George Duke: The Master of the Game

I never caught George Duke in concert.   I never met the man in person.  However, he did give me two hours of his extremely busy time to talk to me for a career-spanning interview.   What came of it was the longest interview I had ever done before, after or since and after I finished it, I never wanted to put so much work into something I got so little compensation from.  Like zero dollars and cents.

But I think George liked it too because he put a link to it on the front page of his web site and that’s an honor.

I gained a whole new appreciation of the man they called “Big Daddy.”  If you love jazz fusion (and I do because I ain’t no jazz snob) you love George Duke, who was one of the top five keyboard players of the genre along with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Jeff Lorber.  Where Duke ranks in that group is subject to debate.   I place him in second place behind Hancock and ahead of Corea, Zawinul and Lorber.   Others may see it differently, but hey, it’s my list and I’ll order it how I want.

I published an excerpt of the interview which can be found in full on All About Jazz, but it’s way too long to publish the entire thing on this blog.   However, I couldn’t let an opportunity pass to ask Duke what it was like playing with the notoriously short-tempered Miles Davis.

All About Jazz: Regarding “Ripple In Time,” the trumpet playing by Oscar Brashear is a shout-out to Miles Davis. You played with Miles in his final years, and nobody comes away from working with Miles without some impression: good, bad or otherwise.

George Duke: He could be extremely intimidating. Matter of fact, I was playing with Cannonball Adderley at the Beacon Theater in New York. We had finished our show and I was out front listening to John McLaughlin, and Miles came to the show.

Two fusion masters: Jean Luc-Ponty and George Duke.

He said [slips into gravelly Miles Davis voice], “Hey man, what you doin’ in this band?”

I was, like, “Damn, did I just get dissed?” I didn’t know if he was saying I wasn’t good enough to be in Cannonball’s band. I didn’t know how to take that comment.

Years later, Miles would come to my shows in New York but he wouldn’t say anything to me. A murmur would go through the audience: “Miles is in the room!”

As time went by, he’d call me on the phone and tell me he wanted me to write a tune for him. He actually asked me to join his band at one point. We were never close friends and I wasn’t in his band, but we had this weird kind of relationship especially when he was with Cicely Tyson. I’d see him all the time. He said, “George, I want you to write me a tune.”

I wrote “Backyard Ritual” and sent it over to him as a demo thinking he’d go in and re-record it live with his guys. But he said, “I like it because it sounds funny.”

I said, “Miles, that’s a demo. We’re going to come in and re-cut it.”

Miles said, “Naw, man. I like it the way it is.”

And that’s the way it came out. “Backyard Ritual” is a demo Miles played over. I never saw him in the studio.

The original song I wrote for Miles had a French-Cuban atmosphere to it. Dianne Reeves came in the studio and heard me working on it. She said, “What’s that?”

I said, “This is for Miles.”

She said, ‘Wait a minute. We’re family. I want that tune for my record.”

GeorgeDuke

I told her, “Well, you can’t have it.”

Dianne said, “We’re family. You got to tell Miles he can’t have it. Write him something else.”

I said, “He’s already heard it. You call Miles and tell him he can’t have it!” She said she was already writing a lyric for it. I told her, “You gotta stop!” Well, Dianne is my cousin so I had to call Miles tell him. I said, “Hey Miles?”

“Yeah.”

“You know that I tune I wrote for you?”

“Yeah.”

“You know my cousin, Dianne Reeves?”

“Yeah.”

“Uh, can I write you another tune? She wants it for her album.”

Miles cussed me up and down. It took him about 15 minutes of swearing at me and her. “Tell that blankety-blank to get her own song!”

The song that came out of it for Dianne’s album was “Fumilayo,” and it was nominated for a Grammy. It didn’t win, but it started out as a song for Miles Davis.

AAJ: You hear these amazing stories about how intimidating Miles was and you think no way could it be true, but maybe it is.

GD: Miles was quite a character and much funnier than most people realize, especially if you were with him one-on-one—very interesting dude.

Going down the list of who Duke played with or produced includes Michael Jackson, Stanley Clarke, Sheila E., Frank Zappa, Jeffrey Osbourne, Deniece Williams,  Jean-Luc Ponty, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderly, Billy Cobham,  Barry Manilow, Anita Baker,  A Taste of Honey, and on and on.   Duke liked to work as much as he liked to play and when his career cooled as a musician, he slipped effortlessly into the producer’s chair and kept pumpin’ out the hits.

