Keyboardist George Duke enjoyed a multi-faceted career, first as a straight jazz pianist, then embracing the electric keyboard age on his MPS fusion recordings, before finally achieving commercial success in the late 1970s and early-mid 1980s. That is without factoring in his sideman duties for Cannonball Adderley, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and his Brazilian jazz outings alongside Flora Purim and Airto Moreira.
This new anthology, compiled by soul music aficionado David Nathan,avoids altogether the first two periods of jazz-oriented material and instead focuses squarely on the soul and funk side, with emphasis on the shorter 45s and Duke’s vocals. While this will come as a disappointment to fans of Duke’s jazz side who love his keyboard wizardry, for a more general audience this serves as a useful introduction to his work and there is still much to admire in his Epic years.
Duke was listening closely to new trends and the innovative funk work of the Funkadelic/Parliament stable inspired him to come up with two enduring slabs of funk in ‘Dukey Stick’ (available here in its eight minute 12″ version) and ‘Reach for it’, dating from 1978 and 1977 respectively. However, Duke was never one to stay put in one idiom and this explains in part the transition to a more Latin-jazz on ‘Follow the rainbow’ from 1979. This paired Duke with some of the hottest Latin musicians including percussionist Sheila E. (aka Escovedo), later to enjoy major commercial success with Prince, but those Latin numbers are avoided here in favour of the single, ‘Say you will’, which was a modest R & B hit. In some respects ‘Follow the rainbow’ was a precursor to ‘Brazilian Love Affair’ from 1979 that is arguably Duke’s greatest artistic achievement and the title track in its briefer form here is a glorious piece that combines the leader’s masterful keyboard skills with his sweet sounding vocals over an explosive Brazilian percussive section. No other numbers from the seminal album are included here. In the same year, ‘Master of the game’ surfaced and from this more avowedly soul, ‘I want you for myself’ featuring the lead vocals of Lynn Davis became a smash hit on the dancefloors. The shorter 45 version is showcased here.
By 1981 George Duke had embarked on a new project, a duet recording with bass maestro Stanley Clarke, who had recorded a minor hit album as leader with Epic. Two albums would result, but the first, ‘The Clarke/Duke project’ was by far the stronger and a hit pop single, ‘Sweet baby’, introduced Duke to a whole new audience unaware of his former jazz life. Thereafter, George Duke searched for a follow up and the 1982 album, ‘Dream on’, provided, ‘Shine on’, which was a lesser hit, but popular on the dancefloors. His former life as a funkster was reprised with, ‘Son of reach for it (the funky dream)’ and with five selections from ‘Dream on’, not forgetting the excellent title track, this was the most satisfying of his solo work after ‘Brazilian Love Affair’. Once the formula became successful, George Duke was under pressure to repeat and thus ‘Guardian of the light’ from 1983 comes across as a kind of ‘Dream on’ Part two, albeit with the addition of emerging musical technology such as sequencers. Meanwhile, a new industry driven sub-genre, smooth jazz, was in the offing with the likes of Kenny G and labels such as GRP coming to the fore. It is in this light that one should view, ‘Rendezvous’ from 1984, which was a pale reflection of Duke’s talents. The previous year, George Duke and Stanley Clarke has reunited for the second instalment of the ‘Clarke/Duke project’, but this time round the lead single, ‘Heroes’, was a lesser effort. The duo toured to great accolade and, perhaps, a live document of that tour would have made for a more convincing follow up.
It is a pity that the full-length 12″ version of ‘I want you for myself’ was not included and, possibly at least two or three examples of the Latin-fusion period form both the ‘Follow the Rainbow’ and especially the ‘Brazilian Love Affair’ albums would have provided a broader panoramic picture/vision of what George Duke is capable of. That said, both albums are available in slightly expanded editions and worthy of your attention. More surprisingly, none of George Duke’s productions with other artists are included either, especially when singers of the calibre of Jeffrey Osbourne and Deniece Williams are left out, and these might have been better choices over the mid-1980s sides which are largely non-essential. Again, Soul Music have carefully thought matters through and a Deniece Williams anthology is imminent. Otherwise, this is an entertaining overview of one aspect of Duke’s output. Lengthy sleeve notes from Mojo contributor and music writer Charles Waring offer up both a heartfelt tribute to Duke’s career and a rounded vision of the musician’s career pre-Epic. At some stage, it is to be hoped that a pared down and more affordable alternative to the prohibitively expensive complete MPS sessions becomes available.