Rant ‘N’ Roll: George Duke 1946-2013 – An Appreciation

In 1980, while promoting his beautiful Brazilian Love Affair album, keyboardist/composer/arranger/producer George Duke had the misfortune to talk to me for this newspaper. Aquarian owner/publisher James Rensenbrink fostered an attitude of total editorial rebellion, if not intellectual anarchy, in his staff. We were left of left and it seeped through all of our writing, even about music. I was one of the main culprits. At 29, I thought myself so radical chic, that I could talk to a master musician like the great George Duke and practically insult him with a barrage of confrontational phone interview questions about why he’s not following up his great work in the Frank Zappa band with more underground hippie music. I accused him of selling out via his string of successful ‘70s funk albums that veered close to the dreaded disco in my mind.

I was wrong.

George Duke was calm, philosophical, intellectual and proceeded to try to explain to me that the funk flowed from the same wellspring of human emotion that the prog-rock emanated from. “After all,” I remember him saying, “it’s the jazz and even the pop music I do, which has its roots in a kind of gospel-soul, that’s as credible as the rock ‘n’ roll I’ve played or the lush rhythm ‘n’ blues ballads I do love.”

I wasn’t buying it. To this day, I remember that interview as one of my journalistic low points.

After being schooled in the San Francisco Bay Area by playing with the legendary Cannonball Adderley, Duke went on to play with such stalwarts as drummer Billy Cobham, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, vocalist Al Jarreau and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. He’s produced Barry Manilow, Smokey Robinson, The Pointer Sisters and Gladys Knight. He served as musical director for the 1988 Nelson Mandela Tribute Concert in England. And it was his sensibilities that informed one of the greatest music shows ever on television, a little 1989 late-night performance event on NBC called Sunday Night whose guests were as eclectic and groundbreaking as Duke himself. I used to love that show. It was far too hip to be on for too long.

When the new George Duke album, DreamWeaver (Concord), was released July 16, I moved it to the top of the pile, loving its simmering textures and all-over-the-map sensibilities. It almost seemed a perfect answer to my 1980 hot-headedness. Here was that same funk, but couched within tracks like the orgasmic 15:32 “Burnt Sausage Jam,” the endlessly fascinating “Jazzmatazz,” the classical motif of the title-track (“a sparse etude” as he says) and the jazz perfection of “Stones Of Orion,” where he tickles the ivories fit to swoon over next to bassist Stanley Clarke’s upright. I swallowed it whole, digested its nutritional contents and meant to call the label to schedule another interview.

George Duke died in Los Angeles of leukemia on August 5. He was 67.

Dreamweaver was conceived in utter heartbreak. His wife had died. He almost quit music entirely. Then he took a cruise. Sat around listening to other musicians. He once stayed up all night and watched the sun rise. Suddenly, inspiration struck. He went and grabbed pen and paper. Started writing songs.

“Musicians need to talk about the issues of the day,” he says on his website, “realizing that the probability of making any kind of change in the world is more than likely a pipe dream anyway. But that doesn’t mean you can’t say it or act on it. Music should tell the truth.”

And, as far as his stylistic divergences, he says, “I didn’t hear anybody playing the blues on the synthesizer. When I was with Billy Cobham, I said, `We need to bring some R&B into fusion,’ because, at that time, it just seemed like people were playing a lot of notes really fast. I thought it would work if we put an R&B vibe into the fusion element to reach the people.”

I wish he would have told me that all those years ago. Maybe I would have understood him.