There aren’t many musicians with a discography as impressive as jazz legend George Duke’s. The keyboard player and vocalist has amassed a staggering catalog of nearly 40 solo releases. As a sideman, Duke has made significant contributions to the legacies of musical luminaries like Frank Zappa and Cannonball Adderley. Duke is a remarkably versatile instrumentalist, making significant contributions in a wide range of styles from progressive jazz fusion to Top 40 funk.
I recently spoke with Duke via phone as he prepared for his upcoming gig as co-headliner of the Indy Jazz Fest. We discussed his love affair with Brazilian music and his work with Zappa.
NUVO: You’re headlining the Indy Jazz Fest with Stanley Clarke, whom you’ve collaborated with often throughout your career. I read an old interview where you referred to Stanley as your “musical brother.”
George Duke: He’s kind of like me in many ways musically. He’s good at a lot of different things; he plays upright bass and he plays electric bass. He plays many varied styles of music well, whether it’s funk, jazz or classical. He’s a trained musician. I’m sort of the same kind of guy. I play a lot of different styles and I play a few different instruments well. He and I aren’t necessarily pigeonholed into one thing. That’s what I mean when I say were musical brothers — we have the kind of ideas about what music can be and should be.
NUVO: Throughout the ’70s, you flirted with Brazilian rhythms and compositions in your work and this eventually led to you traveling to Brazil in 1979 to record one of your most acclaimed LPs Brazilian Love Affair. I’m curious when you first heard Brazilian music and what attracted you to it.
Duke: The first time I heard it was at a place called The Triton in the 1960s. It was a restaurant and they would have jazz bands come play in the evening. It was right off the water in Sausalito, Calif. which is about eight miles north of San Francisco. The guy that ran the place said to me “We’ve got a band coming in here tonight from Brazil and you need to hear this music.” I said to myself “Brazil? I don’t know about that.” But I went and it changed my life. The band was Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’65. I’d never heard any music like that. That was the beginning of my love affair with Brazilian rhythms and melodies.
NUVO: How did that lead to you recording the Brazilian Love Affair album?
Duke: In 1971 I joined the Cannonball Adderley Quintet and Cannonball invited me to his home to play some music. He played me Brazilian music because he thought I should widen my palate. The only thing I knew about Brazilian music at that time was Sergio Mendes. I hadn’t heard much of anything else. He started playing me stuff by Milton Nascimento and Edu Lobo. I was like, “Man, this is a whole other world.” Then he said “We’re going to Brazil with the band.” I went there and I bought every record I could find.
On our off nights I went to as many places to hear Brazilian music as I could. It was the environment, the people and their love for the music. The music and rhythms were ingrained in the culture. I dug the whole vibe and right then I decided that one day I would come back to Brazil and make a record. That’s how Brazilian Love Affair came about and it’s been one of my most beloved records. It was truly a record done from love of music and that’s the story. I didn’t want to make a typical Brazilian record because I’m not Brazilian. I wanted to make it a combination of what I felt about music at that time and put that together with Brazilian melodies and rhythms to create a hybrid.
NUVO: A lot of rock fans are familiar with your name from your work with Frank Zappa. You recorded and toured with Zappa for several years. What did you take away from that experience?
Duke: I don’t think you’ve got enough paper for that answer. (laughs) What did I take away? Quite a bit. He was the first one to get me to sing. He was the first person to get me to attempt to play a synthesizer. The first time I played a Fender Rhodes was in his presence. He encouraged me to allow my humor to come out, to be more onstage like I am offstage. There were so many things that I learned from Frank. He used to sit me down and say you need to trust yourself musically. He was a very strong mentor to me.
NUVO: Do your hear anything in contemporary music that's as adventurous as the music you were playing with Zappa?
Duke: There are some great young musicians out there now. I like what Robert Glasper is doing. He's pushing the envelope. As far as someone being like Frank? I don't know if we'll ever have another one of those. That was some of the most daring music I've ever played or ever heard. It was very advanced. It was comedy, it was rock, it was jazz, it was contemporary classical all wrapped into one thing with a lot of improvisation and a lot of complex written music. Frank's music was just amazing, it went from really complex to insanely stupid and everything in between. If there's anything happening like that now, I haven't heard it.
NUVO: You've worked with a slew of incredible artists, like Michael Jackson and Miles Davis. Any particular memories that stand out?
Duke: That I can talk about in public laughs? There are so many moments. But I can recount playing onstage with Miles Davis, it was the first time I played with Miles and it was at the Montreux Jazz Festival. I had this little instrument I wore around my neck and when I came onstage Miles didn't say anything but he gestured towards me to come over. I walked out and he put his hand on the neck of my instrument and I instantly knew that meant he wasn't ready for me to play yet. He was like Frank Zappa in the way he conducted things and when he got the music the way he wanted he took his hand off my instrument and I knew instinctively it was time to play. That is a great memory for me and I learned something from that. That's one memory, there are a lot of others but I'm saving them for a book or until a bunch of these folks die!
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's edition features a selection of Brazilian inspired tracks by George Duke.
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