George Duke - The Final Interview
By Jerry Kovarsky
Wed, 7 Aug 2013
Edtior's note: This is an expanded version of the cover story from our September 2013 issue on legendary jazz-fusion and funk keyboard player George Duke. We would normally wait until September to post any of that issue's print content. However, we are doing so early to celebrate the life and music of one of the most talented and influential keyboardists in modern music, as he passed away unexpectedly on August 5, 2013.

Fusion master. Funk pioneer. Jazz legend. Rock hero. Brazilian music aficionado. R&B hitmaker. Keyboard Hall of Fame inductee.

Pick any one you like; in fact, pick them all. They only begin to describe the one and only George Duke. Now in the sixth decade of his illustrious career, George is making some of his strongest music ever, as evidenced by his latest release, Dreamweaver. It captures all we’ve come to expect from Mr. Duke: impeccable playing on a variety of keyboards across multiple styles, soulful vocals from guest artists as well as Duke himself, sterling production work, and a playfulness and sense of humor that tells us that he’s having fun.

Did you write specifically for the new album and a deadline, as opposed to writing when inspiration strikes and putting things on the shelf and waiting?

A little of both. Four or five of the songs were written specifically for the album. It actually began on a boat, and I started getting some interesting ideas. “You Never Know” was one. “Missing You” was one. I had an idea for “Round the Way Girl” that came up on the boat as well. I didn’t necessarily have a melody, but I knew that I wanted to include something like that. The idea of closing the album with “Happy Trails” came to me, and of course, everybody thought I was out of my mind. But those other songs were specifically written for this album, along with “Stones of Orion.”

When you say boat, was it one of the jazz cruises?

Yeah. I’d go into my studio and because of the situation I’d gone through with the death of my wife, it was just impossible. There was no way that I felt like making any music, which is very strange, because that’s not usually the case. After a few days on the boat, I kind of loosened up. I decided to sit out and watch the sun come up one morning, and the ideas started flowing.

How did the production start on the tune “Stones of Orion”? 

I already had put together a demo with drums, bass, chords, and a synth horn melody. I had Gordon Campbell replace the drum part I’d played, because I wanted real drums, and Stanley Clarke played bass, and the rest I overdubbed. I had a four-piece horn section replace all the horn stuff I did. Then I went in and played the piano around that.

On “Trippin’,” there’s a kind of muted wah synth part throughout, along with a trumpet. What was that played on? 

The muted trumpet was real. The little melody was a Minimoog. I had an idea for this the same as I did for “Stones of Orion,” so the demo track was already there. I’d played the drums and the bass, and didn’t want to change those. There are only a couple of tunes like that on this record where it’s actually all synth—except in this case for the trumpet, which was Michael Patches Stewart, and the sax, which was Kamasi Washington. I wanted real horns. And I wanted to include that Cannonball Adderley reference where you hear, “Ahoom.” That was a thing he used to say, “Ahoom,” which basically meant, “Right on!”

On “Ashtray,” the credits say you play lead synth bass, but there’s a bass that sounds pretty real to me. 

It’s not! It came from Spectrasonics Trillian. There was a bass patch in there that was very aggressive and nasty, and that’s what I used. As a matter of fact, I can tell you that that was the last tune to make the record. I was gonna pull it; I wasn’t happy with it. And Erik [Zobler, George’s long-time engineer] took it home and said, “Man, I like this! You need to put it on the album.” 

Had you already laid down that lead synth bass or did you keep coming back to that aspect of it?

No, that came later. I had the melody with the synth and I told Erik, “I’m still not happy. Let’s go back in. I’ve got an idea.” And I put this lead bass on top of it, like a strong kind of Marcus Miller or Stanley Clark style. I wanted the bass to lead this thing because a lot of the sounds I use when I play live are really bass sounds, sometimes moved up a couple of octaves. 

What was the synth solo on “Round the Way Girl” played on? A Minimoog?

Both of my Minimoogs had been racked and whacked—they weren’t working. I called a friend of mine, Ken Rich, and he said, “George, I have a Minimoog that you’re welcome to use anytime you’d like.” So I said, “Well I need it!” For a lot of the solos on this record I wanted a real Minimoog with its pitch-bend wheel, because it’s different trying to do that with a controller. [Ken Rich is known as one of the best keyboard restorers and customizers in the business. —Ed.]

