The Royal Road
After legendary but short stints with Frank Zappa's band and then drummer Billy Cobham, George Duke forged a new path and ruled the R&B charts with eccentric funk.
by Jon Kirby
Originally published in Wax Poetics Issue 46.
At the turn of the century, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was a terrible place to maintain possession of a bootlegged George Duke VHS cassette. The performance in question, originally broadcast on Swiss television in the late ’70s and dubbed to death in the decades since, featured the short-lived George Duke/Billy Cobham band, an all-but-forgotten affair starring the hulking Mahavishnu drummer, Weather Reporter Alphonso Johnson on bass, and a relatively unknown John Scofield on guitar. Playing through the warbles of tracking and ravages of time, the robust combo gave hope to our awkward circle of musical acquaintances. Al Johnson, young and noodly, seemed to be constructed entirely out of arms and necks. His fretless bass work was of the finger-licking variety, as he took several opportunities to moisten his digits between thumps. A mustachioed John Scofield, recently reinvented through his masterful Medeski, Martin & Wood collaboration A Go Go, mumbled away brilliantly on a solid-body Gibson, while fighting a spirited battle against male pattern baldness. With a goggled Cobham sweating laps around his souvenir Arizona T, and Duke’s keyboard den decorated with mannequin heads and bric-a-brac, the group looked and sounded like nothing we’d ever seen.
An album—the Billy Cobham–George Duke Band’s Live on Tour in Europe—had been culled from these same sessions, recorded across Europe in July of 1976. It had been an impulse buy—a dollar-bin afterthought—rescued from a used bookstore on the strength of the cover alone—a Garbage Pail Kids gallery piece in which the hand-mounted heads of the tandem bandleaders scurried across a cartoon beach. I had tracked down the video in hopes of transposing some of Duke’s Moog solos, but there always seemed to be a plastic shark in frame, strategically obstructing view of Duke’s busy fingers.
Duke had just completed an industrious tenure with Frank Zappa’s band, playing keys and singing lead on many dense titles, bookended by Chunga’s Revenge (1970) and One Size Fits All (1975). The residual freakiness was detectable not only in his stage ornamentation, but on “Space Lady”—as heard on Live on Tour in Europe—one of the finest examples of free-jazz comedy to date. Opting out of his obligatory piano solo, Duke instead spins an imaginative yarn, recounting a fictional encounter with a sexy alien who communicates through music. “You know what I mean?” Duke courteously asks his foreign audience, only midway through his fantastic tirade. “No, y’all don’t know what I mean, do y’all?” he speculated with a chuckle.
Although this live album was well on its way to changing our lives, neither Duke nor Cobham thought much of it at the time. Cobham still doesn’t recall it fondly, admitting to me several years later, “It’s something we did and it’s done.” Had he maintained any lasting impressions from these sessions? “No. Nothing. Not one peep.” Likewise, Duke barely grants the record a passing grade, awarding points based solely on the apparent impact it’s had on fans and fellow performers. “I didn’t particularly care for it at the time,” Duke tells me from his home in Los Angeles, “but so many musicians have told me that that album totally changed their lives.” Since becoming familiar with each of the contributors’ catalogs, I can allow that Live was perhaps a bit of a mixed bag, giving only partial glimpses of each performer’s genius. And while it signaled significant shifts in each artist’s career—George en route to R&B and Cobham deeper into fusion—it was still a postcard from the road, not a masterpiece completed upon arrival.
In terms of Duke’s solo career, Live on Tour in Europe sits near center, preceded by a fantastic body of courageous jazz for German independent MPS, and succeeded by equally adventurous, if not more commercially astute, R&B productions for Epic Records. The former would take him from the Bay to the Black Forest, where a wealthy and enthusiastic label heir named Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer would give the young pianist carte blanche, resulting in immense tapestries of frantic fusion and deep soul for Germany’s watershed jazz foundry. The latter would take him near the top of the Billboard charts, where he would be awarded a gold plaque for 1977’s Reach for It, thanks largely to the bottom-heavy title track. Throughout, unclassifiable friends like Ndugu Chancler, George Johnson, and Stanley Clarke were never far away, helping Duke evade effective pigeonholing for much of his career. “I’ve always tried to be inclusive musically, and really take the notion that style is kind of irrelevant to a musician that can play,” Duke says. “I understand the need to name things and label things in order to sell them, but a musician should never feel bound by a label. You make the music. Let them label it later.” So whether it’s Johnny “Guitar” Watson ad-libbing the nearly expletive “Aw, stuff!” on a German jazz record, or a disco song full of trebellious bass solos, one thing has been consistent through Duke’s career: the presence of the funk.
“I took a lot of hits from jazz people that said I was selling out, but that’s their problem, not mine,” Duke maintains. “I tell them the Lord made me funky—if they got a problem, they can take it up with him.”