the chorus line, lending the band a party vibe in the spirit of Parliament-Funkadelic.

The Earth, Wind & Fire-ish Follow the Rainbow from 1979 is a fine extension of Don’t Let Go, but it’s that same year’s A Brazilian Love Affair that shines the brightest in the collection. Duke’s music had already been spirited, but here he was newly inspired, bringing his regular band down to Brazil for a funky cross-cultural exchange with some of that country’s leading musicians, including Milton Nascimento, Toninho Horta, Raul de Souza, Flora Purim and Airto Moreira. With the expanded lineup, Duke serves up riveting renditions of Nascimento’s “Cravo E Canela” and “Ao Que Vai Nascer,” as well as vibrant originals like “Sugar Loaf Mountain” and “Love Reborn.” Master of the Game returns Duke to galactic jazz-funk, again hitting pay dirt with the roller-rink classic “I Want You for Myself” but also anticipating West London’s broken beat with the angular “Games,” co-written by Sheila E.

Clarke’s six-disc collection, consisting of albums released between 1974 and ’79, follows a trajectory similar to that of the Duke set. Yet, whereas Duke laced his music with street-level R&B and funk, Clarke often pumped up the volume via rock. He was still a major player in Return to Forever, a unit that prided itself on flashy technique and sonic prowess. As an electric jazz bassist Clarke had few rivals, and he certainly wasn’t shy about peacocking his blistering virtuosity, especially on the piccolo bass. Clarke adopted Return to Forever’s sense of epic adventure, heard in “Yesterday Princess” from Stanley Clarke (1974) and “Concerto for Jazz Rock Orchestra” from Journey to Love (1975). But Clarke also demonstrates a gift for evocative balladry, like the thrilling “Song to John, Part I and II,” where, in the first half, he exhibits his prowess on arco standup bass. (The second half finds him trading joyous licks with John McLaughlin and Chick Corea.)

Clarke’s commercial and creative high point of the ’70s remains 1976’s School Days, an ebullient slab of adolescent rock-jazz that features Clarke firmly holding down the grooves while Raymond Gomez and “Icarus” Johnson unleash screaming guitar licks. Still, it’s Clarke’s amazing bass that kicks the most ass, as exemplified by the rollicking title track, the Brazilian-inflected “The Dancer” and the fiery “Life Is Just a Game.”

If both sets were played on shuffle, one would quickly notice the overlapping aesthetics between Clarke and Duke. Not only were they contemporaries, but Duke often appeared on Clarke’s ’70s LPs, among them Journey to Love, School Days and I Wanna Play for You. And oftentimes when they did play together, Duke brought a nasty funkiness out in Clarke, as evident on “Silly Putty” and “Just a Feeling.” Considering that the two landed a major hit in 1981 with “Sweet Baby” from their first Clarke/Duke project, it’s a shame these sets establish a cutoff at the close of the ’70s.

Originally Published