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.
2. Monty Alexander with Ernest Ranglin
“Redemption Song” (from Rocksteady). Monty Alexander, piano; Ernest Ranglin, guitar. Bob Marley, composer. Recorded in 2003.
Before: It’s very simple, a wonderful approach. It’s familiar. Sounds like music for kids, or a lullaby. I love this type of thing, with the simplicity of melody. I can’t tell you who it is. I don’t mean to be negative but I wish the guitar player tuned his guitar a little better. The playing is very good. I like it.
After: That’s Monty? Wow. I love Monty.
What do you love about him?
I love him as a person, first of all. And Monty’s got a spirit when he plays that’s just wonderful. Is this a tune from his homeland? [checks the cover] You can tell that they love what they’re doing. I love to watch somebody who I know is really in the moment. And I’ve always felt that from Monty’s playing. Back in the day we used to work together on the same shows and we became friends. These days, because I’m in a totally different arena, I rarely see him anymore. But I still consider him a good friend and he’s a great player.
3. Maria Rita
“Meniniha do Portao” (from Maria Rita). Maria Rita, vocal; Tiago Costa, Fender Rhodes; Fabio Sa, acoustic bass; Marco da Costa, drums. Recorded 2003.
Before: Brazilian Funk. I love the acoustic bass. [after a keyboard fill] Sounds like one of my licks! [laughter] I’m a pretty serious fan of Brazilian music but I don’t know who this is. For a moment I thought it might be Simone, but it doesn’t sound like her. It’s a little funky, it’s got nice changes. I’m enjoying it. I like things that are a coming together of styles. When I first tried to play Brazilian music, I could never find a drummer who understood exactly how that lope went.
So, does this work for you?
It doesn’t bother me. The singer is singing in tune. I like the changes. To me, the only problem with it is it’s a little stiff [sings the rhythmic approach]. I prefer it a little looser, where the beat is more elastic. On the other hand, I don’t know what the lyrics are, so maybe there’s a reason for this approach. And I love the acoustic bass in anything.
The singer is the daughter of Elis Regina and Cesar Camargo Mariano. The record was huge in Brazil; it was nominated this year for five Latin Grammy’s.
GD: Really? Wow. She has a nice voice and she sings in tune. I like it, but overall it’s a little too lah-dee-dah for me. I like something a little more complex that draws me in. That’s why I don’t care for smooth jazz.
4. Allison Miller
“Evidence” (from 5 am Stroll). Allison Miller, drums; Steve Wilson, alto sax; Bruce Barth, piano; Ray Drummond, bass. Recorded in 2003.
Before: [closes eyes, scrunches up face and starts nodding in rhythm] I love this. Ha-ha-ha. I love this. I call this stuff re-bop. You know, like be-bop with a funk beat. I do a lot of that on my own albums, you know. [during piano solo] Yeah. [ listens more, chuckles] Mmmmm. I love that unorthodox thing. You know what I like about this guy? He uses the whole keyboard. There are too many piano players that just play the middle register. The drummer’s holdin’ it down. [chuckles] Just holdin’ it down–you know, just do whatever you gonna do. Yeah, we used to play stuff like this with Cannon, this kind of groove. It’s a Monk tune. You can hear the influence there, harmonically. The way he [the saxophonist] was playing certain little things. You know, you start within the scale then you go outside. I love that. It works for me. I like this kind of groove. It’s got a little edge, which I like.
After: Allison Miller? I don’t know who that is. [looks at the inside cover photo and realizes it’s a woman]. Allison Miller?! No kidding. Wow. I don’t know her. She can play. That’s Steve! Yeah, Steve played on my new album. Ray Drummond? Oh, of course I know Ray. I would never guess that was Ray. I don’t know Bruce Barth. Steve’s a great player, very melodic player. I like the concept. I like funky stuff. It was groovy, it was funky. She was in the pocket. It was an interesting sound on the drums–more like putting a microphone in front of the drums and getting a more natural sound rather than close mic’ing. I like it. It’s cool.
5. David Sánchez
“Panambi” (from Coral). David Sánchez, tenor saxophone; The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra arranged and conducted by Carlos Franzetti. Alberto Ginastera, composer. Recorded in 2003.
