" Interview "
George Duke Interview
George Duke's early inspirations came from the still thriving Les McCann. George Duke received a lot of attention as a teenager when he first hooked up with the outstanding French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty in 1969, when Duke accompanied Jean-Luc Ponty, recording with the violinist. After eight months with the Don Ellis Orchestra, he joined Frank Zappa in1970. After one-year stint with Zappa, Duke also spent 1971 and 1972 with the great Cannonball Adderley and then reunited with Zappa from 1973-1975.
In 1975 he went on to work with the legendary Sonny Rollins, then co-led a group with Billy Cobham, and as fusion became popular, Duke formed a Funk band (the Clarke-Duke Project) with Stanley Clarke.
Duke went on to work with an amazing wide range of artists as bandleader, session player, and producer with, including Quincy Jones, Herb Ellis, Shuggie Otis, Joe Williams, George Benson, the Brecker Brothers, Aretha Franklin, John Scofield, Patti LaBelle, Miles Davis, Dianne Reeves, Les McCann, Joe Sample, Lee Ritenour, Ivan Neville, Brian Bromberg, Queen Latifah, Tom Scott, and even Michael Jackson, which is quite an impressive resume.
By the late 1970s he was completely out of the Jazz world and was playing R&B and producing projects for Pop artists. Recently Mr. Duke has been actively playing out live again, which is great news for his fans and those who know what a talent he is. Dukey Treats appeared in 2008 from Heads Up Records, which is when I caught up with George Duke.
Bob Putignano for BluesWax: How are you doing, George?
George Duke: I'm great, man.
BP: How did this new Dukey Treats album on the Heads Up Label come about?
GD: A lot of folks came up to me after my shows as they would be out there waiting for me to sign autographs and taking pictures, and they kept asking me, "Why don't you do something funky again?" So that's where it started and it grew from there.
BP: You certainly have enough history doing funky things.
GD: Well, yeah. The fans were talking about the old-school stuff, because there's not a lot of that out there right now, sure people sample that's Funk, but there's not a lot of new old-style Funk going on out there. So I decided to make this album as a tribute to old-school kind.
BP: Yeah, you are right. I can't think of too many bands out there that are doing that Seventies/Eighties Funk groove right now. Other than Tower of Power, Maceo Parker, Parliament/Funkadelic, and various spin-offs of the JB bands, but that's about it.
GD: There's a few.
BP: As far as I'm concerned, the more the merrier!
GD: I love it, but I had to take it and kind of put it through my vision, and do my thing on top it. So I'm trying to make it an old-school sensibility, with a new-school vibe.
BP: One of the things that always fascinates me when I see bands like Maceo and similar Funk bands, is the fact that they always seem to attract a wide range of age groups that you don't see all too often at Blues and Jazz shows. Maceo Parker just told me he thinks that folks from your and my generation are starting to bring their kids to shows and that the kids are digging the groove, because they can really dance to the music.
GD: That's funny, as that is beginning to happen with parents bringing their kids to our gigs, too. I used to know this guy that used to go to San Francisco to see Tower of Power, and they were bringing their kids and their entire families to go see them as well.
BP: I dig Tower of Power.
GD: I just worked with them. They're a funky band, man.
BP: A lot of heavy cats came out of TOP. Yet with all the changes they've had in their lineup over the years, Emilio Castillo has really kept them very sharp with their performances by adding some top-notch new talent. Please tell me more about your work with Tower of Power?
GD: I produced four tracks for their new album. We just finished it.
BP: Can't wait to hear this, can you give us some hints about what you all did together in the studio?
GD: I don't know if they want me to say this, but essentially sorted out what I did on my Dukey Treats, but recorded older songs and put their stamp on it. You know, that Tower of Power sound on some Sixties and Seventies material.
BP: I am really digging your latest CD Duke Treats. As you said earlier you really nailed that old-school sound yet kept it fresh and contemporary.
