Californian keyboard maven, GEORGE DUKE, has successfully straddled the divide between the worlds of jazz and pop for almost 40 years now. Born in San Rafael, 64 years ago, Duke began his career in the late-’60s as a dedicated jazz piano player before making an unexpected left turn into the world of jazz-rock and joining Frank Zappa’s groundbreaking Mothers group in 1970. After an eye-opening stint with Zappa – “Frank tore the musical elitism out of me” says Duke, who also started playing synthesisers during that time – the keyboard player joined his hero alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s band for a couple of years. He also found time to cut some solo albums for the German MPS label before rejoining Zappa for a couple of years.
In the mid-’70s Duke joined forces with powerhouse drummer Billy Cobham for the Billy Cobham-George Duke Band and in 1977 signed to Epic where he recorded a slew of successful jazz fusion albums (including ‘Reach For It’). After a long spell at Epic, in the ’90s he joined Warner Bros (five of his Warner albums have just been reissued in Rhino’s ‘Original Album Series’). In addition to his own recordings, Duke collaborated with bassist Stanley Clarke on three albums (under the name The Clarke-Duke Project) and established himself as a major (and also Grammy winning) jazz and R&B producer, helming tracks for artists like Dianne Reeves, Deneice Williams, Anita Baker, Regina Belle, 101 North, Jeffrey Osbourne and many others.
More recently, George Duke signed to Heads Up, releasing ‘Dukey Treats’ in 2008. His second album on the Heads Up label is the about-to-be-released ‘Déjà Vu,’ due in the shops on August 30th. SJF’s Charles Waring recently caught up with this versatile and highly respected musician who talked about his new project as well as reminiscing about some of the major highlights of his long and fruitful career.
‘Déjà Vu’ is your new album. The title suggests that you might be looking back at your career in some way. Is that right?
Yes, it’s a kind of look-back at some things musically that I’ve done over my past years and basically investigating jazz, funk, soul, and Latin to a degree – there’s not a lot of Latin stuff on there but the first tune (‘A Melody’) has that kind of feel. I also wanted to include some elements of soul like a Sly & The Family Stone kind of thing that I’ve always loved. Stevie Wonder, too. But not just that, also Mahavishnu Orchestra kind of music and the period of Miles (Davis) that a lot of people dismissed, which was the ‘Tutu’/’Amandla’ period.
Of course, you worked with Miles on those two albums.
Yeah. That period (the late-’80s) a lot of jazz people put away. They said “Miles was at the end of his career” but I think it was a very creative expression of what he was: he was still Miles, but he did it over a funk beat.
And he found a new audience with those records.
Absolutely. So I wrote a tribute to Miles on ‘Déjà Vu’ called ‘Ripple In Time’ with Oscar Brashear playing trumpet.
Going right back to the beginning of your career, what inspired you to take up the piano?
My mum took me to see Duke Ellington. That kind of messed me up because I didn’t know quite what was happening. I was four years old. But I do remember seeing this guy in this off-white suit doing something with his hands – I later found out he was playing the piano, because every time he put his hands down, this sound would come out. Then he would raise his hands up and something would happen. I thought “wow, what happened?” At that age I didn’t know what was happening but it was like magic. So I told my mum I wanted to do that. And, of course, his name was Duke so it really had a connection. I didn’t understand the music: it was a little beyond me, but I liked the idea of it. And that drew me in and eventually I began taking lessons at seven years old and started playing in the church. I was with this organ player who was the most soulful organ player I ever heard in my life and that’s how I learned how to play funky and how I got into all of this. My first influence was Ray Charles – that kind of piano playing – and also Les McCann, and Ramsey Lewis – those kinds of soulful players. Later on I got into other guys like Bill Evans, who had more of a European approach and that kind of chordal construction, which was great. Now I like them both and I do ’em both.
Your association with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty was an important step in your early career.
I was just out of my teens when I joined Jean-Luc Ponty. The long and short of it is I made a record for Saba in Germany, which became MPS Records. I found out through a mutual friend that Jean-Luc was going to sign a contract with World Pacific Jazz Records. He used to be on Saba. And so when I found that he was coming to town, I had listened to all of his records on (radio station) K-Jazz up in San Francisco and I said “this guy sounds like Miles Davis on violin: I have got to play with this guy.” I had a trio that had been working with Al Jarreau for years at this little club in San Francisco. So I said “I’ve got the group to work with Jean-Luc.” I got very headstrong and called (record producer) Dick Bock every day saying “I’m the only piano player that can play with him” and I guess Jean Luc heard my tape and said “okay let’s give the kid a shot.” And that really launched my career.
Wasn’t it through Jean-Luc you joined Frank Zappa’s Mothers?
Yeah. Frank came to a rock club called Thee Experience when we were working there with Jean-Luc and he heard me play there too. I can distinctly remember that night. Quincy Jones, Gerald Wilson and Frank Zappa were all in the house to see this amazing violinist and I just happened to be there. Frank wanted to make an album with Jean-Luc called ‘King Kong.’ Jean-Luc said “I’ll do it if I can bring my piano player” so that’s how I got introduced to Frank. Frank liked what I did and asked me to do some shows with him and eventually I got to join the band. And that was one of the best things I ever did in my career. No doubt. Amazingly, there were a lot of jazz artists in his band – they are kind of unheralded artists but they were really jazz artists, like Bruce Fowler and of course, Jean-Luc was there. Most of these guys went on to become session musicians. Frank had some amazing musicians in his band – they had to be amazing in order to play that music.
How did you get to join Cannonball Adderley’s band?
