I’ve harbored a kind of weird fantasy since the seventies. What would it have been like if former Mothers of Invention guitarist/provocateur Frank Zappa had teamed up with Godfather of Funk George Clinton, and co-joined their ever-changing group of backing musicians? (I told you it was a weird fantasy).
One listen to The Essential George Duke has given a small part of that fantasy wings. When Duke is at his best, he creates something of a bridge between Zappa and Clinton, melding the eccentric squeaks, pops, and funk-like vocal harmonies Zappa was so fond of with the funky rhythms that take me back to one of Parliament’s many concerts in Central Park.
The former Zappa and jazz session keyboardist has always had a bag of tricks up his sleeve. He avoided being savaged by jazz purists, a la Herbie Hancock, because of his mastery of “blues” piano and his contributions to the “fusion” movement still stands tall today as the finest examples of the genre. But his pedigree alone defies all critical review of his music. Much of his best work is still unavailable on CD, including Columbia/Epic’s From Me to You and his collaboration with the late Noel Pointer and Earl Klugh on “Mirabella” from the live album Blue Note Live at the Roxy.
However, this album features a great deal more than Duke’s compositional and musical ability. It is also a vocal-driven vehicle to reach a pop audience who may not be aware of Duke’s unfathomable reach into all genres. Listen closely and you can hear Chic, Earth Wind & Fire, and of course, Parliament/Funkadelic in the arrangements, and he succeeds in forming those influences into something of his own.
But “Sunrise” is the sleeper of this album, with Duke soulfully mixing the gospel sensibilities of Philip Bailey with a lush, beautifully arranged harmonic vocal and instrumental mix which transforms Duke’s reputation as a brilliant back up musician into that of a tremendously gifted composer/arranger.
So what we really have here is a mixed bag of tricks, one that shows the multiple personalities of this fusion legend. While one yearns for more of Duke’s straight ahead jazz work, The Essential George Duke sticks mostly to spotlighting the finely-tuned, commercially accessible aspects of his musical career. This may be a disappointment to purists, but for those of us who appreciate the wide range of Duke’s sphere, Essential does shine brightly upon the legacy Duke has left to generations of musicians to come.
However, I can’t help being a tad disappointed by this retrospective. Maybe it is unrealistic for me to expect this album to capture the intensely creative weaves Duke has sewn through his career as Zappa sideman and Clinton compatriot. Perhaps a future compilation will feature more of his earlier work and reveal to me Duke’s capacity for continually contributing a large part to revolutionary music.