Before: Sounds a little like Claire Fischer’s writing. Hmm. Very nice. I like it a lot. Once again, I can’t tell you who it is but I tell you what I feel. It sounds like a saxophone concerto for somebody. The string and orchestral writing is excellent. It’s obvious that the guy knows what he’s doing. I heard a lot of Stravinsky, a little Ravel and Debussy in there. But it also reminded me of Claire Fischer. It’s well-done, well written. I love that concept. Very well done. Saxophonist sounds good. I love the tone. I have to be honest, though. The writing for the orchestra drew me in even more than the soloist.
After: Really? The whole album is like this? I have to pick this up. It’s very nice.
6. Steve Coleman
“64 Path Bindings” (from On The Rising Of The 64 Paths). Steve Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Jonathan Finlayson, trumpet; Malik Mezzadri. flute; Anthony Tidd, electric bass; Reggie Washington, acoustic bass; Sean Rickman, drums. Recorded in 2002.
Before: More of that re-bop. I prefer my funk with a little more attitude. This sounds like a European group to me. It’s not real strong. I’ve gone to a lot of clubs and heard guys playing like this. It’s not particularly my cup of tea. But I was never into really outside jazz. I tried, and cats used to put me down saying, “man, you playing that boogaloo, you need to listen to some of that free stuff.” And I said I like music that kind of relates. This stuff is ok. The playing is good.
After: Steve Coleman? Ok. Oh, Sean Rickman, he’s playing with me tonight [at the Congressional Black Caucus Jazz Concert]. Reggie Washington I’ve heard somewhere. I’ve met Steve once, I think. I support any musician who tries to make the music they really hear in their head, that’s daring and all that. Whether I like it or not, I support a guy’s right to make that kind of music. It’s well played, just not my cup of tea. Probably my stuff’s not his cup of tea [laughter].
7. Omar Sosa
“Dos Caminos” (from Mulatos). Omar Sosa, piano, keyboards; Paquito d’Rivera, clarinet; Renaud Pion, clarinets; Dhafer Youssef, oud; Dieter Ilg, acoustic bass; Philippe Foch, tabla, bowl; Steve Argüelles, drums; Aziz Arrado, Guembri, qarqabas. Recorded in 2004.
Before: [listens for a couple minutes] It’s nice. I like this. Good pianist. Actually, when it first started I thought the guy must have listened to Chick Corea, but he’s not as crispy as Chick. He’s a good player, though. I like his concept, and he’s talking in there, in his solo.
Tell me about the clarinet soloist.
[listens closely] He’s playing his ass off, I’ll tell you that [laughter]. This ain’t Benny Goodman. That little turn-around sounds like Return To Forever. Then they go to India or Poland or somewhere. It’s like world music. I like the piano player. Very well played. I like it a lot.
After: I don’t know him.
He’s a Cuban now living in the San Francisco Bay area.
Is he? Don’t know him at all. Paquito? Boy can play. Good tone. Hey man, all them Cubans can play [laughter].
Have you been to Cuba?
GD: No, never been to Cuba. Still waiting to go. Bush won’t let me go. [laughter] Just kidding. I’ve been in contact with people there, about producing some groups there, but nothing yet.
8. Medeski Martin & Wood
“Reflector” (from End of The World Party). John Medeski, keyboards; Billy Martin, drums, percussion; Chris Wood, bass; Marc Ribot, guitar; sample from a sound recording “Zaire: Musiques urbaines a Kinshasa.” Released 2004.
Before: Now you’re gonna tell me this is a group from Argentina [much laughter]. Hmm. Strange sounding clavinet, man, that distortion. You know what this reminds me of? This reminds me of some stuff I used to do with Frank Zappa, back in the day. It just sounds like some of that kind of jam. Frank would start and we’d just rock out on one chord. That was the first time I got introduced to rock and roll first-hand. Frank wasn’t necessarily rock and roll but his element was the rock and roll scene. I used to see Jimi Hendrix in San Francisco a lot, but that was another scene. This reminds me of Frank.
