The George Duke Band: The Complete 1970s Epic Albums Collection
compiles the six albums that keyboardist, bandleader, composer, arranger and producer George Duke released on Epic Records between 1977 and 1979, accompanied by extensive and reflective notes on each album personally written by Duke, who wrote, arranged and produced just about every track.
As an instrumentalist, Duke strongly resembles one of his most famous employers, soul-jazz saxophonist and bandleader Cannonball Adderley
: Duke plays in an enthusiastic and compelling style, hard and fast, but with voicings and other subtleties that help his music sound warm and comfortable"progressive while still being accessible," as Duke himself described one of these albums (Reach for It
To properly consider these six titles, it's important to remember the commercial and critical context into which they were released: Saturday Night Fever
, essentially a rock 'n' roll "coming of age" movie that swapped the promise of rock for the promise of disco, was released in late 1977; by 1979, disco Fever
had thoroughly supplanted harder funk and R&B on most urban radio playlists and the Billboard
A master of multiple acoustic and electric keyboards and synthesizers, Duke also wrote great music for his bass ("Dukey Stick," "Reach For It") and guitar ("Seasons," "Lemme At It") players, including and especially Michael Sembello (better known for "Maniac" from the 1983 Casablanca soundtrack album, Flashdance
) and Charles "Icarus" Johnson, whose playing merited his fiery, soaring namesake.
History | His StoryFrom Me to You
(1977) was Duke's first Epic recording. "The idea for this album was to merge the styles I love onto one album," he recalls. It was the first time he recorded with vocalist Dianne Reeves
, his younger cousin, featured on the ballad "Broken Dreams." "My favorite tunes on this LP are the instrumental tracks," Duke notes. From Me to You
peaked at #16 on the Billboard
Jazz album chart.
Thanks to its multitudinously funky title track, scalding Latin jams and a ballad "Just for You,"Reach for It
went to #25 Pop and #4 R&B but never made the Billboard
Jazz album chart. "This was my biggest selling solo record," Duke writes. "When it went Gold, I nearly had a heart attack!"
"We toured all of '77 and part of '78 and were considered the new young hot R&B/Funk/Jazz group," his notes continue. "We toured with all the major R&B acts of the time, but were musically doing something quite different with a distinct progressive jazz flavor." For 1978's Don't Let Go
, Duke added to his band Latin percussionist Sheila Escovedo and vocalist Napoleon Murphy Brock, who from 1974-'75 had worked alongside Duke on four Frank Zappa
albums (Apostrophe '
, Roxy & Elsewhere
, One Size Fits All and Bongo Fury
[all Rykodisc]). "This record was designed to be a follow up LP to Reach for It
," Duke notes.
Duke continued to stretch out as an instrumentalist, and is credited with ten different acoustic and electric keyboards on Follow the Rainbow
(1979), which peaked at #3 on the Billboard
Jazz album chart. "This album was influenced in many ways by Earth, Wind & Fire
, for I had seen many of their shows, knew them personally, and just loved the way they were able to combine great music with visual concepts. They found a way to be commercial and make good music at the same time."
"This album is more commercial than my previous two Epic recordings because disco had become popular and I realized I needed to change up my grooves to get radio play and sell records."
To his credit, Duke writes freely about how none of these albums sold in Europe, how CBS Japan threatened to stop releasing his albums due to lack of interest, and how the band was booed offstage after their third number at the 1979 Berlin Jazz Festival.
Although it was recorded after A Brazilian Love Affair
(1979), Master of the Game
(1979) was released as the follow-up to Follow the Rainbow
, never made the Billboard
Jazz chart but peaked at #18 R&B, and was the swan song for this Duke band. "The year was still 1979, and yeah, I spent a lot of time in the studio that year," Duke recalls.
"I Want You For Myself," from Master of the Game
, serves a great example of what was simultaneously brilliant and frustrating about Duke's Epic output: It's disco Duke all the way, from its throbbing synthesizer bass line to the breathlessly horny female vocalist who wants to feel all the time what she feels when your body's close to hers. So even though Duke (acoustic piano) and Escovedo (percussion) unleash torrid mid-song solos, there probably weren't too many jazz fans who waded through the disco long enough to hear them.