I struggled with Duke’s last album, Dreamweaver.   It was dedicated to his wife, Corrine,  who passed away last year.   The album has its peaks and valleys and I struggled with writing the review.  I didn’t feel it was a great record, but I couldn’t knock the sincerity behind it.

The promotional video for the album shows a somewhat diminished Duke.  I see a man who has lost weight and wearing a hat instead of his usual Afro (possibly to cover hair loss from chemotherapy?).   Don’t know and it’s not my business anyway.   Duke cared about the music, not the trapping of stardom.  He played with giants, made hits for giants and became a giant without ever losing his humility, humanity or humor.  There’s the music he made and the many millions he reached for and turned on with the Dukey Stick.

There’s also the respect and love George Duke’s peers felt for him.

When I was growing up and learning to play guitar in Hawaii, George Duke was one of my heroes. It was a dream come true to play in his band, and I’ll always be grateful to him for his supportive attitude — and the way he pushed us all to play the best we could .

~ Charles “Icarus” Johnson, writer and blogger, Little Green Footballs and former guitarist in the George Duke Band
I can’t believe that I’m writing these words. George Duke has passed. This one is extra tough. He’d just lost his wife a year ago. George was one of those special human beings who changed the feeling of whatever room he occupied. When you were around him everything just seemed better. , lighter, more positive. Tremendous musician, incredible human being… No one who knew him will be quite the same now that he’s moved on.

~ Marcus Miller

George Duke’s talent was universal. He could adapt to all forms of jazz, pop, and rock – from Frank Zappa to Miles Davis and everything in between. He died not only of an illness but I think also of a broken heart. His wife Corrine left us last year and they were deeply in love.

~  Ramsey Lewis

Words cannot express the lost of my mentor and friend George Duke. I tried to come see you yesterday. You are now home. I love you.

~ Sheila E.

Go easy, Big Daddy.

Hiromi’s Slow Burn to Success

There are two things I’ll miss when I give up reviewing jazz this year.   The first is simple: free CD’s?   Who could gripe about that?   The second is the sublime joy of discovery that comes when a previously unknown musician is introduced to your musical world and eventually takes up permanent residence there.

It was ten years ago when Hiromi Uehara released her debut, Another Mind.   I was on my way to Nashville for a journalism workshop and I tossed the album in the bag along with the rest of the music for the road trip.   The acoustics of a car are not the optimum listening environment, but  traveling for six hours and almost 400 miles gave me plenty of opportunity to thoroughly explore the Japanese born, Berklee College of Music educated pianist.

It’s easy to view Another Mind as Hiromi’s graduating thesis paper set to music.   Among her mentors at Berklee was jazz bassist Richard Evans who taught arranging and orchestration, two skills she has put to fine usage.   Evans produced his student’s debut along with his friend and colleague, Ahmad Jamal, another stylish and visionary pianist whom Miles Davis name-checks several times in his autobiography as a major influence.

“She is nothing short of amazing,” Jamal said, “Her music, together with her overwhelming charm and spirit, causes her to soar to musical heights.”

Eight albums, two in-concert details, and collaborations with Chick Corea (Duet) and Stanley Clarke as part of an acoustic trio with drummer Lenny White on the exceptional Jazz in the Garden and again on Clarke’s “last” electric album, The Stanley Clarke Band, Hiromi is firmly established as one of the brightest young talents playing today.    Esperanza Spalding, her record label mate, gets most of the publicity as the latest “savior” of jazz, but that’s too big of a burden for her to carry alone.   Spalding should share the load with Hiromi, Robert Glasper, Stefon Harris and Jason Moran to name a few of the young lions holding true to the tradition even as they push it forward.

The opening notes of “Move” from Hiromi’s newest album of the same name start off with one note being repeated like water drip-drip-dripping from a faucet until Simon Phillips on drums and Anthony Jackson on contra-bass join together to create what she calls “three-dimensional sound.”   Clocking in at over eight minutes in length,  Hiromi constructs an elaborate pastiche of elaborate soloing, funky grooves and an interplay with Phillips and Jackson that is both exciting to hear and astonishing to see.

