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George Duke: Facing the Music

George Duke: Facing the Music
Jeff Winbush By

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I love music. Whether it's jazz, blues or funk, I think the style is irrelevant. People are entitled to like what they like, but I'm entitled to play what I love.
In jazz, there are two seminal figures called "Duke." For Edward Kennedy Ellington, "Duke" was a nickname. For George Duke, it is his surname, but the similarities with Duke Ellington don't end there. As a pianist, arranger, songwriter, bandleader and composer, George Duke has solidified his reputation as one of jazz's most important figures. Also a bold innovator who isn't afraid to confound admirers and critics alike, Duke dived headfirst into funk with his irresistible hit "Reach For It," an unexpected crossover smash.

Duke evolved, from playing keyboards with Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Jean-Luc Ponty, Sonny Rollins and Billy Cobham, into the leader of a funk band that featured a young percussionist named Sheila Escovedo, who would go on to be Prince's secret weapon. Duke followed "Reach For It" with a smash sequel, "Dukey Stick," as he re-imaged himself—with a large Afro, and a space-age synthesizer slung around his neck—and traded in jazz clubs for concert halls and stadiums.

Anticipating the need to maximize his talents, Duke began producing other artists including Raul de Souza, A Taste of Honey, Jeffrey Osbourne, Denice Williams, Barry Manilow, and Anita Baker, to name but a few. Among the many hits benefiting from the Duke touch are "Sukiyaki," "Let's Hear It For the Boy," "On the Wings of Love" and "Stay With Me Tonight." In 1981, a collaboration with bass virtuoso Stanley Clarke yielded an unexpected Top Ten smash with "Sweet Baby."

Duke has remained a formidable force, touring the world and retreating to the studio, where his jazz skills remain sharp from producing and playing with artists such as Dianne Reeves, Rachelle Ferrell, George Howard, Miles Davis, Marilyn Scott, Al Jarreau and Dee Dee Bridgewater. His most recent albums, Dukey Treats (Heads Up, 2008) and Déjà Vu (Telarc Jazz, 2010), are simultaneously a return visit to the funk, fusion and jazz keyboard wizardry he made popular in the '70s, and a visionary look forward. Duke hints at several possible musical paths he may pursue in the future, including a big band or a sequel to his dazzling A Brazilan Love Affair (Sony, 1979). Whether it's producing, playing or performing, George Duke is a master of the game.

All About Jazz: What is the significance of the album title Déjà Vu?

George Duke: That's something of a double-edged sword because after so many albums, you run out of titles [laughs]. It's kind of a look back at some of the things I did in the past, but looking at it using the technology of today.

Some of the songwriting styles and vibes of yesteryear are not visited much now. There aren't too many people writing R&B songs or this type of material anymore. They revisit and rehash material that has already been written rather than writing new songs. It was a very interesting time musically, and that's what Déjà Vu is about. It's a look back at the styles I've loved over the years with this and the last album Dukey Treats. But that one is a little funkier, and this one is jazzier and more instrumental.

AAJ: How much planning goes into the recording of an album? Or is it a more spontaneous and organic process?

GD: Nine times out of ten, because I have my own recording studio, I'll just go in and record when I feel like it and put the songs together later. I'll generally come in with several songs I've been sitting on for a while and never finished, or that didn't make the last album. Déjà Vu was difficult. I had to finish the album to make the release date before I went on a seven-week tour of Europe. I went a little deeper in the coffers and finished this a little faster than I might normally have done.

That doesn't mean it's not a good album, because I like the record, actually. I've always made eclectic records that were a hodgepodge of styles, but as time went on I said, "That's me, and people have to deal with that." I love music. Whether it's jazz, blues or funk, I think it's all relevant. The style is irrelevant. People are entitled to like what they like, but I'm entitled to play what I love. I think I have that right as a United States citizen! [Laughs.]

AAJ: The title track, "Déjà Vu," is very reminiscent of John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Was that an overt move on your part?

GD: Absolutely. I know John, and of course I worked with Billy Cobham, and I've always loved their concept of fusion music—and it was fusion at its best. I don't hear a lot of that now. A lot of guys are not playing melodically. There's no melody or composition, so I decided I love that style, and I wanted to revisit it with a new tune. That's "Déjà Vu."

I wrote it like a classical piece at the piano. The inclusion of the violin, played by Sarah Thornblade, will probably make people really reminisce of that band, but I wanted the drummer to have a chance to shine and the melody to constantly be there.

I read a review where a guy gave "Déjà Vu" four stars out of five. He took the fifth star away because he didn't hear a lot of melody. I was like, "No shit?" I think there's melody all over this record. That song may signal something I'm going to do in the future, like an entire project of fusion—the kind of fusion I like. A lot of my fusion is funky. That's what Billy Cobham and I did.

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