A Brazilian Love Affair
Recorded with three pillars of modern Brazilian musicpercussionist Airto Moreira
, vocalist Flora Purim
, and singer/songwriter Milton Nascimento
A Brazilian Love Affair
was Duke's Epic masterwork. "This is one of my personal favorite records and a true labor of love. I first visited Brazil as part of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet and made a promise to myself that one day I would return to Brazil and record an album," Duke notes. "Many of my fans believe this to be my best record, and a good argument can be made for that point of view." Love Affair
peaked at #4 on the Billboard
Crackling with Airto's percussion, the leadoff "Brazilian Love Affair" spreads open Brazil's musical landscape like an airplane descending to land in Rio. Duke's summary viewpoint on Brazil's countless colors and patterns, uniquely vibrant and pulsing with life, shifts through several different moods like a rapid transit tour through the verdant countryside. Love Affair
also proves quite romantic: A beautiful wordless vocal melody that floats upon butterfly instrumentation, "Summer Breezin'" lightly sketches an airy and carefree glide, while "I Need You Now" and Duke's acoustic piano interlude "Alone 6AM" reveal his softer, more romantic sound. This refurbished Epic Collection
version also restores Nascimento's haunting guitar ballad "Ao Que Vai Nascer," left off the original release. "This is a great track that I had almost a religious experience arranging and conducting," Duke notes.
Purim's voice and Raul De Souza
's trombone help sweeten the panoramic "Brazilian Sugar" that drives hard into "Sugar Loaf Mountain," which disintegrates under the heavyweight funk of the percussion/bass breakdown behind Duke's kinetic electric piano solo. These colorful jams culminate in the florescent "Up from the Sea It Arose and Ate Rio in One Swift Bite," introduced by tumult and clatter from Airto's battery and concluded by fireworks from Roland Bautista's jazz-rock fusion guitar.
Writing about every song on the other five titles would be exhaustive but not much else. At the same time, amidst their disco and commercialism, oases of creative jazz and pop remain. So here's their best distilled from five into two CDs, with one disc centered on Latin, Brazilian, and progressive jazz, and the other on funk and pop.
Shake & Finger Pops
Duke has a very bright production touch and a crafty sense of pop, for better or worse, and his most commercial music lifts its template from Earth Wind & Fire. His falsetto in "You and Me," his duet with Reeves, echoes Philip Bailey
's highwire vocals from EW&F and buoys its melody like a floating cloud. Reeves' vocal also nurtures the acoustic guitar with strings ballad "Broken Dreams" (both from From Me to You
). The title track to Reach for It
sure belongs on this set, as bassist Byron Miller
and drummer Leon "Ndugu" Chancler
rumble through funk so bubbly that it overflows from the top. "This tune is basically a bass solo with a short rapvery strange for a hit record," Duke allows. This segues into the ballad "Just For You," Duke's finest sustained vocal (and one of his finest compositions) in this set.
"Dukey Stick" is the identical twin of "Reach For It" down to its descending three-note bass line and lyrics extolling the virtues of virtuoso funk, but also pulls through natty threads from '70s funk icons Parliament Funkadelic
; "Morning Sun" glows from Duke's warm call and response and harmonized vocals (both from Don't Let Go
). It's best to not sweat that duplicate bass line: "Pluck," the dinosaur funk stomp on Follow the Rainbow
, recycles the "Reach for It" drum part, too. Also from Don't Let Go
: Thickly layered yet flowing multi-tracked vocals fit "Say That You Will" snugly in between "Reasons" and "After the Love Has Gone" on your EW&F ballad playlist, while "I Am For Real (May the Funk Be With You)" drops straight disco funk from drummer Ricky Lawton's hard rocking beat.
