George Duke - The Final Interview


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.

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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.

Discussing the tune “Ashtray” from the new CD Dreamweaver:

I'll tell you the genesis of this tune. Basically, I had Gordon (Campbell) play a drum beat. I gave him a form of what I thought the tune should be, you know -- intro - verse - chorus - verse - chorus - solo section - out -- something like that. Gordon went in to play the drums and I constructed everything else around that. Erik (Zobler) gave it me on my computer and I just went wild. And I didn't want it to just be a Funkadelic thing cause it was not that kind of vibe. I wanted it to have some other kind of timbre. That's why I used clarinet, other kinds of sounds, and chord changes in there. But I wanted a very simple melody. The idea was to have the melody singable so that anybody could sing or hum it. But I wanted the other stuff in the track to keep the interest. And it was a long time before I decided to call it "Ashtray". I had no idea what to call this thing. Eventually, I looked at it and said, "There's so much trash in this thing that it sounds like a doggone ashtray!" Just nasty! You can name what you might find in an ashtray. Hello! And I don't even smoke.

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Discussing the synth solos on “You’ll Never Know”:

The first is a Minimoog and the second is an ARP Odyssey. I did the first solo, and it's kind of funny because as I was playing it I was in the control room and then we started playing it back and I realized I forgot the second half of the solo! And the ARP Odyssey was sitting there so I thought, “let's use that!” It was kind of interesting because I had the Minimoog that was one tonality, and then I brought in the ARP Odyssey, which worked great coming into the chorus section. It was not planned. It was actually a mistake.

But I like that tune because the lyrics mean a lot to me. It was something that I wrote on the jazz cruise and it was very close to me because of what I was going through (the passing of his wife). I was just kind of questioning the whole idea that you never know what's gonna happen to you. No matter how much faith you got, in the end you never know!So, that's kind of the way I look at it. I know it's gonna put me in trouble with some people who have the consummate belief in what's gonna come. And yeah, I got that too, but in the end, you never know.

So you can have that belief but it doesn't mean that you're supposed to be privy to every plan.

Yes, and you’re not supposed to be! In the end, it means that you hope that whoever wrote that word down was correct. You hope they got it right. It’s something to kind of make people think a little bit. That's what came out and I just let it fly.

With your own albums, you do what you feel, right?

Exactly. I don't have any A&R guy telling' me what and what not to do, except for Erik telling me to leaveAshtray” on the record. That was about it.

Discussing onstage monitoring:

I don't use speakers anymore. I'm in ear, absolutely. It took me a minute to get used to it but that's the only way to go now, especially when I'm singing, 'cause I can turn everyone else down and hear what I'm singing. It took a minute because I can't feel the audience as much, but the way Andrew's (Papastephanou) decided to run the rig, which helps me a lot, is that I control each instrument, whether it be drums, bass, guitar, background vocals, whatever -- they're all on separate faders on a board on the side and I just mix it myself.

Is it a regular board or one of those personal monitor mixing systems?

No, it's a standard Mackie mixer we get as backline. And my stuff's going through that too; my instruments along with the live mix.

So in the end you're running it, making the decisions for yourself.

Yes, and it works for me… As long as they have 'em goin' in the right channels.

You don't have to try and play everything you do and give hand signals to somebody off stage.

Yeah! Laughs. Those days are over!

Discussing synth soloing:

Let's talk a little bit about pitch bending. There's no doubt that compared to any of the other people, you heard the blues, not just fusion. I think that's one of those things everyone relates to about your pitch bending. When you first got the instruments, what did you practice, what did you approach to develop pitch bending?

Well, that's exactly what drew me into the instrument. After I got rid of that ARP 2600 -- which was a waste of time for me with too many knobs and buttons and plugging of this into that -- I felt like I was going back to college to be a telephone operator -- when I got the Minimoog and the ARP Odyssey and could bend a note, I felt like it was my voice. I wanted to play timbre-wise like Yusef Lateef, who was a sax player working with Cannonball Adderley at the time. Yusef had this very interesting way that he would bend his notes; it was bluesy and it was still funky. That's what I was going for in the beginning. If you don't know who Yusef Lateef is, you can pick up a couple of great Cannonball Adderley records, the one from New York or the one from San Francisco that was recorded live, and when that flute comes in with that vibrato, man I'm telling you. I actually used to set my vibrato so it also had the same type of amplitude modulation that he had. And if I want a different, more real thing, I use the actual pitch bend and go back and forth between sharp and flat in order to get that type of vibrato, which is totally different than LFO to pitch modulation.

The way I practiced pitch bending was I started off with a Minimoog, and I would go like a half step and practice a half step up, a half step down, then I'd go a whole step up, a whole step down -- I was not as good going down, I'll admit that -- but going up was the main thing and then I'd go a minor third, and pretty much I stopped there because I wanted to learn where to put the wheel in order to gain that facility.