Tell me about the track “Brown Sneakers.”

“Brown Sneakers” was actually written for a guy from Holland, Peter Tiehaus, but never recorded. I said, “I want to turn this into a synth extravaganza.” So for the first solo I played a Minimoog. The second solo was my ARP Odyssey. The melody was actually played by a Prophet-5. But my Prophet died many years ago so I used the old Native Instruments virtual one. That’s what I’d originally sent to Peter and the part sounded good, except I didn’t like the tone. So I said to Erik, “Look, I don’t need to play this again. Do something with it!” [Laughs.] So he ended up re-amping it. [Zobler confirms he ran it through an old Standell guitar amp. —Ed.] So everything in there that you think sounds like a lead guitar is actually a synth.

And you went back to your two original synths, the Minimoog and the Odyssey.

They have different personalities and that’s why I figured if I’m going to play all the solos on the tune, I don’t want that sucker to sound the same all the way through. The main thing for me was not just to play a lot of notes, but to try to construct melodies. That’s my Miles Davis training where it’s not necessary to play every note in the scale as fast as you can, because that’s not music. Technique is a means to an end, not an end in itself. 

How would you compare the ARP Odyssey to the Minimoog?

They’re like two sides of a coin. To me, it’s almost like the ARP Odyssey is the woman and the Minimoog is the guy. What I do on a Minimoog I can’t get out of an ARP Odyssey. It’s the tonality, which leads me in different directions musically. It’s the same way with playing a Rhodes or a good piano. The way it plays will allow you to go to different melodic places that you might not find on a different instrument. The bassy personality of a Minimoog, pretty much across the board, has a fatness and I like that. The ARP Odyssey is a little thinner, but there’s something about it that I love and it lets me do things that I don’t like to do on a Minimoog.

What love to do with these instruments is go from one timbre to another during a solo. So you may start a solo with one timbre but by the end you’re somewhere else, and that allowed it to grow. That’s why I hated some of the digital instruments that started coming out [in the 1980s]; you were kind of stuck with what you had. 

What keyboards and sounds do you use live? 

I use two Yamaha Motif ES8s as controllers and for a few internal sounds. I use the bottom Motif to trigger the Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Clavinet, all the basic sounds. I’d say 99 percent of the more orchestral stuff is triggered by the top Motif, including brass sounds. 

Unless I’m doing a trio format with Al Jarreau or I’m using an acoustic piano and a real suitcase Rhodes, my main Rhodes is the Scarbee library. I also incorporated one called [Gospel Musicians] Neo-Soul Suitcase, because that has a little more grit and meat on it for certain types of sounds. There’s another that’s pretty smooth, and it’s also a Scarbee thing but it’s toned down; it doesn’t have a lot of attack. As a matter a fact, I’m using that sound on “Brazilian Love Affair.” When I go into playing more funk, I might use Neo-Soul Rhodes, which has a lot of attack. But if I’m doing, say, a Miles Davis tune, I prefer the Scarbee. I’ve also used the Rhodes in Pianoteq, so I actually have four different Rhodes sounds, depending on what I want to hear. 

For Wurlitzer and Clavinet, I’ll use the Scarbee library as well. I like his work. As a matter of fact, [Thomas] Scarbee and I have been talking about doing a “Duke Rhodes.” He’s an amazing cat. In terms of sampled acoustic piano, the one I like best so far is the Dan Dean Blüthner, which is part of the Native Instruments catalog. For synth sounds, some of the patches that I use, like the guitar-type grunt sound, come out of the Motif ES8. I also use Arturia Mini V and a bunch of things for patches where I’m running around with the keytar. 

The slap bass sound when you do those kinds of solos—what is it?

We’re about to make a change there. The slap bass sound [from Spectrasonics Trillian] that I used on “Ashtray” is the one that I want to use live because it has a little more grit than the one I’m using now, which is from the ES8. I’m always looking for the thing around the block. Now, some of the brass sounds I’ve changed up a little bit. I’ve been doing both of the tunes I wrote for Miles Davis [“Cobra” and “Backyard Ritual”] in my own shows and I’m using the SampleModeling trumpet, which is amazing. [See our review in the April 2013 issue. — Ed.]. I’ve been working my brass section sound for years and I keep making changes. With the Motif I have four different sliders controlling different sounds from the computer—an alto sax on one, (SampleModeling), a tenor sax section on the other (old ProSonus library), a trumpet section on the other (Native Instruments Session Brass), and what’s on the fourth keeps changing because I keep looking for the ultimate fat brass sound that will cut. I’m close, but I ain’t there yet. 