There is always an overarching theme to Hiromi’s recordings and Move is no different.  The nine tracks are focused on living life on a normal day.   “You wake up and go to work and then hang out, she says.  “The album is like a soundtrack for a day.”

If Move is any indication Hiromi’s days must be pretty busy.    She’s a serious person who takes the music seriously but she has always balanced her creative temperament by not taking herself too seriously.     Her approach to the music has always been while a song like “Move” is a labor of love, it is labor.   “It’s one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever written,” Hiromi says.  “I had great musicians with me, and we worked hard on that song.   In the studio and rehearsals, we spent a lot of time to play it right.  It’s very tricky because when a song sounds difficult, it’s not fun.   It has to groove and it has to go beyond ‘this is a difficult song.’  It has to make you groove and feel the rhythm.  To reach that point really took some time. ”

You mean you can’t just walk on the stage and just start playing?  You have to rehearse and learn how to play the song?    No wonder jazz gets treated like an ugly puppy nobody wants to play with.  It takes work.

Those that can’t do teach and those that can’t teach, review those that do.  That’s what my small little contribution to the health and well-being of jazz has been.   It is a source of satisfaction to know I’ve hipped others to Hiromi such as the music critic from the daily newspaper who sat with me at the annual Jazz and Rib Festival and grooved along to her live performance which is as inventive and energetic as her recordings.   It’s a good feeling to spread the knowledge about a true  talent that actually has paid her dues  and is goes about her business without  flashing skin, starting beefs, and making a spectacle of herself.

Hiromi’s way is a slow burn to success..  Letting the music instead of the hype do the talking .  It seems like such an old-fashioned approach to allow the substance to match the style,  but this is what is Hiromi is doing and  she continues to do it well.    Not everything she tries always works, but it never fails to keep me interested in what she’s doing next.    The anticipation of “what’s next?” is what motivated me to follow Miles Davis, Prince and Santana even when they led to creative blind alleys.     It hasn’t happened to Hiromi yet.   Hiromi has held my interest for a decade now and my trust has been rewarded by her continued innovative, adventurous and dazzling originality.

Feeding the Troll

There’s one thing that is a dead certainty about expressing your opinion.  Once you do the world is free to agree or disagree with it.   It’s those who disagree with an opinion whom are most likely to respond.   The default position for those who don’t like something they’ve read is to take to their laptops and let you know in no uncertain terms just how full of it you really are.

Every now and then, the subject of your opinion takes it upon themselves to handle that task themselves.

Do I really believe Paul Hardcastle took the time to write a snarky, trolling response to the review of Hardcastle VI All About Jazz chose not to run?  No.  More likely it’s only a pissed off Paul Hardcastle fan taking it upon themselves to defend their man’s honor.  That, or Hardcastle spends every day doing Google searches on himself.

Typically, I don’t waste time feeding obvious trolls.  Deleting their drivel without comment is typically the smart play instead of encouraging them by acknowledging their meaningless existence. But I’m amused by how  much effort “Paul” put into , so I’m going to do him the biggest favor he’s received in a long time.  I’m going to take him seriously.   For the most part.

Paul

October 15, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Jeff,
Thanks for an entertaining read
But It must be so obvious even to you !
That all you did with you’re so called review was you just copied what you said last time,

This album is crap, Paul is crap , the music is crap bla bla bla
Personally I couldn’t give a hoot what you say about me, but to see you moaning that an editor has seen through your poor attempt at being a journalist and won’t publish it, now that’s hilarious,

I dont have an issue with people who don’t like what I do but any “decent journalist” would have the guts to say No I won’t review that because I will never give a fair opinion, or in your case you just copied what you said from last time,
Do you really need the odd few free CDs that desperately ?

I noticed you wrote “99 percent of these reviews sale through without a problem”
What does that mean ? Sale through it’ doesn’t make any sense Jeff !
sale is when someone buys something, or maybe you mean “SAIL” through,
So before you start giving out lectures about being crap, I suggest you get your own house in order,

I’m sorry if I have offended you by making records that people seem to wan’t to buy, I suppose they are all either stupid or deaf in your opinion, at least 10 million of them !