And of course, once I get live, it's kind of just rote, 'cause if it's a little flat it works. It's like reaching for something, so I didn't mind if some of the notes that I got didn't quite get up there. I look at it this way: would I change one broken or flat note that Miles Davis hit? Not me! That's part of the character of the instrument. So, it was really okay. I didn't over think it. The main idea was that I could do it. But I did have to practice it, going up a half step, a whole step, a minor third, a major third, and eventually a fourth and all the way up to a fifth. That's generally where I stopped was a fifth, but in the beginning a minor third was about as far as I could go.

You bend that little knob on the ARP Odyssey in order to get to a major second, and you had to go further than you think you might normally have to go. It was a different technique for each instrument. The Minimoog was different, I had to get used to that wheel. The same thing goes for the Clavinet when I had the CastleBar on there, which I still do. You're kind of stuck with that as a second. Most people use a second because it's easier to control. And sometimes I do that as well, because it's simpler, but when I play long guitar-type solos and stuff like that, I much prefer going up a third or a fourth and then going down a full octave. You just gotta practice. It's like anything else. If you want to play a C scale, you gotta practice it if you really wanna play it.

In programming or playing around with lead sounds, is there another effect or go-to thing that you would bring into a sound?

Absolutely. On the Minimoog, I’d play around with the third oscillator until I found something I liked, and then if I put up the modulation wheel it would just do something weird. Most of the times, I wouldn't know what that was. Many times, in a live situation, I just turn the wheel and then try it and see what happens. That happened many times. For me, that's like living on the edge. I don't mind that. If it doesn't work, okay it doesn't work. If you don't live on the edge sometimes, you become conservative. That's kind of what's happened, to me, what's happened to music nowadays. There's not enough aggression in it or people trying other things. But anyway, I would take that third oscillator and start tweaking it and start pushing buttons and like, “Woah! Let's remember this.” It allows the music to grow somewhere else.

You used to use a wah-wah pedal on your Minimoog. . . .

It was tough because the wah-wah thinned out the sound so much that it bothered me a little bit. I tried different things, including using the straight sound into the console along with the wah-wah sound so I could merge the two to get a fatter sound. I don't generally do that much nowadays 'cause I have an engineer who can kind of control that. Right, Erik? Right! I love the wah-wah, but more importantly I actually love the filter pedal, which is a whole other ball of wax for me. Most of the ARP Odyssey stuff that I do where I have that kind of sound is not a wah-wah pedal, it is a filter pedal.

How would you integrate that into performance?

It depends on what I'm trying to do. If I'm looking for something that has a wah-wah sound but to me is a little fatter, it's very similar but not the same. I like it very wide, without sounding squeamish or squelchy, I like to go up there but I like it to come down to almost nothing. If I can bring the band down and have it be quiet, then I can get a whole lot of different tonality out of it and make the instrument talk. In the end, that's all we're doing. We're having a conversation. That's what a solo is: a conversation. If you play one sound, especially if you're doing a long solo throughout the entire thing, you're only talking in one language, saying the same thing. A wah-wah or a filter pedal is like talking to people. There are different tonalities in words and they all mean something to people so if you can do that musically I think you can connect to people better. To me, that's the whole idea of what music is anyway -- trying to connect.

I mean, for me, I feel that a piece of art sitting on the wall, as great as it may be, doesn't reach what it's supposed to reach if it doesn't connect to somebody. It's just a great piece of art on the wall, but if nobody sees it, I don't know if it really means anything. The whole idea for art is to reach people, to communicate. In my solos, generally that's what I try to do. I try to construct melodies from the heart that really mean something to me melodically. I think a lot of young synth players now don't think about melody. They just think about playing a lot of notes because they've got eight bars and they want to play a scale real fast there. But that ain't what music's about. Play the fast scale where it's supposed to be played. The music will tell you what you're supposed to play. It'll tell you, you just gotta listen.

Some of these young guys now have amazing technique, but after three minutes, I'm like, “Okay, what else?” I mean, touch me with a melody. I love the technique, believe me, but there's more to music than that, and I prefer to have somebody touch me with one note than to hear all that technique. B.B King can play one of those notes and put so much emotion in that one note with that vibrato that he's got and he puts his whole body into it and his face squinches and goes up to his eyes and he goes back in his chair and the instrument goes up and he plays that one note, and it's over. It's over! He doesn't even need to play anything else. I even heard John Coltrane do that. People don't realize, John Coltrane comes from a very deep place. The first time I heard John Coltrane was in San Francisco at the jazz workshop and I was too young to get in so I sat out in front of the club, and I heard some other sax player playing a lot of notes, and John Coltrane got up and played one note with all of this emotion and I was like, “Woah!” I just heard something.