After: Boy, you’re pulling ’em out today. There’s nothing wrong with that. I love that. There’s a place for that.
Any interest in playing this kind of music today?
No. Been there, done that. I’m more interested in doing what David Sánchez did, doing something with orchestras. I need another challenge. I’ve done enough jamming.
9. Keith Jarrett
“It’s All In The Game” (from The Out-of-Towners). Keith Jarrett, piano. Recorded in 2001.
Before: Beautiful song. It’s very well played. This is gorgeous. When I first heard it I wondered, is this two piano players? Nice harmonizations. He didn’t go outside the normal changes but the voicings are nice. It’s obvious he or she is a pianist, you know, someone who’s studied the piano. It’s also someone who’s interested in melody. A lot of people today don’t understand how to play a melody, a simply stated melody.
Why? Is it so difficult?
You have to be vulnerable to do that. You can’t be hard. When Miles played a melody, he was vulnerable. When Bill Evans played by himself, he went inside and let it out. It’s what I call the ancient source, he let it out.
And how do you open yourself up to do that?
Well, it’s not just something that you say hey, I want to turn it on and now I’m gonna do that. There’s a point where you make a decision to connect to something that’s within and let it out. You become detached enough from what’s going on around you to say; now I’m gonna make a statement and say what I want to say. It takes time for people to develop that. You gotta get away from the notes. And you gotta get into what this melody means and how to express that melody like a lyric. You know what did it for me? Learning how to sing. [hears applause at end] Oh, this is live. This is very well done. I like it very much. Sometimes with a melody as beautiful as that, you don’t need to say anything else. I enjoyed that a lot.
After: Oh, it’s Keith. What are gonna say? I mean, what are you gonna say? Keith is a consummate pianist. He’s a master of it. He’s got this inner thing that comes out. I mean, he can’t help it. It’s just gon’ come out. He gets up and runs around; I mean, he’s a little crazy. But as a pianist, he’s exceptional. I even liked his electric playing. First time I heard him play was with Miles playing electric stuff. And he was funky. He always had it. I’m glad he’s ok now. I understand the whole respect thing that he does when he plays live. Last time when I went to see him it was a little difficult. He stopped playing because somebody in the audience coughed. But you can’t deny the guy’s talent. He’s just a very, very, very special pianist.
10. Count Basie
“Red Bank Boogie” (from The Count Basie Story). Count Basie, piano; Sonny Cohn, Thad Jones, Snooky Young, Joe Newman, trumpets; Henry Coker, Al Grey, Benny Powell, trombones; Marshall Royal, Frank Wess, Billy Mitchell, Frank Foster, Charles Fowlkes, saxophones; Freddie Green, guitar; Eddie Jones, bass; Sonny Payne, drums. Recorded in 1960. Re-issued in 2004.
Before: [chuckles] This is going back full circle to where we started, vibe-wise. [listens] Uh-huh. This is great. I love this. I don’t play this but I love it. [laughs with delight at piano solo] See, man. This is when jazz was fun. It made people want to dance. It was a popular music because it wasn’t heavy. It was heavy but it wasn’t heavy. It makes me smile. It’s swinging. It’s well played. It feels good. I think jazz lost something when it lost that. I subscribe to [the philosophy of] hey, let’s smile and have a good time and throw some music on people. That could have been Count or Duke. More Count probably than Duke.
After: Man, I got a picture at home with me, Count and Herbie Hancock at the Newport Jazz Festival. I was the youngest guy there with this paisley, like Jimi Hendrix shirt–it’s just a stupid shirt, awful. But Count was doing his thing and Herbie had his big afro then. It’s a great picture, man. Yeah, I love Count Basie.
Your three favorite records of all time?
That’s tough. The one that first turned my life around was Kind of Blue. That destroyed me as a kid. Another record that was important to me was a Milton Nascimento record. I can’t even think of the name of it but it’s a double album with a black kid and a white kid sitting together on the beach [Clube Da Esquina]. Amazing record. I love Milton man. Early on, Les McCann records were important to me. And I love Gene Harris and Wynton Kelly.
This B&A originally appeared in the Feb. 2005 issue of JazzTimes.