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George Duke: Facing the Music

Jeff Winbush By

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AAJ: Had you become more comfortable as a vocalist to step out take the lead as a singer?

GD: I've never been comfortable with my vocals, and I don't consider myself a singer. I'm a pianist who sings a little bit. The only reason I started singing was to sell records. I admit that. Vocals seem to connect in a way instrumentals do not, and I thought that was okay in spots, not for an entire record. I still do the same thing now. Déjà Vu has a lot of vocals.

George Duke Band, Performing at JazzKaar 2010

I think I'm a better vocalist now than I've ever been, but I don't have as much voice. The falsetto is pretty much on its way out. What did Al Jarreau call it—"Mutiny On the Body"?

AAJ: How did the Muir Woods Suite (Warner Bros., 1993) come to pass?

GD: I had been writing stuff since college. My thesis was to write an opera. I began to write some orchestral things, and I was a music composition major. In between tours and records, I was writing the Muir Woods Suite (Warner Bros., 1993). I had the movements done, and I put them in my synthesizer and played all the parts just so I could hear it. I figured I never would do it with a real orchestra.

I took the three movements to give to Claude Nobs of the Montreux Festival. I was going to give it to Claude at a party Quincy Jones was throwing. It was on a cassette, and Claude took it and started playing it at the party. I was having a drink and suddenly it was like, "Hey, what is that coming over Quincy's stereo?" It got real quiet, and people started crowding around it. I was, like, "Oh man, I gave it to Claude to take back to his hotel room. What's he doing playing it here?" I was kind of embarrassed and walked out on the terrace. Quincy came up to me and said, "Dukey"—he calls me "Dukey." "We need to do at the festival this year.

I said, "You mean next year."

He said, "No, I mean this year." That only gave me three months to finish it. I came back and cleared out my schedule to finish the four movements. Whooo! It was a lot of work to do in three weeks.

AAJ: Is that something you would like to try again?

GD: Oh, absolutely. I'm much better now. I was a novice then. Not to say I'm Stravinsky now, but I learned a lot and have done some big band and orchestral stuff for other artists. I've just done some stuff for Natalie Cole and for Al Jarreau and Dee Dee Bridgewater, that debuted at the Kennedy Center this past January. That's absolutely something I want to do again. Or my next record might be a big band record; I haven't decided yet.

AAJ: Déjà Vu and Dukey Treats seem like the closing of a chapter, musically.

GD: I never thought of it that way, but you could be right. I take it one day at a time. If I had to do a record today, I really want to revisit A Brazilian Love Affair and use what I know now to go back to Brazil to cut an album. On the other hand, this big band thing has really been pulling at me. I've been doing dates with the Amsterdam Metropolitan Orchestra, and they are great. I'd like to go over there with someone like Christian McBride and a great drummer. I might do that next year. I don't know. It's pulling at me too.

AAJ:: Christian McBride appears on After Hours (Warner Bros., 1998) and Face the Music (BPM, 2000)—two perhaps underrated albums. Do you enjoy confounding people's expectations for what George Duke is "supposed" to sound like?

GD: I've done that throughout my career. When I did the funk thing, it caught people by surprise. But I don't make music for that purpose. I make the music that I'd been led to do.

Face the Music was supposed to be my last album for Warner Brothers. But Matt Pierson, who was my project manager at Warner, said, "Look, George, we're going through some changes here. If this is as strong an album as I think, you'd be better off taking it to another label for distribution, or putting it out yourself."

I was shocked, but in hindsight Matt did me a favor. He sent me on my way to set up my own label, and it was time to do it before the bottom fell out of the industry. I did the record I wanted to do with Christian, Little John Roberts on drums and Jeff Lee Johnson on guitar. I wanted that band sound again. That's what that record was really about. We just went into the studio and had at it—everybody just playing live together and going after that vibe. The same thing was was After Hours is about. I wanted to do a concept album about a guy leaving work and coming home through rush hour traffic, cooling out, and it takes him through the rest of the night, which includes making love to his woman.

Face the Music was conceptual only in the sense that it's all one band. There was a track on there where I said, "This will never get played on the radio, but I just want to do something that is totally free. The last tune, "Ten Mile Jog," we did around midnight. I said, "All right, everybody just do what you want." I looked at Jeff Lee and said, "You start." And that was totally improvised—I went in and orchestrated it later. There's something about the immediacy of that stuff that I just love. It was like 13 minutes long, but I wasn't worried about time.

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