Escovedo and Duke co-wrote the bright and snappy "Games," the only funk interlude on Master of the Game
, which, for all its disco, includes the most glorious pop song Duke ever wrote: "Everybody's Talkin,'" warm sentiments about personal growth, expressed through a well-structured lyric that circles back to end where it began and a hopeful melody that transcends stylistic categories, beautifully accompanied and handsomely sung. It's a great finale for the eleven tunes and approximately 50 minutes of funk and pop on our Shake & Finger Pops
<;h4> BraziLatin JazzDuke's time spent with Zappa seems to cast a shadow over the jazz fusion excursions in this Epic Box
, most noticeably on From Me to You
. A nine-minute tour-de-force, "Up On It" shifts and pinwheels through numerous movements and moodslike some of Zappa's best jazz work to encompass solos on electric keyboards, guitars and bass, plus drums (see above), all counterbalanced by a sizeable brass section and propelled by a quicksilver jazz fusion tempo. This segues into acoustic bowed bass and Spanish guitar to gently unwrap the more temperate ballad "Seasons," which in turn opens to reveal an acoustic piano solo that sounds like Duke channeling Chick Corea
in an extremely funky mood. The closing "Sing It" grinds out a harder jazz-funk-rock groove full of growling instrumentation and vocals that would fit quite nicely on Zappa's Apostrophe '
But this set would open with "Lemme At It" and "Hot Fire," in sequence from Reach For It
. Guitarist Charles Johnson's electric riffing simultaneously energizes and shreds their melodies, and blazes through solos so hot that you immediately understand his nickname "Icarus." In "Lemme At It," Duke aggressively explores some of his most experimental textures, almost playing a rock 'n' roll guitar solo through his electric keyboard. Percussionist Manolo Badrena
, who has toured with both Weather Report
and the The Rolling Stones
, keeps Chancler's "Hot Fire" flowing like molten lava with a relentless gusher of bongos, congas and timbales, while Duke plays his acoustic piano solo deep in their Latin rhythms, intensely repeating sharp phrases until his passion rises from them like tropical heat waves, a thorough synthesis of progressive jazz and Latin music.
The very first track on Don't Let Go
illustrates how much further Sheila E. advanced the Duke band's Latin sound, as her battery sharpens the toothsome groove "We Give Our Love" (which also features guitar from legendary soulman Johnny "Wah Wah" Watson). Her subsequent "Percussion Interlude," co-written with drummer Chancler, percolates with hot rhythms and chanted vocals, and sounds in this predominantly R&B context like a Mongo Santamaria
jam hidden within a Stevie Wonder
Duke highlights Follow the Rainbow
with his celebratory jazz "Festival." Bristling across several movements fueled by percussion-fed Brazilian and Latin rhythms, soothed by a vocal chant that glorifies Sun Goddess
, Ramsey Lewis
' jazz fusion collaboration with EW&F guru Maurice White (Columbia, 1974), and sweetened by Duke's rollicking electric piano, it sounds as bright, warm, and sunny as a Rio carnival. It's easily the best tune on Rainbow
, and second best comes nowhere close.
"Dog Man," from Master of the Game
, simultaneously relocates Duke's fusion into the Caribbean islands and an urban barrio, its sunny island groove stoked by warm horns and strummed acoustic guitar, while Duke's rollicking piano accents the rhythms of Escovedo's beat-busting percussion break. Master
also presents "The Alien Changes the Stick," a creeping Headhunters
funk sound thick with electronics and deep, rhythmic bass.
Back into Reach For It
, "Omi (Fresh Water)" closes our BraziLatin Jazz set and comes full circle to end where we began. Badrena returns on percussion and teams with trombonist de Souza to keep its warm Latin groove liquid and flowing. Duke's synthesizer solo first sounds like a floating flute, and then somehow like cascading water sparkling in sunlight.
Reach for ItRoy Ayers
gets slammed for making disco and R&B jazz fusion records throughout this same time period and for many of these same reasons.
It seems fitting that Duke bookended this phase of his career by collaborating with Billy Cobham
(culminating in The Billy Cobham-George Duke Band Live in Europe
[Atlantic, 1976]) and Stanley Clarke
(The Clarke/Duke Project
[Sony, 1981], featuring the hit "Sweet Baby") because, while much of this music pays the creative price of its time, jazz still remains within and around it.
It's not without its rough spots, but if you're willing to work just a little bit to "Reach for It"
, you'll discover stylistically transcendent and solidly creative music throughout The George Duke Band: The Complete 1970s Epic Albums Collection
. Here's hoping these suggestions help. Meet ya at the bridge!