It’s hard to believe that for the past 40 years George Duke has been a staple of the music industry and from the looks of things, this cat plans to be on the scene for a long time to come. "I’m having the time of my life making the kind of music that I want to make. It has been a great ride, it really has and I really have no complaints." Duke told me that being a label owner gives him the freedom to express himself musically. "My label is distributed through Heads Up (International) and I go into the studio, walk in there and whatever I feel like doing that day, I do. I don’t know how much more I can ask for. It’s complete musical freedom. The music that I make is mine; nobody is saying you ‘gotta’ make that record. I play the music I feel I have to make and it’s very honest that way."
It is this musical honesty that Duke believes has contributed to his years of success. "I have a lot of skill in what I do. Music is a spirit medium and if you don’t touch them (the audience) spiritually when you perform live then you have a problem. You have to connect with the audience. The purpose is communication, an idea, a thought, a feeling, especially live. I try to bring the audience in like this is an experience. I want them involved as much as I am."
Duke, who still performs his successful hits ‘Sweet Baby’, ‘Reach for It’ and ‘Brazilian Love Affair’, added that with every live performance, he aims to please. "It’s like I’m telling the audience ‘let’s go on a journey, to a planet of jazz and funk. Let’s make this fun and easy music to listen to’. Then on the other hand let’s give them music to which they would say ‘Wow, I never heard anything like that!’"
George Duke is as vivacious and down-to-earth as they come. On the day that I caught up with him he was in the studio working on music while balancing telephone interviews from other jazz publications. The words "take a break" are nowhere in his vocabulary. "Break? What’s that?" he asked with a chuckle. He has recently completed work on his latest project ‘Déjà Vu’ (which is set for an August 10 release) and has also been in the studio to put the finishing touches on an album for Russian singer Larisa Dolina. Duke told me that this is the second CD he has produced for Larisa and it features music from Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder with a refreshing touch of the ‘George Duke vibe’.
This same George Duke signature sound is all over ‘Déjà Vu’. As with his last recording, the old school influenced ‘Dukey Treats’, this mix of jazz, Latin, funk and soul music remains in keeping with the jazzy vibe for which Duke is best known and he says that it has given him the chance to stretch out a little more over his funk beats. He got some help from fellow musician friends including trumpeter Nicholas Payton, flautist Hubert Laws and sax player Bob Sheppard who Duke describes as "three very strong instrumentalists". On some of the tracks ‘Déjà Vu’ transports the listener to old school jazz music and songs where each musician is allowed to play solos within the set. This is particularly evident on ‘Stupid Is As Stupid Does’ and ‘Ripple in Time’ which Duke uses as a musical tribute to Miles Davis. The CD also benefits from the Latin pastiche of ‘A Melody’, the funk-infused ‘You Touch My Brain’ and ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’ which finds Everette Harp on sax and Duke with both keyboards and drum kit. ‘6 O’Clock Revisited’ is a clever remake of Duke’s eighties instrumental blockbuster that, this time around, includes his son Rashid Duke on vocals. Together they make for a perfect combination.
Although ‘Déjà Vu’ is a glance back in time, Duke manages to keep the sound very current. How does he do it? "I let it fly and do what I do. When you are in the room with musicians you have to feed off each other. I love music that flies especially as it is free to go where it will, but within a structure. It’s not ‘nut-ville’ music but basically there is a freedom to it."
Asked about his views on today’s jazz music Duke calls it "conservative." He elaborated that "There is not enough angst in the music today and most are not really pushing the envelope and I understand that because if you want to get played on the radio, you have to do some more conservative sort of things. There are many musicians who can play more than what they put out there. Fortunately I don't have to play on that team. I can do whatever I want. I wish there were more musical leaders as opposed to followers. Guys feel that they are trapped and have to do "smooth jazz" things. I wish a few more musicians would say ‘the heck with that, let me just play what I want to play’. Music is a gift from God and to taper that due to a radio format is almost like saying "no" to the Holy Spirit and not letting God shine through."
Although Duke has been in the business for a long time, musically he still has desires to do more projects and one of these is to record Cuban music with Cuban musicians. He also wants to do another Brazilian or fusion CD and to make a big band record.
However, for the immediate future, Duke is planning on touring the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe and is preparing to do some dates with long-time buddy Al Jarreau. In addition he hopes to release a collection of standards featuring Al Jarreau and the George Duke trio. This music was recorded in 1965 but, according to Duke, was never released. The intention is for the album to be on sale at his concerts this summer.
Also nearing completion are several DVDs which feature live performances by Duke in Montreux, Switzerland and Prague. These Blue Ray DVDs include guest appearances by, among others, Rachelle Ferrell, Quincy Jones and Chaka Khan.
Forty years on and always something new. That’s George Duke.