George Duke: Facing the Music
“ 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 himselfwith a large Afro, and a space-age synthesizer slung around his neckand 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.]
GD: Absolutely. I know John, and of course I worked with Billy Cobham, and I've always loved their concept of fusion musicand 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 fusionthe 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 '50sthat'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?"
"You know that I tune I wrote for you?"
"You know my cousin, Dianne Reeves?"
"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-onevery interesting dude.
AAJ: Speaking of Dianne Reeves, she is among the many artists you've produced, along with Rachelle Ferrell, Everette Harp, Jeffrey Osbourne, Marilyn Scott, Denice Williams and so on. How did you get into the production end of the business?
GD: I began producing a vocal act many years ago, called Third Wavethree Filipino sistersfor Saba Records, which became MPS, which became BASF. My initial records The Aura Will Prevail (1976) and Feel (1974) were on that label. The Third Wave record only sold in Europe, but I got a call from Larkin Arnold at Capitol Records, and he asked me to produce Raul D'Souza. I knew Raul. He was from Brazil, played trombone, and I played trombone too.
At that time, the disco scene was getting strong, and I needed to find an alternative way to make a living. I thought, because I had done the funk stuff with "Reach For It" and "Dukey Stick," I had a history of selling records, but I needed to move into another area and expand.
I did two albums with Raul and got an offer from Don Mizelle at Elektra to work with Dee Dee Bridgewater. She's doing jazz records now, but back then she was kind of Earth, Wind and Fire-ized. It was not a great record, but it got my chops wet so to speak. I got another call from Bobby Colomby at Capitol to coproduce with him a record by A Taste of Honey. That was something because they had a hit with "Boogie Oogie Oogie." They were a platinum-selling group, and I had never dealt with that. I played jazz and didn't worry about sales; I only made music. Producing A Taste of Honey was another challenge.
The first day we were in the studio, Bobby told me, "You don't need me for this. You produce it." That was completely scary. I had never done a record like this, but I took on the challenge. Fortunately, the third single, "Sukiyaki," sold two million records. Once you have a record like that, that sells those kinds of numbers, the phone starts ringing. I got a call from Jeffrey Osbourne, that led to Deniece Williams, that led to Sister Sledge, Barry Manilow, Anita Baker, and on and on. So then I had the R&B thing, plus the jazz thing. I stayed in the studio for the next 15 to 20 years, and that's what I did.
AAJ: When you were wearing your producer's hat, you still tapped into your jazz background. Nobody had heard a song like "Sukiyaki" with a Japanese instrument like the koto in it.
GD: I had worked with a group called Hiroshima and I knew June Kuramoto, who is an extraordinary koto player and could play in a pop concept. I asked her to come in and do something on the song, but it was Janice Johnson, the band's bassist, that brought the song to me. I was, like, "Man, what am I going to do with 'Sukiyaki'?" I thought she was crazy, but I said, "If that's what she wants to do, I'll do it." We did the song and had Claire Fisher do the string arrangement and brought June in to give it a Japanese flavor. We added a R&B section, and that was it. It was a simple tune I never thought would become a hit. To this day, I can't believe it was as big a record as it was.
AAJ: Does having the kind of success as a producer of big hits like "Sukiyaki" and "Let's Hear It For the Boy" begin to pull you away from your solo career?
GD: It did turn into that. The offers came in, and it was very tough to turn them down. During the '80s and '90s, I would go out in the summer to something like the Montreux Festival with a band I'd put together. Otherwise, I was in the studio producing records until the bottom fell out of the industry. Those were my golden years in terms of producing because the money was there and artists were willing to try something with a "jazz artist" like me.
It was tough, though, for the record labels to accept that black artists could sell those kind of numbers of records. With Jeffrey Osbourne and "Stay With Me" and "On the Wings of Love," or even "Sukiyaki"Janice had to force Capitol to put that record out as a single. When Stanley Clarke and I made "Sweet Baby" we believed in it, but we had to get behind it with our own money. We had to hire an independent publicist to support that record, but once it started selling, only then did Epic Records put their full weight behind it. The pop music department said, "You guys are jazz artists."
