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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 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.

AAJ: It's impressive how you pay homage to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but without using a guitarist. You played the guitar riff on a synthesizer.

GD: Right. There was no guitar on that song. I may have played it on a Nord ES8, but I've always played synth like that. I wanted to close my eyes and play synth like I used to. It's kind of tough to play it on the road because I don't carry a second keyboard player, so there's no chord structure, and a song like that needs someone to stay home. I wanted the solo to be daring but melodic.

It's been very interesting reading the reviews of this record which have been 95 percent positive. The other five percent have said it's not daring enough or it's a smooth jazz record. I grew up listening to Miles Davis in the '50s—that's smooth jazz to me. It's not Boney James and those guys. I love Boney, but that's not what the attitude of this record is.

AAJ: I'll use the cliché and say the old school is in full effect on this record. How far did you go back in the George Duke archives for some of the songs?

GD: "Stupid Is As Stupid Does" is a new song. That's something I wrote because I wanted a song with a horn front like we used to do back in the old days. In this case, the horn players weren't around when we cut it. Everyone's schedule did not permit this, but the majority of the songs were all done at the same time. The rhythm section played solos. We went in and tracked and then brought in Hubert Laws, Nicholas Payton and Bob Sheppard separately. It was basically the way we used to do it where everybody has a solo spot, except for the bassist in this case. It was almost like a old CTI record.

AAJ: Regarding "Ripple In Time," the trumpet playing by Oscar Brashear is a shout-out to Miles Davis. You played with Miles in his final years, and nobody comes away from working with Miles without some impression: good, bad or otherwise.

GD: He could be extremely intimidating. Matter of fact, I was playing with Cannonball Adderley at the Beacon Theater in New York. We had finished our show and I was out front listening to John McLaughlin, and Miles came to the show.

He said [slips into gravelly Miles Davis voice], "Hey man, what you doin' in this band?"

I was, like, "Damn, did I just get dissed?" I didn't know if he was saying I wasn't good enough to be in Cannonball's band. I didn't know how to take that comment.

Years later, Miles would come to my shows in New York but he wouldn't say anything to me. A murmur would go through the audience: "Miles is in the room!"

As time went by, he'd call me on the phone and tell me he wanted me to write a tune for him. He actually asked me to join his band at one point. We were never close friends and I wasn't in his band, but we had this weird kind of relationship especially when he was with Cicely Tyson. I'd see him all the time. He said, "George, I want you to write me a tune."

I wrote "Backyard Ritual" and sent it over to him as a demo thinking he'd go in and re-record it live with his guys. But he said, "I like it because it sounds funny."

I said, "Miles, that's a demo. We're going to come in and re-cut it."

Miles said, "Naw, man. I like it the way it is."

And that's the way it came out. "Backyard Ritual" is a demo Miles played over. I never saw him in the studio.

The original song I wrote for Miles had a French-Cuban atmosphere to it. Dianne Reeves came in the studio and heard me working on it. She said, "What's that?"

I said, "This is for Miles."

She said, 'Wait a minute. We're family. I want that tune for my record."

I told her, "Well, you can't have it."

Dianne said, "We're family. You got to tell Miles he can't have it. Write him something else."

I said, "He's already heard it. You call Miles and tell him he can't have it!" She said she was already writing a lyric for it. I told her, "You gotta stop!" Well, Dianne is my cousin so I had to call Miles tell him. I said, "Hey Miles?"

"Yeah."

"You know that I tune I wrote for you?"

"Yeah."

"You know my cousin, Dianne Reeves?"

"Yeah."

"Uh, can I write you another tune? She wants it for her album."

Miles cussed me up and down. It took him about 15 minutes of swearing at me and her. "Tell that blankety-blank to get her own song!"

The song that came out of it for Dianne's album was "Fumilayo," and it was nominated for a Grammy. It didn't win, but it started out as a song for Miles Davis.

AAJ: You hear these amazing stories about how intimidating Miles was and you think no way could it be true, but maybe it is.

GD: Miles was quite a character and much funnier than most people realize, especially if you were with him one-on-one—very interesting dude.
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