You’ve had some pivotal gigs and musical partnerships. Let’s start with Al Jarreau.

I’ve known him a long time, since he came into a club that I was working in northern California. He came up onstage during a jam session and blew everybody away, including me. He’s a fabulous musician and we’re still playing dates together. In terms of his singing, it’s like working with a jazz horn player in that there’s almost nothing you can play that can confuse him. You can’t say that about every singer. 

Let’s move on to Jean-Luc Ponty.

I love Jean-Luc because he gave me my first shot in the business. I’d sent him a tape and eventually he decided, let’s give the kid a shot. I came to L.A. and through working with him I met Quincy Jones, Frank Zappa, and others who would come to see this fabulous violinist, and I just happened to be there playing piano. Now, I knew instinctively that I needed to draw some attention, so I went kind of nuts. I played with my feet. I did everything, because I realized the music business was out there in the audience.

So you started to work with Frank Zappa after the Jean-Luc gig?

After we did the King Kong record [King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa], Frank asked me to join the band. I did one date with Frank and an orchestra at UCLA in 1969—with the band that wound up being the Mothers of Invention during 1970. The first recording I did with him was one cut on Chunga’s Revenge, but that was more of a studio date.

You go from being a straight-laced jazz guy to out doing Zappa’s 200 Motels. Did that feel like the hardest left turn of your life?

Absolutely. I took a lot of heat from the jazz guys, but I felt I had something to learn. Frank was deeper than most jazz guys then realized. And as crazy as 200 Motels was, I did learn something. But you know, when I was first in the band, I didn’t play a lot of keyboards. That was Ian Underwood. I played mostly trombone. He found out I played trombone and I realized, why did I tell him that? When I rejoined, I said, “I’ll rejoin this band on one condition: I will not even look at that trombone!” 

Then you got the offer to go with Cannonball Adderley. 

Zappa and Cannonball were similar in that they worked on my musical psyche, but in different ways. Frank would tell me, “George, you should play synthesizer. You should sing. You should let your humor come out onstage.” He’d just sit down and talk to me about things, not telling me “You must do this,” but opening my mind to other forms of music, both simple and complex. That’s the main thing I learned from him: Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value. 

With Cannon it was different because he came from the jazz world and I couldn’t turn down being a part of that. I said, “Frank, I love what you’re doin’. I’ll still make records with you, but I got to do this thing with Cannonball.” And he understood. I continued to record with Zappa during the time I was with Cannonball, which was a couple of years, 1971 and 1972. He’d tell me I needed to broaden my palate. He had me listen to some Milton Nascimento, who I’d never heard of before. As far as I was concerned up until then, Brazilian music began and ended with Sérgio Mendes. He said to make yourself aware of the other stuff and if there’s something you want to use, put it on your musical canvas. 

Then you came back to Zappa. That’s the era when I first found out about you.

Waka Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo were jazz records, but Frank wouldn’t admit it. I’d say, “Frank, you’re playing jazz.” He’d say, “No I’m not.” That whole thing led to his well-known saying, “Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.” One reason I went back with Frank from Cannonball was because he’d hired a bunch of jazz guys that I’d worked with, like Ralph Humphrey, the Fowler Brothers [Tom on bass and Bruce on trombone], the incredible percussionist Ruth Underwood, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Sal Marquez, who’s a great trumpet player. 

Frank was known for having musicians learn a huge book before going on tour, and you never knew what tune he’d call. . . .

Basically he’d come in with a form that we had to learn. He didn’t allow reading sheet music onstage, so we had to learn all of it and he was constantly coming up with new music. When you came in with something new, you had to play the notes or what he had in mind, that’s for sure. But at the same time, it was loose. It was structured, but it was structured chaos. When we were in the studio, for example, he would have a track going on and in terms of whatever I played synthesizer-wise, once I understood what he was looking for, he didn’t even say anything to me. I knew instinctively what to do. He’d get this wry kind of smile on his face and I knew I had it.