Discussing Jean-Luc Ponty:

You heard Jean-Luc on the radio and then you chased him down, right?

Yes, they used to play him on KJazz in San Francisco. I had started working with SABA Records and Jean-Luc was on the same record label so I had a couple of his albums. I love those records. And one of the guys from SABA Records told me, "You know Jean-Luc is coming to Los Angeles to make a record. Maybe you can get the gig." I found out who his producer was gonna be and I must have bugged those people to death. They finally just said, “Let's give the kid a shot to get him off the telephone.”

Discussing their first gigs together:

We had already started playing at places like Dante's and we had already done some gigs with my trio, the same trio that played with Al Jarreau: John Heard on bass, Al Cecchi or Dick Berk on drums, depending on the night, and myself. So we started doing these dates and Dick Bock, who was Jean-Luc's producer, said, "With the kind of jazz that you guys play, I think that you can get over to a rock audience. So I would like to put you at a club called "The Experience"," which was the premier rock club in LA at that time. Jean-Luc was unsure about doing it but I thought, What have we got to lose?! If the audience doesn't dig it then we're out. So Jean-Luc finally said, "Okay if you want to do it I'll do it."

So they booked us in there one night and Dick said, "All you have to do is play the couple of tunes you always do but put a rock beat behind it." And that's what we did. He recorded that night and that came out as "Jean-Luc Ponty Experience with George Duke". There it was. I had said to Dick, “The only thing I want is, make sure there's a piano in there, not one of those little short sawed off Fender Rhodes.” I went in and that's all that was, a little sawed off, silver top, 73-key Fender Rhodes. And I was like, "Man, what am I gonna do with this thing?" However, I found out that I could make it louder, I had tone control, I had vibrato. And I was like, "Shoot, I can play as loud as a drummer now!"And that's what happened, I began to dig the instrument. I found throughout all the clunks that I could get some other tonalities and it kind of interested me.

Is this the first time you had played the Rhodes?

No, I had played the Rhodes with Don Ellis. I joined the Don Ellis Big Band for a while. I was pretty comfortable playing a lot of odd time signatures. But working with Don Ellis, who a lot of people probably don't remember, I got bathed in the waters of time signatures. It was an amazing experience. Jay Graydon was in that band, and Ralph Humphrey, who eventually wound up in the Zappa band.

Discussing Cannonball Adderley:

The great thing about Cannon is that he knew everyone I ever loved in music. Backstage, there'd be Freddie Hubbard, Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Miles Davis. They'd just walk in and talk to people. Very interesting for a kid at my age and I became a sponge. We recorded a complete album with the Cannonball Adderly Quintet with Joe Williams. Cannon was very open. When we revisited his catalogue he didn't want it to sound the same. He depended a lot on keyboard players, just like he did with Joe Zawinul. He allowed Joe to construct the way the music went and then he played whatever he played on top, but he dug the way Joe organized sounds and music and so he allowed that to happen. The same thing with me; he would just tell me, "Just go for it!"

Did you follow Joe directly in the band?

Yes, pretty much. And that was a pretty awesome transition because obviously I couldn't do what Joe did. I was not Joe. And Joe had been there for, what, 10 years, or something. There's no replacing Joe. So I decided I had to be me and do what I do and I did it as best as I could. Cannon was into all of that; that's what I loved about him. Same thing with Miles. These guys were fearless in terms of what they played. Obviously they hit a nerve in the community when they played "Mercy Mercy" or one of the more soulful tunes. So he would do that and then he would lay something heavy on them. That's what I loved about the band.

Discussing the Clarke/Duke Project:

if somebody hears (“Sweet Baby”) they’d think it was a pop tune from the '80s, and would never think it’s from these jazz fusion guys.

I don't think musicians should be stuck into one cradle or into one area. If they have the ability and honesty to create music which is of a diverse order, or stylistically diverse, I don't see any reason why musicians shouldn't do it. They shouldn't feel trapped to play fusion or straight jazz all of their musical life. There are certain musicians that will do that because that's where they live. That is not where Stanley and I live. Musically, we live in a lot of different areas.Stanley scores films, he's played with Aretha Franklin, he's worked with Chick Corea in Return to Forever - he's done a lot of different things, including playing with me. I think that as a musician, he should be allowed to explore honestly. There it is.

Two questions from readers:

How did you decide to use the organ sound on “50 - 50” (From Frank Zappa's Apostrophe album)?

I think we were somewhere, in a church or something, and Frank said, "I want you to play that pipe organ."I said, "What pipe organ?!" He said, "The one up there." I said, "You want me to play the pipe organ?!" And he said, "Yes." I didn't know anything about playing the pipe organ or how to get the sound out of that thing. Half of the stuff that we did with Frank was off the cuff.

