GEORGE DUKE WAS OFTEN described as a ‘musician’s musician’, a man whose futuristic, funky keyboard sound managed to punctuate records by artists as diverse as Michael Jackson and Frank Zappa. Born in San Rafael, California, he was schooled at the San Francisco Conservatory during which time he ended up playing at local club, The Jazz Workshop. During one fateful Monday night set he managed to impress the owners of German label Saba records, who offered him a deal on the spot. Consequently he cut his debut album – The George Duke Quartet Presented By The Jazz Workshop – in 1966. Reflecting on the nerves he experienced entering the studio for the first time, Duke admitted that the album was “without a doubt the worst record I ever made”.
Nevertheless, his career was up and running and he soon forged a relationship with fast-rising French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, with whom he made his next recorded appearance on The Jean-Luc Ponty Experience With The George Duke Trio. Released on Pacific Jazz, the album was recorded at Los Angeles club Thee Experience and saw Duke dazzle on the Fender Rhodes in front of an audience that included Frank Zappa, Cannonball Adderley and Quincy Jones.
Duke would go on to forge a strong alliance with Zappa, joining The Mothers Of Invention in 1970 and playing on a number of key albums, including Bongo Fury, One Size Fits All, Apostrophe/Overnight Sensation and 200 Motels.
In 1971 he hooked up with Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet (replacing Joe Zawinul), playing on nine of his albums, but he also found time to cut a number of increasingly impressive solo records, including Save The Country and Solus (The Inner Source). Introduced to synthesizers by Zappa, 1974 saw him on a particularly impressive streak, during which he cut three albums under his own name: Faces In Reflection, Feel and The Aura Will Prevail.
Increasingly in demand as a session man, he would also work with Quincy Jones, who enlisted his services for Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album in 1979, and Duke’s subtle, textured playing graced the title track.
In the fusion world, Duke collaborated with Billy Cobham, Alphonse Mouzon and, most notably, bassist Stanley Clarke, with whom he recorded a number of successful albums as the Clarke-Duke Project in the ’80s, by which point he’d also developed into a respected producer.
While he continued to tour and record in recent years, Duke’s impact was also evident in the number of samples of his work snaffled by hip-hop acts, as well as Daft Punk, who borrowed from his I Love You More for their 2001 tune, Digital Love.
Duke carried on working up until his death and released his latest studio album, Dreamweaver, in July. That album was dedicated to the memory of his wife, Corine, who died of cancer in 2012.
George Duke’s passing on August 5 at the age of 67 robs us of a genuinely innovative player who leaves a treasure trove of music in his wake.
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