GD: Thanks, and yeah I basically wanted everybody to come in and just play and have a good time so that they could get into what the flavor of the music is. Hopefully it's a nice balance of the funky stuff, plus I tried to do a song like Sly Stone on steroids and another with a Funkadelic kind of thing, and of course some ballads that I've become known for over the last ten years. I had to have some of that pretty kind of love material on there.
I also did some serious material about a serious subject, which is a song called "Sudan (It's a Cryon' Shame)" that is about the situation going on in Darfur, where I had a little help from Teena Marie and Jonathan Butler on that one. So, like I mentioned, I think there is a nice balance on Dukey Treats. You know music should be like life, which is like opening up a candy box, where you never quite know what you are going to get, so you pick out what you like and eat it!
BP: I think it's a nice balance of songs on the new CD. Do you keep in touch with some of the guys you used to play with?
GD: Oh, yeah, man, whoever is still around, that I can get to without channeling. [Laughs.]
BP: When you go out on the road are the players on Dukey Treats the same as those that you take out with you?
GD: Yeah, I've been touring with the same band and rhythm section for a couple of years now: Michael Manson on bass, Jef Lee Johnson from Philadelphia on guitar, and a young guy - the twenty-five-year-old Ron Bruner Jr. on drums. Occasionally I switch up with different people other than that. And actually for this tour that I am beginning to do now I'm actually using some horns. I decided to institute a new thing with dealing with colleges in different areas where I pull out like four horn-players from local colleges and have them come play with me on the show.
BP: These kids must love being called on by you.
GD: Yeah, plus it keeps the youth thing happening and keeps the next generation flowing.
BP: That is so neat! Don Byron was in here a couple of years ago when he did that album of Junior Walker songs and I asked him where he came up with the concept for that record. Byron said his students at the college where he teaches at suggested to him doing a Motown thing, which for me was very encouraging to hear that the kids are digging this era of music. And now you are doing a similar thing by keeping this flame going to that next generation. Plus I checked out all of your credits and your history and legacy is deeper than deep. No one could ever say you were pigeonholed either, especially when you shifted back and forth in bands from Zappa to Cannonball Adderley.
GD: I've been there and back! Speaking of Zappa, Frank was a big part of my early career, as I learned so much from working with Zappa.
BP: What was Frank Zappa like?
GD: He was a great cat, he really was. Zappa was totally into music, that's all he was about - music! He ate, slept, and drank music. It was crazy, plus I never understood how a guy that wasn't making top-forty music was able to do the things he did. He was fearless!
BP: I never thought about Zappa that way, but you are right he managed to stay popular even though he was making unique, non-mainstream recordings, which as I am sure you know, is not easy to do.
GD: Yeah, man, that's right, we worked all the time! We were in the studio, we were on the road, or we were on the way to doing something on the road. [Laughs.]
BP: Was it through Zappa that you meet Jean-Luc Ponty or was it the other way around?
GD: It was the other way around. Ponty kind of gave me my break in the music business. I was just a teenager when Ponty was coming to the States from France, so I decided to do everything I could to get in contact with Jean-Luc. And you have to remember that this was when there was no Internet or cell phones either. So I called and mailed the record company and told them that I'm the guy that should work with Ponty when he comes to the States! And Jean-Luc said, "Okay, let's give the kid a shot."
BP: That must have been the World Pacific Jazz label. In fact, just about a week ago I was visiting a buddy in Los Angeles and he pulls out that King Kong Ponty LP that you and Zappa were on. That was like 1968 or 1969?
GD: Yeah, man, somewhere back then! Come to think of it, that's the first time I ever worked with Zappa.
BP: Zappa only plays on one track on that LP, which is now available as a CD.
GD: That's right, but Zappa produced that record, which were all Zappa compositions. Jean-Luc actually did not want to make that recording, but I said, "Let's do this!" Then Ponty said he would do it if I would play on it with him, as he wanted someone from the Jazz world with him.
BP: I remember Ponty's earlier work and I am sure that had to be a shock for him to play Zappa's music.
GD: Yeah, but the rest was history!
Bob Putignano: www.SoundsofBlue.com