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George Duke: Facing the Music

Jeff Winbush By

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AAJ: What is the difference between who you were as an artist then and who you are now?

GD: I was very young then. I was in my early twenties. At this point, my interests are elsewhere. Before I check out, I'd like to do another fusion record and a second Brazilian Love Affair. I want to work with African and Indian musicians, or do something that is strictly conceptually based—not necessarily a pop record, but with musicians who don't know an A from a B-flat.

Maybe a little bit of My Soul can be found on Déjà Vu and Dukey Treats, but that was another person.

AAJ: You are one of the pioneers of the usage of electric keyboards in jazz, along with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul. What did electric keyboards and synthesizers bring to jazz that was previously missing?

GD: I would no more want to get rid of my synthesizers than my television or refrigerator. Technology doesn't bother me. Synthesizers, televisions and refrigerators are great inventions and innovations. I think technology is an amazing thing in the hands of someone who knows what to do with it. Synthesizers allowed a keyboard player to orchestrate and be a one-man band. In the hands of someone who doesn't, it can be awful.

I did a date at Carnegie Hall with Herbie Hancock and Stanley Clarke, and Herbie shows up with a drum machine, and I said, "What's that?"

He said, "Oh man, it's a drum machine. We're going to play with it tonight."

He plugged it in and it went doo-doo-bop, doo-doo-bop, and I said, "Is that it?"

I love synthesizers, but they have their place. It shouldn't replace real musicians and their interaction. What drew me into synthesizers is because I wanted to bend a note. On the piano, you're stuck. I wanted to play like a Yusef Lateef, who played flute, and I thought, "If I can get a sound like that, I'm done." When I did, I said, "That's my voice. This is my spoke in the wheel." I can play blues on the synthesizer. Nobody else is doing that. Every musician, if they're going to be successful, has to figure out where they fit, and for me that was it.

I'll admit I did some pretty awful thing with drum machines. I regret doing Jeffery Osbourne's second album with them. We would let the Linn go with one beat for eight bars, and it really bothers me. It would have been a much better record with a real drummer. The problem is, musicians can become enamored with sound rather than song construction. You can get lost in the vibe.

AAJ: You've been pretty candid on your website in your critique of Thief In the Night (1985), your first album for Elektra Records after you left Epic. What went wrong?

GD: Bob Krasnow (chairman and CEO of Elektra) was probably more controlling than anyone at Epic was, but that was the biggest contract I ever had. I had never seen money like that. Unfortunately, the Elektra recordings didn't live to it. They didn't sell in the numbers we had hoped for.

I don't know what I was trying to do on that record. I guess I was trying to find myself vocally. I don't know what to say about that record.

AAJ: You rebounded with follow-ups George Duke (Elektra, 1986) and Night After Night (Elektra, 1989).

GD: Night After Night is one I sell on my website now because I got so many requests for it after it went out of print. With that record, Bob really left me alone. With the first two albums, I was trying to make a hit record and I was trying too hard. I thought we had a "We Are the World"-type record with "Good Friend," with Jeffrey Osbourne, Stephanie Mills, Kenny Loggins, and Denice Williams among the singers, but it never really made it. With the third record, I didn't worry about making a hit. There's a lot of vocals on it, but I just focused on making something that would make me feel good.

After I left Elektra, I had a year off where I wasn't recording for anyone until I signed with Warner Brothers to record Snapshot (Warner Brothers, 1993). I just happened to get lucky with "No Rhyme, No Reason" which was a R&B smash.

AAJ:: That was a staple for the late-night, "Quiet Storm" format.

GD: I can't leave the stage without doing that, "Reach For It" and "Dukey Stick."

AAJ: You mention on your website that as popular as funk has been for you here in America, it hasn't always traveled as well overseas with the audiences over there.

GD: I took my funk band with Sheila E. over to the Berlin Jazz Festival, and they threw stuff at us! We were two numbers in, and we had to leave the stage. I'd never been on stage and had them throw stuff as us because they didn't like what we were playing.

Now I play a tour in Europe, and I can't leave the stage without playing some funk. I get emails from overseas where they say, "I hope you'll play some funk." It's like they've caught up with America. Funk was considered a "black thing," then. When you're playing funk or The Clarke/Duke Project, it's still a pretty mixed audience, but in Europe when you're playing jazz, it's predominantly white. When we hit with "Sweet Baby," my lord, all of a sudden we had a female audience. With "Reach For It" and "Dukey Stick," it was like Afro Nation.

Funk is universal. It just took the Germans some time to catch up. I play "Dukey Stick" over there now, and it's like the Mothership landed. It's very interesting to see.

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