Seems to me a little jealousy is getting the better of you here Jeff, but good luck with your career seems you may just need it a little more than me

PH

Paul,”

Thanks for the advice and enjoying the entertaining read, “Paul” (or whoever you really are), but I have to tell you, if you have nothing better to do with your time than trolling the Internet looking for blogs mentioning you, it might be you in need of the career counseling.

I’m always amused when someone says “I don’t have an issue…” then goes on at length about their petty little issue.   It indicates an inconsistency in thinking.   There’s no inconsistency in your music, “Paul.”  It’s been the same noodling synth-based grove for over 20 years now.   If you’ve really sold and resold and resold again endless variations of “Rain Forest” to 10 million happy, but not overly demanding consumers, haven’t you banked enough by now to hire an actual band by now?

The world didn’t need yet another rehash of “Rain Forest” and “19” but by God and money, you’re going to keep giving them to us, aren’t you, “Paul?”  Well, you’re the artist, so follow your muse wherever it leads you, but did you have to a real artist like poor, dead Martin Gaye into this?   Comparing “What’s Going On” to one of your ditties is like comparing prime rib to tofu, but if dragging a dead man into your synthesized sludge is your idea of a classy move, “Paul,” I guess you deserve credit for packing a pair of some elephant-sized gonads.

I do thank you however for pointing out I used “sale” instead of “sail.”  Good catch there, “Paul.”   You should be a critic.   Who’s going to point out to you any “decent jazz musician” doesn’t keep endlessly recycling their one or two biggest hits?  That’s what a hack does.  A creative and bold artist challenges both himself and their listener by daring to do something different every so often.  Go listen to some Miles Davis or something, “Paul.”  You might learn something.

Miles didn’t keep dusting off “So What?” every five years and just change the title.   If you really want to claim you’re a “Jazzmaster” why don’t you try something radical and actually play some jazz now and then?

Miles Davis. Accept no phony "Jazzmasters."

I hardly think the “at least 10 million” or so buyers of your music are deaf or stupid, “Paul” and if you can read you know I never suggested anything of the kind.   I’m sure they’re all very nice people.   I know this because I’m one of those 10 million and you really ought to be nicer to someone who’s put their money in your pocket.

But if you can’t be nice, “Paul” try to be something other than boring.   You make “music” that sounds like you wake up in the morning, put on your robe and slippers, paddle down the steps to put on a cup of tea and bang out a couple of tunes in the home studio while you’re waiting for the water to boil.    It’s quick.  It’s easy.  It’s totally forgettable.

I’ll defer to you “Paul” and your far greater experience with producing crap, wrapping it up in a generic album cover and presenting it as a brand new package of More Of The Same.   You’ve become a master of it.   What you haven’t become a master of is expressing yourself all that well in your rebuttal to bloggers who talk smack about your assembly line Muzak.   I found a few typos of your own, “Paul” but I wouldn’t be so rude as to try to toss them in your face.   I leave that sort of thing to guys who ran out of ideas two decades ago.

By the way,  how does someone with the mailing address of “wasteoftime@hotmail.com” get to question anyone’s “guts?” A real man wouldn’t hide behind a fake e-mail address.   Is that how they roll in the burg of Tamworth, in the region of Staffordshire, in the United Kingdom, Lat: 52.6167° Long: -1.6833?°

Take some of that money you hustled out of your fans, “Paul” and upgrade your computer’s OS.   Windows Vista is played out, playa.  You are too.

Hiromi is the Hendrix of the piano.

She plays like a girl. A really GOOD girl.

I don’t get jazz sexism.

I used to read Down Beat magazine and my favorite section was the blindfold test where notable artists would listen to tunes selected for them to critique.   When you got someone like Miles Davis listening to something he thought was crap he wasn’t shy about saying so.   What I don’t remember even Miles at his meanest saying, “Take that shit off.  That bitch can’t play.”

Name an instrument and if there’s a man who is playing it, odds are there’s a woman who can too.    The individual style in which one player employs may identify them as a man or a woman, but unless you see who’s playing how can you tell if its Cindy Blackman or Harvey Mason behind the drum kit?  Jazz  has one hard, fast rule: you got to be able to play and if you can gender has nothing to do with it.   It really is true it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

Duke Ellington nailed it when he say there were only two types of music: good and bad.   If  you can’t play it does not matter if you stand in the men’s room or you sit in the ladies room.  

