The end comes eventually for us all with only the time and method to be determined. Dream Weaver is an album constructed around death, loss, healing and moving on. George Duke lost his wife, Corine, in 2011 as well as guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, and vocalist Teena Marie who passed away in 2010 as she was collaborating with Duke on a jazz album.
Despite the sense of loss and sorrow hanging over the recording, Dream Weaver is hardly a solemn affair. Duke’s trademark good humor, playfulness and finely tuned ability not to take himself too seriously, as benefits someone who played with rocker Frank Zappa, shines through.
Working with multiple players and guests, Duke’s final album is at times messy and sprawling, but Duke never allows all four wheels to leave the road. George Duke the producer was as accomplished as George Duke the musician and he was acutely aware of what his strengths and weaknesses were in both roles.
It was the old school funk of “Reach For It” and “Dukey Stick” that put Duke on the map as a solo artist and the thumpin’ “Ashtray” is a worthy callback to those days. You’ll look in vain for the name of the bassist thumbin’ out those fat licks. It’s Duke with his battery of synthesizers ripping off bass riffs that would make Bootsy Collins or his old pal, Stanley Clarke, smile with admiration.
Clarke appears here on “Stones of Orion” showing off his underrated skills on the upright bass. “Missing You” features sensitive vocals from Duke and Rachelle Ferrell. While he sought to make the object of the ballad a generic woman, it is apparent whom the warm passion in Duke’s singing is directed to. The serious intent behind “You Never Know” belies its breezy, lightweight sound, but it’s a caution to treasure every moment because you never know when there will be no more moments.
Duke’s albums are frequently saddled with a few throwaway tunes and it’s “Jazzmatazz” and “Round the Way Girl” that don’t add much to the discography, though the instrumental “Brown Sneakers” featuring Michael Manson on bass is a fine bit of fusion.
If a title like “Change the World” weren’t a dead giveaway of Duke trying for a “We Are the World” moment, the assemblage of an all-star chorus (Jeffrey Osborne, Lalah Hathaway, BeBe Winans, Freddie Jackson and more) drive the point home with sledgehammers, but sincere as it is, it still feels generic and the clunky kid vocal at the end shows a bad case of the cutes.
Teena Marie was known primarily as a blue-eyed soul singer, but her interests ranged beyond belting out R ‘n’ B and before her passing she was working with Duke on an album of jazz vocals. If “Ball & Chain” is any indication of what the finished product would have been, Marie might have been successful in the attempt. Though the amazing range she exhibited on the classic “Portuguese Love” (seek it out and find out for yourself) isn’t evident here, “Ball & Chain” demonstrates Marie had down the phrasing of a jazz singer. As a producer, Duke had the ability to bring out the particular strengths of an artist rather than apply a signature sound to them.
“Burnt Sausage Jam” is a remnant from a session with Johnson and the rhythm section of bassist Christian McBride and drummer John Roberts that is just a jam and a rather pointless one at that. It never really develops into much but drags on for 15 minutes. Originally recorded for Face the Music (BPM, 2002) it recalls the similar “Ten Mile Jog” from that album, but Duke should have trimmed it down or left it in the vault, but having done neither it’s just an overly long song and the only outright clunker.
The concluding “Happy Trails” was probably meant as a lighthearted parting gesture, but a month after the release of Dream Weaver , George Duke succumbed to chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He was 67 years old.
Whether or not there will be further unreleased material from Duke’s lengthy recording career is a question for the future. Here and now, this versatile, accomplished and celebrated artist who was equally at home playing in a myriad of styles and genres, left a rich legacy of music with Dream Weaver being a worthy coda.
Track Listing: Dream Weaver; Stones of Orion; Trippin’; Ashtray; Missing You; Transition 1; Change the World; Jazzmatazz; Round the Way Girl; Transition 2; Brown Sneakers; You Never Know; Ball & Chain; Burnt Sausage Jam; Happy Trails.
Personnel: George Duke: vocals, synthesizers, piano, rhodes, drum programming, Nord 3 synth, Arp odyssey, mini-moog, Prophet 5, synth programming, Wurlitzer electric piano, castlebar clavinet; Stanley Clarke: upright bass (2) Gordon Campbell: drums (2, 4, 5, 9, 11, 12, 15); Daniel Higgins: flute (2), tenor sax (4); Everette Harp: alto sax(2, 4, 8, 14); Kamasi Washington: tenor sax (2-4, 8, 13, 14); Gary Grant: trumpet (2, 4); Michael “Patches” Stewart: trumpet (3, 8, 13,14); Terry Dexter: background vocals (3); Lamont VanHook: background vocals(3, 5); Rashid Duke: “Ahoom” vocals (3); Erik Zobler: “Ahoom” vocals (3); Paul Jackson Jr.; guitar (4, 6); Chris Clarke: words and thangs (4); Rose Geddes: lady with a question (4); Rachelle Ferrell: vocals (5); Jef Lee Johnson: guitar (5, 9, 12, 14, 15); Larry Kimpel: bass (5); Jim Gilstrap: background vocals (5), vocals (7); Lalah Hathaway: vocals (7); Jeffrey Osbourne: (7); BeBe Winans: vocals (7); Lori Petty: vocals (7); Dira Sugandi: vocals (7); Freddie Jackson: vocals (7); Terry Dexter: vocals (7), background vocals (8); Howard Hewitt: vocals (7), Kennedy Fuseller: kid vocals (7); Michael Landau: guitar (8); Chill: rap (8); Ramon Flores: trumpet solo (8); Allen Kaplan: trombone (8); Josie James: background vocals (8); Lisa Chamblee-Hampton: around the way girl (9); Michael Manson: bass (11): Lenny Castro: percussion (11); Teena Marie: vocals (13); John Roberts: drums (14); Christian McBride: bass (14).
Record Label: Heads Up International
This review originally appeared at All About Jazz.