Cannonball used to come down to this club that I worked at with Al Jarreau in San Francisco. It was a neighborhood club which was right up the street from another place called The Bodang Club, about two blocks away from each other. Because this was a neighbourhood club all the women used to hang out there – so all the jazz musicians from The Bodang on their breaks when they got finished, would come down to the club where I played to hang out. It was a party place. As a matter-of-fact, (Cannonball’s brother) Nat (Adderley) said I used to sound like a bad Ramsey Lewis in there, because we used to play songs like ‘The In Crowd,’ and stuff like that. So eventually, Nat called me one day in late 1970 and said “is this the bad sounding Ramsey Lewis player?” He said “I want you to join the band.” I told Frank (Zappa) I had to go because this was my hero, Cannonball Adderley. Frank didn’t like it but he understood.
What was it like working with one of your heroes?
It was intimidating. I knew all his music and I knew that I was taking the place of Joe Zawinul, who had been there for 10 years and it was a huge seat to fill. And everybody was kind of looking at me. I knew that it was a big one. But I knew that it was something I had to do, to demonstrate that I had it, that I had the stuff. And I’d never been in a major jazz band up to that point. I was living on the West Coast and all the guys that I loved – Miles and all of them – they were all on the east coast at that time. So this was my shot and of course by working with Cannon I got a chance to meet everybody from Freddie Hubbard and Joe Williams to Nancy Wilson, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan and Sonny Rollins. I began to work with them through my association with Cannon because that gave me validity. He was very intelligent and people say I look like him now. He was a great guy and I miss him a lot.
What’s your take on the smooth jazz phenomenon?
David Sanborn made me aware with an interesting analogy. He said “it looks like they took a small part of what a lot of us back then did”: we took soft songs and played very melodically but that was just a part of us. It was a natural extension of what we were doing, and they (the smooth jazzers) made a format out of it and then took us out of it. Smooth jazz took a lot of personality out of the music and there were a lot of musicians that came up behind us, that’s all they did. And so as a result, they didn’t have the same musicianship. I’m not talking about everybody but overall they didn’t have the musical character that the guys from my time had. The whole point of what we were doing then was that everybody had a musical identity – I mean Miles Davis didn’t sound like Weather Report; Weather Report didn’t sound like Return to Forever; Return To Forever certainly didn’t sound like the Cobham-Duke Band and so forth and so on. Even the piano players didn’t sound alike. Herbie (Hancock), Chick (Corea) and me – we all played differently. It was very important to have a strong identity, to be different from your compadres. So that kind of went out with smooth jazz. Now some of these smooth jazz stations you listen to everything sounds the same. All of the saxophone players sound the same, all the piano players sound the same, and all the guitar players sound the same. I’m not talking about everybody – I’m not trying to be specific. But by taking the personality out of the music it kind of put me to sleep: there just wasn’t enough depth in it. And it seemed like the aggressiveness has gone out of the music – the real spontaneous aggressiveness. And that’s what I miss and that’s the problem I have with the format. I just wish that it had more music in it. They need somebody that’s willing to take a chance. The music will not grow unless somebody takes a chance. And now we need somebody young to come up on a dare and do something really outrageous and different. I don’t mean go around naked on stage but I mean musically challenging.
So what’s been a highlight of your career to date?
That’s a tough one. I don’t know. I’ll probably have to break it up into different areas. First of all, I have to thank Jean-Luc (Ponty) for giving me a shot, ‘cos Jean-Luc gave me the shot in the arm to actually come to the big time. He was a violinist doing something that nobody else was doing and so all musicians paid attention. I just happened to be there – that’s really what happened. So I have to thank him. The highlight of my career? I think definitely my time with Frank Zappa was, without a doubt, a highlight of my playing in my career. Probably the one year I spent with Billy Cobham was important to what I was doing. I can’t dismiss Cannonball either. I have to put Cannonball and Zappa in the same area. Those were very, very, important to my career but then probably just the one year I spent with Billy Cobham meant a lot to me because something changed for me at that point. It was the first band that I had and I combined fusion with silliness. It was an idea I had. I said “man, all these guys that are playing the fusion music, they’re too serious.” So I brought all this Frank Zappa stuff to what Billy and I did. We were like laughing at stuff when we were playing and we were playing a lot of heavy music and so it lightened things up and the record (‘Live In Europe’) sold incredibly well. I didn’t think it was a great record but people loved it and said it changed their lives. We were playing with more of a funk attitude within the fusion stuff. That was a big change and then when I got my own band I would have to say that was a big moment when I decided to get into Parliament and Funkadelic stuff and really go funky. I was constantly changing and of course I had a couple of hits out of that – ‘Reach For It’ and ‘Dukey Stick.’ That was a highlight. And of course ‘Brazilian Love Affair’ – that record has just lasted and stood the test of time.
What memories do you have of how ‘Brazilian Love Affair’ came together?
I went to Brazil in 1971 with Cannonball and I bought every Brazilian record I could find. He introduced me to Milton Nascimento. I loved the stuff and said one day I will come back and record an album. With the success of ‘Reach For It’ I convinced Epic to allow me to go there and do an album. I took my band. I wanted a kind of hybrid between what my band did and Brazilian music and that’s kind of what happened. It was a wonderful experience. Amazingly enough, that was something that was not part of my regular contract – just an offshoot and yet it’s been one of the ones that’s stayed around the longest and consistently sold and is absolutely one of my favorite records. I will probably do another record like ‘Brazilian Love Affair’ before I check out.
‘Déjà Vu’ is released on August 30th by Heads Up.