The R&B department said, "Nothing we can do with this."
The jazz department said, "It's not a jazz record."
We had no choice but to step outside the system.
AAJ: Many people portray record labels as being full of people who were bold thinkers trying to find and promote new and exciting music, but it seems like there were actually a lot of guys who stood in the way of creativity.
GD: I think some of the best visionaries of that time were the ones that stayed out of the way and let the artists do what they do, especially if they weren't drugged out or crazy. That's changed now. A lot of it is done by committee, with the A&R department saying, "You'll record this song and work with that producer," and that kind of stuff.
All the records I did with Jeffrey, Denice or Barry ManilowI dealt directly with the artist. My relationship with the record company was strictly a legal and business one, not creative. I was the voice between the label and the artist, and I translated back and forth. We'd keep them abreast of what was going on, but they weren't telling us what to do.
AAJ: You seem to have mastered both the artistic and the business aspects of the musical industry. How did you learn to handle matters not just in the recording studio but in the suites of record companies as well?
GD: I guess I was blessed. There's nobody that was teaching me this. To a degree, it was working with Frank Zappa that had an influence on me. Watching him and how he seemed to control his own destiny influenced me quite a bit. He was the only musician I met that was that self-contained. Zappa knew as much as the engineer about the recording studio, had the business aspect together, and he had to be able to play the crazy music he made. It was always interesting to me to play that kind of stuff that wasn't on the radio except from midnight to 5:00 a.m. on some obscure station. He had this huge audience, and we could sell out places most pop artists couldn't.
I took something from that. Something told me I should not give up my publishing rights. I've been asked many times to give up my songwriting rights. I've been told, "We want your song for Michael Jackson, but you have to give up your publishing rights," and I said, "No. Uh-uh. It ain't gonna happen." They would say, "But your song won't go on the record," and I'd reply, "Well then, it ain't going." It takes some chutzpah to do this because I know I'm giving up money. But something told me to hold onto my rights, and that extends into recording where I have my own label and control my own product.
AAJ: The four-CD box set My Soul: The Complete MPS Fusion Recordings (MPS/Universal, 2008) should be required listening for anyone wanting to know where the roots of George Duke and a good part of fusion first came into bloom. What are your memories of that time?
GD: It was a wonderful, experimental time because MPS gave me freedom to do whatever I wanted to do without any interference whatsoever. MPS was what Saba Records folded into, and it was owned by a German named Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer. He's dead nowpassed away in an auto accident. There were no holds barred then. I don't think I could have done that in America. Those records were me trying to find out who I was.
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 basednot 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.
AAJ: What changed for you when you signed with Epic Records and cut your first two albums for them, From Me To You (1977) and Reach For It (1977)?
GD: I had come from MPS, where I had a lot of freedom but not a lot of money. When I went to Epic, where I had what I considered a big budget, I said, "Man, I've got money to make a real record with real strings," so I went crazy. I wanted strings. I wanted horns. I wanted singers. And the record was kind of a hodgepodge of stuff. It didn't really work as well as it should have. On the next album, I had a band that had been traveling awhile. We developed a personality as musicians. "Reach For It" began in Washington, D.C., as a drum solo played live, and I started playing the bass line and people started yelling and screaming. I looked at Byron Miller, the bassist, and told him to play a solo, and it worked.
We went in the studio and I said, "Man, you remember what we did?"
They said, "Yeah," and we recorded a whole roll of tape on it. That became the hit off that record, but there was really nothing else on there like it. We were still a jazz group. We played a lot of Latin and fusion, so that was the transition between those two records because they were very different attitudes.
AAJ: How did the record company react to "Reach For It?"
