George Duke: A Weaver of Dreams

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.

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Donny Hathaway: If Not the Best, He’s In the Conversation.

A brilliant artist waiting for his renaissance.

Have you ever woke up in a mood where you knew before the day was done you had to hear a particular singer and no substitutes would do?

I woke up today wanting to hear some Donny Hathaway.

Donny Hathaway is perhaps one of the greatest singers most people know nothing about. He ranks right up there with his contemporaries of the time, Marvin Gaye, Al Green and even Stevie Wonder, but due to his short recording career and tragic death, he has been largely ignored and undiscovered by the public.

If they’re cruising down the radio dial, maybe they’ll stumble past “The Closer I Get To You” or “Where Is the Love,” two of his duets with Roberta Flack. During the holidays they may even be strolling through one of the hipper malls and Hathaway’s classic, “This Christmas” is being piped through the sound system.   They may even know Donny’s daughter, Lalah Hathaway has enjoyed some success as a vocalist.    Unfortunately,  for far too many that’s where their knowledge of Hathaway ends.

When my father brought Everything Is Everything home and started playing it, Hathaway’s voice grabbed me first and then how brilliantly a song like “The Ghetto” took me along with him on a trip through some pretty mean streets.   “The Ghetto” should be the flip side of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”  Both capture the frustrations and to a lesser extent, the pleasures of life on the edges of polite society.

Hathaway was both blessed and cursed. Blessed with a rich and expressive voice that poured out deep, heartfelt, soulful sentiments that could deliver soul, blues or gospel. Hathaway was a gifted songwriter and pianist as well. The curse was he suffered from depression and debilitating mental illness that required hospitalization. This is in part why Hathaway’s discography is limited to three studio albums and a pair of live recordings. The best starting point for anyone curious about this immensely talented, but troubled artist is the 1990 compilation, A Donny Hathaway Collection from Atlantic Records.

I have serious problems with this compilation, but it’s a good enough starting point before diving into Hathaway’s solo recordings. I agree with All Music Guide that Everything Is Everything and Extensions of A Man are his best work. The go-to place for his duets with Roberta Flack is The Very Best of Roberta Flack,  but  after 22 years, Hathaway is long overdue for a better anthology of his music.   There is a four-disc import from France, Someday We’ll Be Free, that is pretty exhaustive, but is still missing the music from his collaboration with Quincy Jones for the movie soundtrack, Come Back, Charleston Blue.    It’s probably as good as it gets for the committed collector like me, but it’s far too much for the casual listener.    Time for someone at Atlantic to step up their game and put together a better introduction to the greatness of Donny Hathaway.

Where is the love? Right here with Roberta and Donny.

In 1979, Hathaway either fell or jumped to his death from a hotel room in New York. He was in the process of recording a new album with Flack. The two completed songs ended up on her 1980 record, Roberta Flack featuring Donny Hathaway. He was 33 years old.   That’s a lot of potential lost far too early.

Mental illness has destroyed its share of troubled souls in music.  Hathaway and the late Phyllis Hyman, who ended her life at 45 with a drug overdose.   Talent and acclaim were not enough to pull them out of their downward spiral.   The same could be said for the late Amy Winehouse, who gave Hathaway a shout out in her breakthrough hit, “Rehab.”

They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no
Yes I’ve been black and when I come back, you’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time
And if my daddy thinks I’m fine
Just try to make me go to rehab I won’t go, go, go

I’d rather be at home with Ray
I ain’t got seventy days
Cos there’s nothing,there’s nothing you can teach me
That I can’t learn from Mr Hathaway

All lists are by nature, purely subjective and subject to be rejected by the reader, but Rolling Stone ranked Hathaway at #49 on their list of the 100 Greatest Singers.   I can’t argue too strenosuly when I’m glad Hathaway was remembered at all.   The rock n’ roll magazine said of Hathaway,  Donny Hathaway died in 1979, but his warm, suave soul has never been more influential. He’s been name-checked in songs by Amy Winehouse, Nas, Common and Fall Out Boy (the new “What a Catch, Donnie”), and Justin Timberlake calls “(Another Song) All Over Again,” from FutureSex/LoveSounds, “my homage to Donny Hathaway.” It’s easy to hear why Hathaway still appeals to modern-pop and neo-soul singers alike. He was equally comfortable with smooth ballads (“The Closer I Get to You”) and rolling funk (“The Ghetto”). He was a master of melisma (while never overdoing it), and his smoky voice wrapped superbly around his female duet partners, most notably Roberta Flack. No wonder Timberlake calls him “the best singer of all time.”

I won’t go as far as Justin Timberlake and declare Donny Hathaway the best singer of all time, but he’s certainly in the conversation of who the best singer is.