Along with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Bob James, GEORGE DUKE stands as one of the true master keyboardists of the late 20th century. After nearly forty remarkable years in music, Duke has performed with everyone from Cannonball Adderley to Frank Zappa. Add to this his incredibly soulful singing voice, production work and ground-breaking arrangements on several Grammy-winning projects, and numerous film and TV scoring projects, and it becomes crystal clear that George Duke's career is unrivaled in its pure excellence and limitless scope.
But of all of his accomplishments, his own recordings stand out as some of the most cutting-edge contemporary jazz and instrumental funk on the planet, a document of true brilliance and vision.
Born in San Rafael, California, George Duke was raised in a working class neighborhood in Marin County. After hearing another Duke, the great Duke Ellington, at the tender age of four, George reacted immediately, running around the house screaming, "'Get me a piano, get me a piano!'" Thankfully, his mother responded to his cries, and in addition to delving into serious piano studies, he became captivated by the gospel music he was exposed to in church. This pervasive influence of jazz, classical, and gospel music in his formative years would be a lethal creative combination that would sustain him throughout his illustrious career.
Duke studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, majoring in trombone and earning a composition degree in 1967. While studying for and eventually earning his Masters Degree in composition from San Francisco State University, George worked with a jazz trio around the Bay Area, a group that also backed a young rehabilitation counselor who was performing as a jazz singer on the side: the soon to be legendary Al Jarreau.
After working with Jean-Luc Ponty, the violinist introduced him to Frank Zappa, which led to the first of two extended stays with the Mothers of Invention. His contributions to classic recordings like The Grand Wazoo, Over-Nite Sensation, Apostrophe, and the film and recording 200 Motels display the incredible natural musicianship, staggering versatility, and keen sense of humor that made Duke a natural fit for the group.
At the end of 1970, Joe Zawinul left Julian "Cannonball" Adderley's band to form the groundbreaking group Weather Report, and George got the call to replace him. Through the great alto saxophonist, he had opportunities to work with some of the greatest artists in jazz, including Joe Williams, Nancy Wilson, and Dizzy Gillespie. It became clear that the uniquely talented keyboardist could expertly perform in staggeringly diverse styles of music. For example, in 1974 alone he recorded with jazz masters Adderley, Herb Ellis, and Ray Brown, Latin jazz trendsetters Flora Purim & Airto, soul prodigy Shuggie Otis, and fusion master Billy Cobham. However, even more important, he recorded two of his own genre-busting projects for the MPS label, Faces in Reflection and Feel.
Finally, in 1977, George signed to Epic Records, and released two recordings that would set the jazz/R&B/funk worlds on fire: From Me To You and the Gold-certified Reach For It. The latter was driven by the hard-core funk-infused title track, which reached #2 on the R&B charts. He followed this in 1978 by Don't Let Go, featuring the wonderfully goofy "Dukey Stick", a double entendre par excellence. Showing his complete mastery of modern soul and R&B, George followed these Parliament-influenced funkfests by delving into the multi-dimensional style of Earth Wind & Fire, represented here by "Say That You Will" from Follow the Rainbow.
The same year, in addition to releasing a second R&B project (Master of the Game) the astonishingly prolific and multi-talented multi-instrumentalist recorded one of his most compelling and lasting works: A Brazilian Love Affair. Represented here by the infectious title track, the project's synthesis of samba and funk created George's answer to Wayne Shorter's brilliant Native Dancer, and a chance to expose the enticing sounds of Brazil to yet another audience. To capture his vision authentically, George recorded most of the project in Rio, featuring Milton Nascimento, Simone, Toninho Horta and other Brazilian masters.
The 1980's were an especially active decade for Duke. In 1981, he teamed up with bassist Stanley Clarke to form the Clarke/Duke Project, and their hit single "Sweet Baby" was a huge crossover success. He also continued to record at an album-a-year pace, finally moving from Epic to Elektra Records in 1985. Additionally, his increased activity as a producer kept him working around the clock, with contributions to significant works by Jeffrey Osborne, Phillip Bailey, Rufus, Denise Williams, Angela Bofill and many others. He also finally had the opportunity to produce his old friend Al Jarreau, delivering the Gold-certified Heart's Horizon, in addition to contributing a track to the legendary Miles Davis's Warner Bros. debut, Tutu.
Finally, in 1989, Duke released Night After Night. Although the project got little support from his label, it was a very strong effort with George showing tremendous growth as an artist, tightening his focus on the sophisticated urban adult market. The Skip Scarborough-penned LTD classic "Love Ballad" features George's synthesizer on melody, and the innately human quality of his breathy keyboard sound melds seamlessly with the track's background vocals. Although he was very tentative to embrace synthesizers when Frank Zappa first encouraged him to do, over time George became an important keyboard innovator, with an emphasis on emulating sounds that were particularly difficult due to their soulfully human elements. Around this time, he began to utilize the Synclavier, a very advanced digital synthesizer that, in addition to the ability to act as a programming and recording machine, could create amazingly real sounds.
Following his lack of commercial success on Elektra, George felt disenfranchised with the whole idea of being a solo artist, deciding to focus more on record production and other outside projects until the right situation came along. Thankfully, after a performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival with vocalist Rachelle Ferrell, he was approached by the esteemed Chairman of Warner Bros. Records, Mo Ostin. As George puts it, "I was feeling real good about playing music again and was content to not have a record deal unless I could have the freedom to make unorthodox records as well as commercial ones." When Ostin insisted that George make whatever kind of records he desired, George signed on immediately, and what followed was a terrific run of six varied but equally dazzling projects for the label.
Snapshot was Duke's most successful project since the â€˜70's, and it was driven by the Quiet Storm chart-topper "No Rhyme, No Reason". A story of forbidden love told in George's passionate falsetto, and featuring the amazing Rachelle Ferrell, the track stands as a high watermark in a career with many outstanding highlights. A deep in-the-pocket soulful groove, heartfelt vocals, and breathy synth sounds are all held together by the undeniably personal stamp of Duke's piano. Also from Snapshot is "6 O'Clock", a slam-dunk representation of the frequently attempted but too often cheesy urban-instrumental-with-vocal-hook track.
With the freedom to record diverse projects like the orchestral Muir Woods Suite and After Hours, a Grammy-nominated concept album of romantic instrumentals, George was able to focus his other solo projects in a more cohesive direction. What began with Snapshot continued with 1995's Illusions, featuring the track "Love Can Be So Cold", clearly the follow-up to "No Rhyme", following a similar story line delivered in his mellow conversational vocal style and utilizing what has become a Duke signature, the Milesian Harmon-muted trumpet synth sound. He closed out his relationship with Warner Bros. by releasing Cool, which included the single "She's Amazing", written by and featuring the wonderfully sultry and soothing vocals of Chante Moore.
Following a nearly thirty-year run recording for major record labels, 2002 was the year that George Duke decided to go the independent route, starting his own company, Bizarre Planet Music. A move that many artists have made out of necessity, George's reason was based on his need to move onto the next chapter in his distinguished career with the complete freedom that comes from being your own boss.
"My Piano" from Face the Music felt like a perfect way to close out this collection. The track takes the listener on a fascinating musical journey, combining African, jazz, Latin, and contemporary Urban styles together, showing the connection between several African-derived musics within a focused approach. Tying together several musical threads with flair has been an ongoing theme in George Duke's career, and "My Piano" highlights this gift definitively.
Putting together the lineup for ULTIMATE GEORGE DUKE was a nearly impossible task - a 3-CD set couldn't do justice to this man's mind-blowing life in music thus far. But I can only hope that the injustice that I feel is done by whittling such a exceptional career down to eleven tracks is outweighed by the fact that this compilation can open a musical door for the uninitiated, an opportunity to view highlights from the peerless career of this contemporary keyboard genius.
Matt Pierson (February, 2007)
[Publisher's Note: George Duke died on August 5, 2013, after a battle with Lukemia)