GD: I was in Europe, where we were playing a tour, and the record company called. There were no cell phones or text messages at this time. They said, "You gotta get back to the States right away! We got a hit record here!"
I said, "What are you talking about?"
"You must come back now," they insisted. The record was breaking out of the D.C., Baltimore and Detroit area, and permeated the rest of the country.
We came back from jazz clubs and festivals in front of mixed audiences, to playing concerts in front of 98-percent black audiences because black radio broke that record. We went from playing clubs that held a few hundred, to drawing 8,000 to 10,000 people a night. For me, after working in small clubs, this was like, "Oh, my God." And we still only had one funk song.
AAJ: Was it difficult making the switch from playing to a jazz fusion audience to doing shows where all they knew was "Reach For It?"
GD: It was very tough. That's why I did the Don't Let Go (Epic, 1978) album to try and solidify the audience I had gained, but still try to bring them with me. I could do funk, but for some of them, that's all they knew. They didn't know any of that other material I had done. I didn't want to lose the audience, but I tried to bring some of them with me to open their minds to other kinds of music. It was not easy.
The audiences were looking at us, wondering what the heck we were about. I also realized I had to become more visual. Most of the stuff we were playing, I was walled behind a bunch of keyboards. We were essentially a jazz group that played one funky tune. By Don't Let Go, I had encased my keyboards with Plexiglas, and I wanted to get something to wear around my neck. I searched for a keyboard I could put around my neck like a guitarist so I could come out front and work the audience. That developed to what some call the "Dukey Stick" now.
But there was a lot of good stuff on the [Reach For It] album. We were playing some hot Latin, Santana-style stuff. We had some other funk on there with Stanley, but there was nothing else like "Reach For It."
AAJ: You pulled a left turn with A Brazilian Love Affair. What was the impetus for that album?
GD: I don't think a musician should sit still. I'd gone to Brazil with Cannonball Adderley in 1971 and promised myself one day I'd come back and record with Brazilians. I started listening to Brazilian music when I was 19. I'd go see Sergio Mendes and Brazil '65 and listen to bossa nova records. But when I went to Brazil, I got introduced to another kind of music like Milton Nascimento. I got a suitcase, stuffed it with LPs and came home to listen to them one after another. With "Reach For It" and "Dukey Stick" doing as well as they did, I went to Epic and said, "Guys, I wanna go to Brazil and do an album," and they said okay and gave me a budget. They hooked me up with a lady in the international department who spoke fluent Portuguese. I took my band with to play with the Brazilian musicians to get a true melding of styles. It was a wonderful thing, and I want to do another one, no doubt about it. It's been one of my most enjoyable experiences.
AAJ: There seemed to be some turnover going on in your band after A Brazilian Love Affair.
GD: The band had changed by the time of Master of the Game (Epic, 1979). Ricky Lawson had replaced Ndugu Chancler on drums and we had a different guitarist, so the personality of the band had changed. That was the end of an era. It's a Star Trek philosophy: we've conquered this; what's on that star to the left? Funk had kind of died out. The radio stations weren't playing it. That's why I started producing at that point.
The disco thing had become very strong, and I wanted to see if there was a way to incorporate that into what I do. I like chord changes and all that, but I wanted to see if I could use that beat, and consequently I came up with a song called "I Want You For Myself." That actually did pretty well, but its still had a lot of improvisation and music in it.
Once that band was done, I disbanded it and stayed in the studio. The result of that was Dream On (Epic, 1982), and fortunately I had a song, "Shine On," thatoutside of this country, in Japan and Francebecame a huge hit. The odd part was when "Shine On" became a disco hit. I wrote it as a ballad. At the time, Epic sent me a letter saying they weren't going to release my records in Japan for lack of sales. When this hit and I went back over there, I had little schoolgirls following me around giggling and chasing me into stores. Well, fortunately, that's over [laughs]. I was trying to incorporate that disco thing into my music without bastardizing it. Whether or not I was successful is for somebody else to decide.
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?
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 iteverybody 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 improvisedI 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.
AAJ:: You've had an eclectic yet successful career, but you've been accused of selling out and compromising your talent. How do you respond to that criticism?
GD: Most people fall in love with a certain kind of jazz, and they hold on to that, and they don't want it to grow. Jazz is always going to grow in some direction or another. Right now, jazz is going in a direction I don't particularly care for. What smooth jazz has become is not what jazz should be. I defend the right of those guys to play it that way. I don't have to listen to it.
I prefer jazz that is more spontaneous. A lot of my funk stuff is more spontaneous than this smooth jazz that is all planned and worked out. It has no edge to it. I may not be able to explain what jazz is because it's very spiritual, but until you experience it, you don't know. It's like describing the taste of an apple to someone who's never eaten one. I know what jazz is, though my definition is pretty broad. As long as its got some swing, some spontaneity and some life to it, "Yeah man, that's jazz." Just because something is funky doesn't mean it's not jazzy. You would hope someone who likes jazz would be open to other forms of music.
I was at Bern, playing at this festival with my quartet, all acoustic. I've always enjoyed exploring. There's always going to be narrow people. I think jazz needs to be inclusive.
I started listening to the organ player in the church and graduated to Ray Charles, Les McCann, Ramsey Lewis, Wynton Kelly and those kind of players because they had soul in their playing. I eventually found Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock and Chick Coreawho, by the way, are both older than me [laughs]. I started listening and being influenced by them because they're great players, but that was later on. From there I started exploring Coltrane. Later on it was Milton Nascimento and Parliament- Funkadelic.
That's what makes life exciting to me. I didn't just get married to a style. I love spaghetti, but I don't want spaghetti every day. I put my iPod on shuffle because I want to be surprised. I love funk and I love jazz, but I don't want to listen to either one every day. I love listening to music.
AAJ: In the liner notes from Faces in Reflection (MPS, 1974) you're quoted as saying: "As long as I can play what I want to and make a reasonable living I am happy. Making a hit isn't important." Does that quote still hold true for you, 36 years later?
GD: Absolutely. My chances of having another hit record are pretty remoteprobably more remote now than it was then. I'm happy if I can play the music I'm led to. That is my joy in lifemaking the music that I like. And people can dig it or not dig it.
George Duke, Déjà Vu (Telarc Jazz, 2010)
George Duke, Dukey Treats (Heads Up, 2008)
George Duke, My Soul: The Complete MPS Fusion Recordings (MPS, 2008)
George Duke, Face the Music (BPM, 2003)
George Duke, After Hours (Warner Bros., 1998)
George Duke, Illusions (Warner Bros., 1995)
George Duke, Muir Woods Suite (Warner Bros., 1993)
George Duke, Snapshot (Warner Bros., 1993)
George Duke, Night After Night (Warner Bros., 1989)
George Duke, Guardian of the Light (Epic, 1983)
Stanley Clarke/George Duke, The Clarke/Duke Project (Epic, 1981)
George Duke, Master of the Game (Epic, 1979)
George Duke, A Brazilian Love Affair (Epic, 1979)
George Duke, Don't Let Go (Epic, 1978)
George Duke, Reach For It (Epic, 1977)
Billy Cobham/George Duke, The Cobham/Duke Band: Live on Tour in Europe (Atlantic, 1976)
George Duke, The Aura Will Prevail (MPS, 1976)
Frank Zappa, One Size Fits All (FZ/Ryko, 1975)
George Duke, Faces In Reflection (MPS/Promising Music, 1974)
Frank Zappa, The Grand Wazoo (FZ/Ryko, 1972)
Jean-Luc Ponty, King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa (Pacific Jazz, 1969)
Jean-Luc Ponty, The Jean-Luc Ponty Experience with The George Duke Trio (Pacific Jazz, 1969)