A Genial Talent
George Duke is a genial, talented multi-instrumentalist who specializes in keyboards. He made a name for himself playing jazz fusion with Jean-Luc Ponty, and went on to play with Cannonball Adderley and Frank Zappa before going solo in the mid-seventies. He has practiced his talents across a variety of genres, finding success in R&B, Jazz, and pop, collaborated with a who’s who of recording artists, including Stanley Clarke, with whom he had a number one single (“Sweet Baby”), and has had his work sampled by Hip-Hop artists. He’s scored TV and films, including The Five Heartbeats, and produced and composed two tracks for Miles Davis. Duke has collaborated with Brazilian artists such as Milton Nascimento, Flora Purim, and Airto Moreira and has also been a musical director for a number of specials and tribute shows.
Duke played at the Minnesota Zoo music series with Marcus Miller and David Sanborn on August 5th, 2011. During their funk filled performance, Duke used his humor to good effect. Singing a ballad about losing his baby, he pretended to cry, which the audience lapped up, and Duke milked for all it was worth. Then, for a closer, his voice was electronically altered to achieve a Darth Vader effect, as he introduced the George Clinton-esque “Dukey Stick” and walked through the crowd with his portable keyboard (a key-tar?). I talked with Duke by phone the morning of July 30, 2011 during my radio show. This is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
LE: Good Morning, Mr. Duke, are you there?
GD: Absolutely, I’m here.
LE: Terrific. Glad to have you. We’re looking forward to this Friday’s show, which features you, and Marcus Miller, and David Sanborn. I’m just amazed at all you do, and the energy you have and what you’ve been able to accomplish since, what is it, about 1967 or 68 when you first started.
GD: Well, you’re trying to date me now. (laughs)
LE: Well, I can remember that era myself
GD: I go back a little bit. Yeah, you’re definitely in the right area.
LE: What was your first musical memory?
GD: Oh my God. Well, actually the first was probably the strongest. My mom took me to see Duke Ellington, and that kind of messed me up. Long and short of it is I never heard any music like that. I’d never seen anyone like that. I never heard a band that sounded like that. And I was only four years old.
GD: Yeah, it was a mess. (chuckles)
LE: So you took up piano, and played some in church and eventually had your own little group. What intrigued me as I’ve learned about your career is that apparently you heard a recording of Jean-Luc Ponty, and he was coming to town and you decided you were the only guy worthwhile playing with him. What was it about his music that intrigued you?
GD: First of all, it was very experimental for the time, and there was a station called KJAZZ in the Bay area – I grew up in San Francisco Bay area – that used to play his records all the time, and so I got a chance to experience that and I was like, Man! When this guy was coming to town, I just instinctively knew that I was the right person to play with him, because I understood what he was trying to do musically. And so I, well, there wasn’t e-mail at that time, so I sent a reel-to-reel tape – not even a cassette, they weren’t around – I sent a tape down to this producer (Note: Dick Bock of World Pacific Records) on the off-chance that he might give me a shot, and he did. He didn’t have to, because I was an unknown quantity at that time.
LE: And so you had somewhat of a groundbreaking album with him. What did you learn from Jean-Luc Ponty?
GD: Well, basically it was a real shared kind of thing, because we were trying to do progressive music – as simple as that. What I learned was that it was possible to be your self and make a living. I wasn’t sure at that time whether I could make a living doing music. I was playing at a club in San Francisco and had been there for about three years, starting about 1965. I was playing at a place called the Half-Note Club with Al Jarreau, neither one of us knowing whether we could make a living doing that. When I got the gig, somebody who didn’t know who I was kind of called me up and said, “I’m going to give you a shot at playing in my band and we’re going to go to Europe and blah blah blah,” and Wow, maybe I can make a living doing this.
LE: And you certainly have. I’m just amazed at all the projects you’ve been involved with, and the number of people you’ve been involved with – everybody from Barry Manilow, to Diane Reeves, to your current compatriots Dave Sanborn and Marcus Miller and the music direction you’ve done. One of the other things that intrigues me was that after being with Jean-Luc Ponty you were with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. How did that come about?
