On his own, as a co-leader (with Stanley Clarke or Billy Cobham), or as a sideman, George Duke has fashioned a solid track record. That’s because Duke has “chops,” and he has displayed them over time by playing keyboards for a number of jazz and pop masters, including Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, and Frank Zappa.
To top things off, he’s had commercial success producing sessions for artists as disparate as Anita Baker and Barry Manilow.
His concert on Friday night reflected the varied artists and sonic influences that Duke has encountered during his career. There were flashes of bop-tinged jazz, soulful shout-outs, funk drenched rhythms, and smooth riffs tailored for one-on-one moments. And the audience … just ate it up.
Duke courted the crowd, exhorting them to sing on the chorus of some songs, riffing about his band members between tunes, and just plain goofing around. At one point in the evening the band was vamping while Duke – seated on a bench between a grand piano (acoustic) and a bank of electronic keyboards – began tapping out one note on the piano while slowly turning around to tap the same note (different tone) on a synthesizer keyboard. Then he completed the circle and, by grinning the whole time, let the viewers know that he was just playing around.
The musicians backing Duke had impressive resumes. Guitarist Dwight Sills’ resume includes stints with Bette Midler, Ronnie Laws, the Jazz Crusaders and Najee, while bassist Freddie Washington is more of a session guy, having played on studio dates for Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Mathis and Kenny Loggins.
Gorden Campbell has drummed for top-shelf gospel, jazz, soul and rap acts for nearly two decades and has been one of Duke’s go-to sidemen for a long time. Andrew Papastephanou has clocked time as an engineer for Duke and, for Friday evening, played fills on a second set of keyboards.
By the end of the night, Duke – after leading his quartet through songs drawn from various parts of his career, including a medley of tunes he wrote for Miles Davis and a couple riffs from his solo career – noted that he hadn’t played any funk during the show. He then proceeded to remedy that with a medley of rump-shakers that got audience members out of their seats.
This was when the crowd went off, standing up, waving hands in the air and dancing, engaging in a preacher/congregation moment, joining a call-and-response routine initiated by Duke and egged on by the band. Snippets of Parliament from the Mothership Connection era and Sly Stone classics from the early 1970s formed the base, while the band just kept kicking the rhythms back in on themselves, forming a near-perfect funk storm.
The rest of the concert was fine and fun, but the ending was the most awesome moment of the show. And that’s the way it should be.