Don’t get me wrong—it wasn’t like everybody just did their own thing. You had to play stuff like “The Black Page” and “Apostrophe” and if you played a wrong note, he’d make you do it again. I made a mistake in “Apostrophe” one show and Frank stopped the band, cut us off, and he said, “George made a mistake. We’re gonna play it again but after George plays it by himself.” So I played the whole doggone thing by myself, and then he said, “Now everybody, 1, 2, 3,4!” After that I said, “I’ll never let that happen again!” So I rehearsed until I had it down and, eventually, he started writing things for me to sing, and that’s when my whole life kind of changed.

What can you say about the band with Billy Cobham? 

Well, obviously I was aware of Billy Cobham for many years and enjoyed his work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. We’d done a few dates together where they opened for Frank Zappa. During that tour we began speaking about forming a band. In 1976, we formed one with Dougie Rauch on bass, who’s no longer with us. And we had Billy and myself and John Scofield. I explained to Billy that I didn’t want it to be just a fusion band where we were just playing a lot of notes. That wasn’t making it for me because it seemed at that time that was all I was hearing. I wanted to do something that had more of an R&B tinge to it. I said, “I think we can reach another audience if we lay the law down on some grooves but still play all that other stuff on top of it. But keep some of it simple so people can grab on to it.” I also said, “We need to bring some humor into this.” Fusion had become too serious. That’s why I came up with the thing about “Space Lady.” So, Billy went along with it, he was cool, he laughed, and we always had a good time. We toured a lot, it was a great band, and the record sold way beyond what we ever thought. 

Tell us about your music with Stanley Clarke. It’s interesting because it’s not the fusion chop-fest people might have expected. 

When I first met Stanley, I was with Cannonball and Stanley was with Chick Corea, doing the Light as a Feather music with Airto and Flora Purim. We met and became friends. Essentially, though we’re different in many musical ways, we’re very similar. When we began to work together as a band, I mentioned that I didn’t think we should do what people thought we should do. Let’s flip the script. The idea of doing a song like “Sweet Baby” wouldn’t even come into people’s minds about Clarke/Duke—are you kidding? We paid the price, too, because the record label wasn’t into it. We then decided to do something a little funkier, something which we thought might get played on the radio, though we wanted to keep the musicality. It worked—we sold a lot of records, we did a lot of touring, and we still tour.

The ’70s funk of Reach For It was a huge part of your most commercial success.

That was another stylistic jump. Ndugu Chancler and Byron Miller and I have been working together for a long time as a trio. We played a lot of fusion, and some of the funk stuff that we did in those days was more Sly and the Family Stone-oriented in a trio format. I liked the simplicity of what Sly did. However, one day Ndugu brought over a Parliament Funkadelic record, The Mothership Connection, and said, “You’ve got to hear this.” Later, at a club we played in Washington, DC, coming out of a drum solo Ndugu started playing this beat and I started playing this bass line of three notes and people started screaming. I looked at Byron and said, “Play something.” And that’s how “Reach For It” was born. A couple of months later, we recorded it and there it was. It became a huge R&B hit.

Rachelle Ferrell is another artist you’ve worked with. I could relate her to Al Jarreau—fluid, big ears, lives in the moment. 

She’s one of those few artists like Al where there’s nothing that you can play that’s going to interfere with what she’s doing. I never felt like I can’t play a certain chord because she won’t know where I’m going. She’s probably one of the most amazing technicians singer-wise as well as emotionally. I met her through [Blue Note Records chairman] Bruce Lundvall. I heard her singing on a CD that he sent, and I asked Bruce who was singing the bass part and he said, “She is.” I said, “Get out of here!” It wound up being the duet she did with Will Downing, but at that time she did the low part. We did about two or three albums together and a bunch of touring. 

You’re known for jazz, funk, and fusion, but aren’t the blues and church music a large part of the core spirit you originally brought to the scene? 

Yeah, I had to embrace that, and it took me a minute because I was taking a little heat. Some people would say I sounded like a bad Ramsey Lewis. People would say I was playing “boogaloo.” And I said, “Man, I was brought up playing this kind of stuff.” And I eventually said, you know, squash you guys. That’s who I am. And who’s responsible for my realizing that? Frank Zappa and Cannonball Adderley. They showed me the way in terms of being who I am musically.

Over the past ten albums or so, it’s as though you’ve been saying, “All of this is who I am.” 

And if you come to see me live, that’s what you’re gonna get, too!

Next page: Extras taken from the audio transcript of Jerry Kovarsky's interview with George Duke.
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