GD: Actually, through Jean-Luc. Jean-Luc’s producer had an idea, and to make a long story short, we ended up playing a rock club. We did an album there, a place called Thee Experience in Los Angeles. It’s no longer there. And because Jean-Luc was playing a unique, electric violin thing, all the musicians came, because he had made his name, and there weren’t a lot of progressive violinists at the time. Matter of fact I don’t think there were any. He was probably it, and was playing modern jazz. He played music that was kind of close to what Miles Davis was doing at the time. And so Frank Zappa came, Quincy Jones was there, a lot of people. And so I just happened to be there and we did a record called King Kong, an album came out of that. So that’s how I got with Frank Zappa. He heard me playing on that album and eventually called my mom looking for me and found me.
LE: That must have been a somewhat unique experience in your life.
GD: Oh yeah. That was definitely a turning point in my life and in my career. Frank brought out a lot of things in me that might not have ever been brought out. In terms of humor… in terms of playing electronic instruments… singing. All of that. He just told me basically I needed to loosen up and allow my talent to go wherever it will.
LE: What a great thing to hear. Let’s fast forward through all the things you’ve done, production, solo work, Grammy nominations. Now, you’re touring with Marcus Miller and David Sanborn. What are you doing with this group that you haven’t done with anybody else?
GD: First of all, the simple answer is we’ve never done this before. This is something which came about in January. A very new idea. I was kind of brought into it late because David and Marcus had already decided they were going to do a tour, and wanted to add a third element. I was hanging around and the word got to me and I said sure, I’m interested and they said great. That sounds like an interesting package. I think the thing that’s interesting is that the more we play together, the more we’re gonna become a band and sound like we create our own thing. We thought about the idea of doing an album, before we did this tour. This is like the third leg of the tour, that we’re embarking on next week. So we’ve already been playing and we’re beginning to develop a band sound, which is really interesting. I would love to see where we go when we do make an album. I think this can continue.
LE: What have you discovered about playing together so far?
GD: Interestingly enough, I’m not playing as much keyboards where I’m sitting down as I normally do, because there’s a second keyboard player, and there’s no guitarist. So I wind up playing, many times, guitar parts, and I’m wearing the instrument I wear around my neck. I kind of walk around the stage, and I’m having a good time. That’s one thing. It allows me a different focus, because normally I just play a couple of tunes on this thing, not like when I was thirty years old and playing this instrument all the time. I kind of stopped doing that and only do it once a night. Now I’m back on stage playing it half the show.
GD: That’s one thing that’s different. And playing Marcus’s music and David’s music, it’s just interesting because we sound different playing together than they do with their own bands or me with my band. It’s a different level of intensity because you have three musicians on stage who are of equal level of competence and we challenge each other in a good way, so the music reaches another level. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.
LE: You mention there’s a second keyboard player. I assume there’s a drummer as well?
GD: Absolutely. Absolutely.
LE: Anybody else with you? Vocalists or anybody?
GD: Nope. I’m the only one singing right now.
LE: Well you’ve a long history of singing and it’s turned out well for you. In coming together did you say, “we want to do a particular kind of music” or is there a philosophy behind this, or is the philosophy “let’s get together and have some fun.”
GD: That’s part of it. The latter. First of all, we didn’t know what this was going to be. Until we actually got on stage and played we didn’t know what this was going to be. There were really no preconceived notions, though we did talk about it. We thought we’d let the experience dictate where we should go. Right now, we’re not really doing any new music. We’re doing music from our catalogs, our respective catalogs. But we’re doing different arrangements on them because of the personnel involved. So it is different because the three of us are out there headlining it. Obviously we can’t play the greatest hits of all of us because we’ve all been around too long.
LE: Not enough time.
GD: Not enough time to do it all and do it justice. But we hit all the major points that we can, and we’re just having a good time. It’s something that may not ever happen again, but hopefully it will.
LE: Before I let you go, I do want to go back to your early career. Early on you were a sideman for a couple of Flora Purim and Airto Moreira albums, and you did a Brazilian album. Do you still play Brazilian influenced music?
GD: Oh, absolutely. Even in this show. I bring a couple of my tunes which are more oriented that way. Yeah, that’s played a big part in my career and in my musical world, the Brazilian sound. And of course Cannonball Adderley was a big part of that because I was in his band for a few years. He encouraged me to do that and was actually the first one to take me to Brazil, as part of his band. So yeah, Flora Purim and Airto are good friends of mine. As a matter of fact, my son is in a band with their kid.
GD: Yeah, it continues.
LE: The circle is complete.
GD: Yeah, (laughs)
LE: Well, thank you so very much.
GD: Bye bye.