Jazz Royalty

It's 8:30 a.m., an hour when most musicians are on their second or third dream, but jazz keyboardist George Duke is wide awake and ready to talk. What kind of musician would be up at this ungodly hour? "I guess people who wanna sell a record," Duke laughs.

Duke should know; he's sold more than a few records in his time, both on his own and in conjunction with musicians as diverse as Frank Zappa and Jean-Luc Ponty. The particular record that's the object of his attention this morning is one of his solo efforts, Is Love Enough?, and it's not only his latest effort, it's almost a history of what he's done with his life, featuring an eclectic mix of the styles he's covered in the course of his 30-year career. Although Duke admits that his diversity causes him to be a marketing department's nightmare, he's still proud that the CD includes funk, pop, rhythm and blues, African, Brazilian and jazz pieces. For two of the CD's best tracks, he even reunited with drummer Leon Ndugu Chancler and bassist Byron Miller, his primary rhythm section during most of his '70s fusion heyday.

"There's something special when Ndugu Chancler and Byron Miller and I get together," Duke observes. "I just managed to get them in the studio because I want that vibe. That's some deep stuff there."

Deep stuff indeed. Some would say his collaboration with those two produced some of his best music. Back in the 1970s, Duke, along with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, ruled the jazz fusion world. Albums such as Feel, Faces in Reflection, The Aura Will Prevail and I Love the Blues, She Heard My Cry contained music like no one had ever heard before. Mostly instrumental collections of intricate jazz lines and solos over smooth funk, rock and Brazilian-derived beats, these albums still sound fresh today.

This period followed his stint with Zappa, whose music has also managed to stand the test of time. So how did a jazz piano player get hooked up with a rock star such as Zappa?

"I was working with Jean-Luc Ponty at a club called The Experience in Los Angeles," Duke recalls. "Jean-Luc, being an electric violinist, was very unique. So everybody in L.A. came who was anybody ... Dick Bock from World Pacific jazz records thought it would be good for us to play in a rock club. He thought that the brand of jazz we played would get over. And he was right. We went in there, and I just happened to see Quincy [Jones] out there and Frank Zappa, and I said 'Uh oh, I know what this is. I've got to be on tonight!' So I just kinda went in there and played -- used my shoes, my feet, head -- I went nuts. And, you know, Frank kind of liked my energy."

Zappa liked Duke's energy enough to invite him to join his band. The highlights of that association are captured on Roxy and Elsewhere and on the record and video versions of 200 Motels. But eventually, Zappa's band's weirdness got to be too much for Duke to handle. As he puts it, "I was used to wearing black suits with thin black ties. I mean, I was real conservative on that level. Musically, I wasn't, but otherwise I was. Yeah, it got a little weird for me. Frank and those guys, they were from another world."

One style of music from another world that Duke could handle, though, was Brazilian music. The Brazilian element has surfaced off and on throughout Duke's career, beginning with 1974's Faces in Reflection and continuing through his work with Brazilian fusion masters Airto and Flora Purim and up to a collaboration with Dori Caymmi on Is Love Enough? Many fans feel Duke's best album ever was 1979's A Brazilian Love Affair, which he describes as "not a pure Brazilian record, but rather a blend of Brazilian musical concepts with the diverse musical ideas of my mind."

So how did Brazilian music work itself into the mix? "Back in the '60s, I used to go to a place called the Trident in Sausalito," says Duke. "This guy that ran the club said, 'Man, you've gotta come hear some Brazilian music.' " His first taste came with Sergio Mendes and Brazil '65, which mesmerized him with their songs and rhythms. Then in 1971, he got a chance to travel to Brazil, where he "really found out what it was about. And I developed a serious love for that kind of music."

Another thing Duke loves is a challenge. He claims this, rather than the desire for a hit record, is what drove him to move into the funk and R&B realm. A friend played a Parliament Funkadelic record for him, and Duke immediately decided he had to try his hand at this style of music. "I'm always looking for new challenges," he says. "That was a challenge for me, to really play some funk. Some real funk. Not jazz funk."

Soon thereafter, a live jam spawned "Reach for It," the tune that changed his career forever. "I actually wrote that at a live gig we were playing in D.C.," remembers Duke. "Ndugu started playing this groove, and then Byron came in, and then I started playing the bass line. The whole song was a bass solo. To make a hit record out of a bass solo, that's different." He was on tour in Europe when his manager informed him of the song's hit status. After that, the band started selling out everywhere they performed. "We started playing 4,000, 5,000, 10,000 seat halls," he recalls, "all off one song."

Eventually, the burst of fame played its course, and Duke went on to become one of the top producers in the music business. Duke's production portfolio includes such names as Jeffrey Osborne, Philip Bailey, Miles Davis, Al Jarreau, Gladys Knight, Barry Manilow, Stephanie Mills, Flora Purim and Smokey Robinson, among others. So what's left to do for a guy who's seemingly done it all in music?

"I'm in the process of working out a deal with Warner now to do what, for lack of a better word, we call the Freedom Series -- a series of records where I do special projects that are concept-oriented," says Duke. "One's gonna be a trio, one will be with a big band, one will be another Brazilian Love Affair record, various things."

George Duke fans can hardly wait.

George Duke performs as part of Jazz Explosion, featuring Rachelle Ferrell, Jonathan Butler and Kirk Whalum, at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 17, at the Houston Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Freeway. Tickets are $35 to $39. For info, call 988-1020.


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