George Duke knows a thing or two about the music business. As a keyboardist, he cut his teeth with Al Jarreau, Frank Zappa, Cannonball Adderley and Ray Brown. He’s also worked in jazz, pop, funk and r& b circles producing chart-topping, Grammy-nominated songs and projects for Miles Davis, Dianne Reeves, Phil Perry, Jeffrey Osborne and Anita Baker, as well as his own groups. Never one to sit still, Duke also records and tours his own music, composes and arranges for film, television, and symphonic concert performances, and oversees his burgeoning BPM record label.
Though he’s based in Los Angeles, I caught up with Duke in his Watergate Hotel room during a break from his overlapping gigs at the Congressional Black Caucus Jazz Concert and the Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition in Washington D.C. Keeping his espresso within easy reach, Duke was eager to jump right in.
1) Duke Ellington
“Piano Improvisation No. 2” (from Piano In The Foreground). Duke Ellington, piano; Jimmy Woode, bass; Sam Woodyard, drums. Recorded in 1957. Re-issued 2004.
Before: [breaks out into a grin and starts nodding in rhythm, punctuated by appreciative grunts] When it first started I thought, wow, the Count Basie influence is so strong. You know, just the simplicity of rhythm, melody and all of that. Then you hear those odd little notes coming in and you say, well that’s gotta be Thelonious Monk or somebody who’s trying to play like him. Duke played like that. I love it. That’s kind of where I started, when I first started to learn how to play music. And whenever I listen to anybody from that era it makes me smile. It’s a little humorous, a little playful. And I love that in music, cause I don’t think music has to necessarily be that heavy. You can be heavy as an artist without being heavy. I also like this concept of space. When you play, it’s not just running all your lines together. It doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate those guys who do that, cause that was the thing at one time, for piano players to string long lines together. It’s hard to fight that cause you’ve got all this technique and command under your fingers and you want to let it out. But I prefer guys who break it up and leave that space in there. They play a phrase, they wait, they play another phrase. It’s question and answer–a little dialogue going on within the solo. And it’s breathing. Just like life. I love that.
After: Ah. I don’t know this one. When I was a real young kid my mom took me to see Ellington and I went nuts cause I’d never heard anybody do that.