George Duke suffered the kind of loss that stops people in their tracks. Duke’s wife Corine passed away in 2012. Sure enough, the loss caused Duke to stop doing what he does best – write produce and record music. But the hiatus didn’t last long. Duke regained his creative flow while on a cruise. Still, the death of his wife influenced some of the output on Duke’s latest record, Dreamweaver.
For example, “Round the Way Girl” takes on a new meaning in the aftermath of the passing of Duke’s wife. The track begins with a chance encounter between Duke and a young lady. They exchange pleasantries and Duke compliments the woman on her looks and asks her not to be a stranger. She reminds him that he has her number. Duke realizes that life goes on, and that dating is a part of his new life. Still, he doesn’t seem comfortable with the prospect, and the cut has the sound of a man moving in a place where he does not want to go.
Contrast “Round the Way Girl” with the version of the cowboy ballad “Happy Trails” that was made famous by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. The song’s inclusion on a jazz/funk record sounds odd if not put in historical and contemporary context. Duke probably grew up watching Rogers and Evans television variety show and the movie westerns, so he’s familiar with the tune. The song’s lyrics combine with Duke’s soulful arrangement, endowing the tune with added poignancy in light of the losses that Duke sustained: “Happy trails to you/until we meet again/keep smilin’ until then/who cares about the clouds when we’re together/Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather/happy trails to until we meet again.” Duke ends the song with a free flowing verbal riff where he bids his wife adieu and wishes her happy trails. It’s one of those moments where the emotion on record is not manufactured.
Dreamweaver is successful because Duke largely remains true to himself even as he takes the listener on a tour all of the musical styles that he mastered during his long career in music. Dreamweaver features the straight ahead acoustic jazz of “Storms of Orion,” and the fusion of neo-soul and jazz on the biographical “Trippin.” The album features one of the last recordings that Teena Marie made before she passed in 2010. That tune is titled “Ball and Chain,” and the listener will be left to wonder if Marie is singing about commitment or co-dependency. Her passionate vocal delivery makes a compelling case for either or both.
With the exception of that touching allusion at the end of “Happy Trails,” Duke doesn’t mention his late wife. We don’t get hit over the head with the artist’s despair. However, Corine Duke is a constant presence and the driving force behind several tracks on Dreamweaver. “Missing You” is a piano driven ballad with an arrangement that might remind some of the 1992 hit “No Rhyme, No Reason.” The track could have be written prior to his wife’s death as Duke talks about sending an e-mail to a special someone in the wee hours of the morning. Yet, the tune’s lyrics remind the listener to find time to tell those we love how we feel.
“You Never Know” is a cut where the artist dispenses lessons that only come through experience. The lyrics mark “You Never Know” as the song on the album that seems crafted as the fog of grief began to subside and Duke pondered what he could learn from this tragic event: “Cherish the good times/reflect on the bad/thought these things can make you oh so sad/There’s an old saying/no pain/no gain/I guess that is the name of the game/Embrace the cold/Go through the rain/Accept the things we cannot change/In the end we all must learn and grow/Life’s a test.”
George Duke entered the music business in the late 1960s as a modern jazz musician. He played experimental rock with Frank Zappa and soulful jazz with Cannonball Adderly. Duke did jazz fusion in the 1970s before becoming a funk master. He produced some of the most memorable R&B songs of the 1980s. There have been two constants in Duke’s life during most of that time - the influence of jazz and the presence of his wife. Dreamweaver is an eloquent tribute to both. Recommended.
By Howard Dukes
CLICK HERE to listen to "Dreamweaver"