RIP the electronic wizard George Duke

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

We should be getting used to the regular passing of our jazz heroes by now, but the death of George Duke Monday at the age of only 67 still comes as a devastating shock. He was still very much an active creative figure; only less than two months ago, he closed the first day of the Playboy Jazz Festival in Hollywood Bowl. Evidently he kept his struggle with leukemia to himself – always a pro putting his best face forward – and that’s why so many of us were stunned by the news.

George Duke  (January 12, 1946 – August 5, 2013)
George Duke (January 12, 1946 – August 5, 2013)

Duke could work the electronic devices of the 1960s and `70s  with a wild imagination beyond that of any other major player of his time. He was a wizard of the Echoplex unit, the ARP Odyssey synthesizer and Minimoog, the wah-wah pedal – all artifacts from the analog days that fell out of fashion just before MIDI came in and the keyboard world went all-digital. They used to call them “machines,” but they were, and are, musical instruments that only need hard-earned skill and vision to make the music come alive with sounds that conventional instruments cannot make. My good friend Rip Rense calls Duke a “master of joyful noise” – and I couldn’t agree more. There was joy, not shock for its own sake, in his space explorations, taking sheer delight in squeezing those sounds out of his boxes of tricks.

Duke did some of his best work in that vein as a sideman on one of Cannonball Adderley’s last albums, Phenix, where Cannon’s old standards are given invigorating rhythmically-altered makeovers largely due to Duke’s free hand on the keyboards. Along with his always in-the-pocket comping on electric piano, Duke lets fly with burbling electronics during his solos, lovely string synth washes, or on “Sack o’ Woe,” funky wah-wah clavinet loaded with reverb on the intro and outro, with staccato electronic tattoos on the solo within.  If you can find them, also check out Duke in one of Cannon’s more progressive electric albums, The Black Messiah and trumpeter Eddie Henderson’s undeservedly obscure blast into jazz-funk from 1975, Sunburst, where Duke adds his “joyful noise” electronics and irresistible funk. In his own solo work, a marvelous classical electronic prelude and postlude form bookends to his Reach For It album, the record that finally established him as a jazz/R&B star.

Two live performances stick out in my mind.  One was probably in 1978 at the Roxy in West Hollywood shortly after “Reach For It” and “Dukey Stick” came out – with George brandishing a silly lit-up wand (his Dukey Stick) in between scorching keyboard playing with drummer Ndugu Chancler driving him on. Spooling way forward, the second was at the 1999 Playboy Jazz Festival, a galvanizing display of what the power of one mighty player could do for a band.  George’s cousin Dianne Reeves caught an Afro-Cuban groove on “Love For Sale” and rode it for as long as she could.  Then cousin George appeared onstage, unbilled (he was appearing in a Cannonball band reunion the next day with brother Nat watching from a wheelchair), and lifted everyone in the band into the stratosphere with wildly funky electric and acoustic piano, setting off the conga lines as never before on that day.

I recall an interview that I did with George in his home studio in the recesses of the Hollywood Hills; he was a genuinely nice, genial man with a resonant voice that reminded me of his old boss, Cannonball. And there were a number of conversations I had with him at Playboy Jazz Festival press conferences; at one of them, he said he still had all of his old keyboards and devices.  Now, I only wish he had been granted the time to dig them out and flash his stuff again.

Here’s a potent example of the young George Duke in full cry within Frank Zappa’s band –playing, singing,  manipulating electronics, the works: