Few musicians, let alone jazz musicians, have had as diverse a musical career as that of George Duke. He started his career as a jazz pianist in the mid 1960s, but he quickly embraced the emerging jazz/rock or fusion jazz movement, simultaneously recording with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and recording his own ground-breaking solo work on the MPS record label. It was on these recordings that he was one of the early pioneers in the use of synthesizers, most notably the Arp Odyssey and Arp String Ensemble (among others). Following his run of albums on the MPS label in the early and mid 1970s, Duke recorded a series of funk/soul/Brazilian music albums on the Epic label in the late 1970s. In 1979, he released what some consider to be his most popular album (and what he has said is one of his personal favorite records), A Brazilian Love Affair, a recording of Brazilian music with the singer Flora Purim, percussionist Airto Moreira, and the singer Milton Nascimento. After the Epic years he recorded nearly two dozen albums on the Elektra, Warner Brothers, and Bizarre Planet labels. His most recent album, Dreamweaver, was released in July 2013 on the Universal Music label.
I most admired the breadth of Duke’s musical influences, and his willingness to follow his musical muses, no matter where they took him. During the jazz/rock/fusion years, he was criticized by jazz critics for his work with rock musicians and for how he embraced rock and funk on his solo albums. Later, he was criticized by the fans of his MPS solo albums for moving in a more “commercial” funk and jazz direction. And he was criticized by both camps for his later albums, some of which were labeled “smooth jazz.” But Duke seemed to always follow his own muse, and his peers, including Miles Davis, Stanley Clarke, and Dianne Reeves along with dozens of other artists, wanted to work with him. He has left a body of work that is matched by few in terms of influence, diversity, staying current, and staying relevant. I am partial to the MPS years and to his work with Frank Zappa, Flora Purim, and Airto. It seems that in the careers of many artists, there is period of paying dues that is immediately followed by a break with tradition, and blazing a path dictated by one’s own inner visions. This is why I love the MPS/Zappa/early Brazilian years. This work was completely original and more importantly, reflective of the artist himself.
In an interview for the 2007 re-release of his MPS recordings, Duke said that MPS gave him complete artistic liberty. “The people at MPS gave me my freedom…The freedom was fantastic. I could do exactly the music I wanted to do. I think I made some of my best records on MPS.”
￼ Capricorn – George Duke – Faces In Reflection — George Duke – Keyboards; John Heard – Bass; Leon “Ndugu” Chancler – Drums
￼Love – George Duke – Feel — George Duke – Keyboards, Vocals; Obdewl’l X (Frank Zappa) – Guitar; John Heard – Bass & Electric Bass; Airto Moreira – Percussion; Flora Purim – Vocals
￼Liberated Fantasies – George Duke – Liberated Fantasies — George Duke – Keyboards, Synthesizers, Vocals; Daryl Stuermer – Guitar; Alphonso Johnson – Bass; Leon “Ndugu” Chancler – Drums, Roto-Toms, and Vocals; Airto Moreira – Percussion; Napoleon Murphy Brock – Vocals; Bonnie Bowden Amaro – Vocals
￼Foosh – Jean Luc Ponty – Cantaloupe Island — Jean Luc Ponty – Electric Violin; George Duke – Electric Piano; John Heard – Electric Bass; Dick Berk – Drums
￼That’s What She Said – Flora Purim – That’s What She Said — Flora Purim – Vocals; George Duke – Rhodes Electric Piano, ARP String Ensemble, and Moog Synthesizers; Alphonso Johnson – Electric Bass; Ndugu – Drums; Airto – Percussion, Congas
RDNZL – Frank Zappa – Studio Tan — Frank Zappa – Guitar; George Duke – Keyboards; James “Bird Legs” Youman – Bass; Ruth Underwood – Percussion, Synthesizer; Chester Thompson – Drums