If it seemed that George Duke played with everybody, it’s only because he can be linked to scores of major artists from the time he arrived on the scene in the mid to late 1960s until his untimely death from leukemia in 2013. Duke brought his classically trained jazz sensibilities to the experimental rock of Frank Zappa, the jazz fusion of Miles Davis and Stanley Clarke, the funk of George Clinton, the R&B of Anita Baker, the pop of Barry Manilow and the Brazilian influences of artists such a Flora Purim.
The depth and breadth of his musical reach can also be seen in Duke’s solo work that ranged from the funk of “Reach for It” and “Dukey Stick” to sweet pop and jazz influenced ballads such as “Sweet Baby” and “No Rhyme, No Reason.” The influence and respect that Duke garnered in the music industry can be seen in the roster that another musical legend, Al Jarreau, recruited to participate in the heartfelt tribute album, My Old Friend: Celebrating George Duke.
The lineup includes long time collaborators such as Clarke, Gerald Albright, Lalah Hathaway, Kelly Price, Marcus Miller, Boney James, Dr. John, Jeffrey Osborne, Patrice Rushen and Paul Jackson, Jr. to name a few. My Old Friend features 10 tunes that serve as a good overview of Duke’s output from the mid to late 1970s until he passed away a year ago Aug. 5. With the exception of the title track and “On the Wings of Love,” which Osborne sings as part of a medley with the Clarke/Duke penned “Every Reason to Smile,” Duke had a hand in writing most of the tunes.
Jarreau and his collaborators don’t deviate too far from Duke’s original arrangements on these classics. That choice makes My Old Friend a tributerecord in the truest sense in that these talented musicians make the conscious decision to get out of the way and allow music fans to hear the music on the late keyboardist’s own terms.
The ballad “Someday” features vocals by Jarreau and Duke’s cousin Dianne Reeves. One highlight on a record that includes several has to be Jarreau’s duet with this year’s R&B “it” girl Kelly Price on the 1992 classic “No Rhyme, No Reason.” Jarreau and Hathaway reimagine “Sweet Baby” without changing the arrangement by turning the tune into a male-female duet, while Dr. John’s throaty New Orleans blues is right at home on “You Touch My Brain.”
The fact that My Old Friend is, in part, a crowdfunded project only adds to the sense of communal respect that those in and outside of the industry had for George Duke. And there will be more Duke tributes to come, as Clarke also has one in the works. And while I can’t wait to hear what the bass wizard comes up with – wouldn’t you love to hear his takes on “Dukey Stick” and “Reach For It”? – it is fitting that Al Jarreau would lead a vocals-dominated first retrospective. My Old Friend is a fitting tribute to a musical giant and likely the first of several projects that will take a loving look back at a singular career. Recommended.
By Howard Dukes