We were young and crazy. It was whatever it was. That was part of the beauty of that period of time; as long as you had something where the vibe kind of worked, you went with it; you didn't over-think it. And not everybody, but especially with Frank and Cannonball's bands - none of that stuff was over thought or over produced. It was what it was. Whoever we were at that moment, that's what it was.

And that's who Frank was. Most of the stuff we did with Frank, especially in the '73-'75 area when we were doing "Apostrophe", "One Size Fits All": that particular band with Napoleon Murphy Brock and Chester Thompson on drums was, for me, Frank's best band. Not just because I was in it, but we had the expertise to be able to play whatever Frank wrote. And we had the comedy to go with it. We all really understood what Frank wanted from his performers.

A lot of that stuff was totally off the cuff. We would do something on the bus and Frank would get the smile and say, “George, I want you to do that onstage tomorrow night.” Or if it wasn't me, it would be one of the other guys in the band. And that's the way it went. Most of the time, after the show (we would do a two or three hour show) he would make us sit down on the bus on the way to the next town and listen to that show and he'd say, “I don't want you to do that tomorrow night. I want you to do this. Let's add this to the show.” The shows were constantly in flux. It didn't mean we didn't know the tunes, but there would be constant change here and there, so each show you heard was a little different.

He enjoyed just being a part of the band but it also was directed chaos. You never knew when it was gonna happen, but if he wanted to break something down he had certain hand signals that he would give and we all knew what those hand signals meant. He would do something and he'd just pull it back or slow it down or play a bunch of crazy notes in the middle of anything. You had to constantly keep an eye on Frank. You never knew what he was gonna do.

Miles Davis was very much the same way, though the music was different. Until the music was where he wanted it to be, he would not allow me to play. He didn't even say it, but I had this keytar and he just would hold his hand on the neck of the instrument until he was ready. And when he took his hand off he didn't say a word, but I instantly knew it meant it was time for me to play. People have different ways of doin' the same things.

Last question on that Zappa era, did Chester's Gorilla really say "Quack"?

Yes! [Sings: Chester's Goriiiilllllla!] Well, the tour manager used to run around during that song in a gorilla outfit. He'd just run around the stage. Did he say “quack”? He did a lot of other things than just say “quack”, I'll leave it at that! You best ask Chester Thompson [the drummer, not the keyboardist of the same name] that. 

Next page: Keyboard tech Andrew Papastephanou describes George Duke's onstage gear.


By Andrew Papastephanou, keyboard tech for George Duke

Onstage, George runs a 2.8Ghz Core i7 MacBook Pro with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive. Our sample libraries are on the system drive, thanks to the speed of the SSD. From pressing the power button, we can load the entire show—about 6GB of samples—in under 45 seconds.

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For keyboards, we use a backline-supplied grand piano—typically a Bösendorfer 290, Steinway D, Yamaha CFIIIS, or Fazioli F308—two backlined Motif ES8s, and a custom-modded Alesis Vortex. I had to rewire the polarity of the pitch-bender on the Vortex to fit how George uses it.

Our MOTU UltraLite interface handles both audio and MIDI. We’re using MIDI Solutions’ Quad Thru and Quad Merger devices to route the Motifs and Vortex into the UltraLite. I did this to streamline the rig and reduce the number of drivers that might need updating. Since the UltraLite is bus-powered and the MacBook’s AC supply switches from 100 to 240 volts, we don’t have concerns over unstable or international power. If someone kicks out a power cable, the laptop battery takes over and we don’t have to reboot.

We use a MIDIjet Pro system for wireless MIDI between the keytar and UltraLite. This works internationally in the 2.4GHz band and handles dropped MIDI by sending note-offs when the unit goes out of range. I’ve seen George walk up an aisle in a large theater, go out one door, and come back through another without ever missing a note.

On the grand piano we have two Yamahiko piano pickups through a Yamahiko DI, plus either two DPA 4021 mics magnetically mounted on the frame or the Earthworks PianoMic system. The combination of pickups and microphones is stellar!

Regarding software, we run Kontakt 5 in 64-bit mode for most of George’s computer-based sounds. Kontakt’s instrument banks are great for live use—you can see them in the screenshot. You can edit all the “skinned” Kontakt libraries, save your presets, then drag-and-drop those into slots in your instrument bank and access them via program changes on your controller. We’re running eight MIDI channels of instrument banks: four controlled from each Motif ES8.

We also run Apple MainStage 2 in 32-bit mode, using a custom multitimbral template for certain effects-heavy instruments. George and I have built some great guitar and Rhodes patches that live there. (See second screenshot.)

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MIDI is all routed so that George is never locked out of a sound on either Motif, and when he picks up his keytar, he can access either the computer or the internal Motif sounds—all without having to operate the computer directly.