Hiromi Uehara plays good.   REALLY good.   There’s real jazz and fake jazz.   In real jazz there is improvisation, virtuosity, spontaneity, a willingness to take risks and a spirit of adventure where the artist does not settle for the safe and familiar but is willingness to explore the limits of both their instrument and their imagination.   None of those qualities have a damn thing to do with a Kenny G. record.   That is fake jazz.   Now I like light jazz every so often.   It’s like a Big Mac and fries.   Far from gourmet dining but perfectly adequate and acceptable when your tastes aren’t that demanding.   But real jazz gives the listener many a moment of true artistry that makes the listener say, “damn.”  

Hiromi gives me a lot of “DAMN” moments.  She was a student at the Yamaha School of Music and continued on at The Berklee School of Music where on a full scholarship  she had the opportunity to play with Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea and Ahmad Jamal.   Jamal co-produced her 2003 debut album, Another Mind, which as a review in Allmusic.com wrote shows off  Hiromi playing with “an almost demonic energy and amazing stamina.”   Hiromi came to my attention while on a  trip to Nashville, I road tested Another Mind  and was blown away by her powerful technique.

Here’s an analogy that if you’ve never heard of Hiromi is going to sound ridiculous but follow where I’m going here.    What was it like the first time you really heard Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen show what they could do with a guitar in their hands?    For me, when I heard Hendrix doing “Machine Gun” on Band of Gypsies, I became a fan for life.  It took me longer to warm up to David Lee Roth’s vocals than it did Eddie Van Halen’s string shredding pyrotechnics on “Eruption.”   

Those are Holy Crap!  I’ve never heard anyone play a guitar like that! moments.

That’s what listening to Hiromi is like.  She’s to the piano what a Hendrix and Van Halen are to the guitar.   Yeah, she’s that good.

Oh, I can hear what you’re thinking.   But unless you can do better than this you should not doubt me. 

Sometimes I despair when another jazz icon like Hank Jones and Billy Taylor passes on, but my hope for the genre is rekindled when I hear young lions like Hiromi  blowing my mind with her jaw-dropping performance of “Choux à la Creme” from her solo piano album, Place To Be, which was a slam dunk for inclusion on my Best of list for 2010.

It would be one thing if Hiromi were just an affirmative action hire adding a bit of diversity to the man’s man world of jazz, but that would be selling her short.  You don’t get tabbed by Stanley Clarke to handle the piano duties as part of his acoustic trio if you don’t have serious chops.   She does.    Yes, she can play fast and coax sounds out of those 88 keys others either have not or can not, but she understands the tradition as well.   She’s not just a prodigy; she’s a student in a genre where she is not yet a master.

But she’s getting there.   In a hurry. 

To play jazz in America is to play without much fame or fortune laboring in relative musical obscurity where only the enlightened few know how good you really are.  That’s what I see as the greatest good I can do as a music critic and that’s to do my small part to provide some exposure to artists that don’t deserve to be ignored just because they aren’t on American Idol or starting stupid Twitter wars. 

NPR isn’t the first place that comes to mind as a oasis in the desert for jazz, but it is.  Somebody there has taken a particular shine to Miss Uehara.   There’s a lot of music and video links on their website including an interview and performance on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz show.   McPartland is no slouch on the keyboard, but she had to shake her head in astonishment over how fast and strong Hiromi’s playing is.   

There’s still a certain degree of “hey, look what I can do” to Hiromi’s approach to piano, but hell she’s only 32 years old.   She’s still having fun learning what she can do with her instrument of choice.   When you got the audacity to juxtapose  Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm” and Ellington’s “Caravan” with “Led Boots” from Jeff Beck’s Wired as she did on her album of covers, Beyond Standard, its obvious  Hiromi is a serious musician that doesn’t take herself too seriously.

Allow Hiromi a few youthful musical flourishes.   The girl can flat out play the hell out of a piano.   As she said in a 2004 interview with  a certain dazzled writer,  “I play the piano with my whole body. I was always trying to find the sound that I liked. I listened to many musical giants from jazz to classical. They had such a huge sound and I’m really small—like short? I couldn’t get the sound because I’m too short. I don’t have big hands and long arms. When I started playing with my whole body I finally could get the whole sound.”

Yeah, she’s short in stature.  But she plays big. 

Master and student at work