Trying to define George Duke with a simple phrase or two can be overwhelming. The Grammy Award-winning keyboardist and composer is a giant in the world of contemporary jazz and fusion, but his technique, style, and spirit cover more musical ground than most jazz cats.
"I'm a musical gumbo, no doubt about it," he says. "I love to see styles come together, and I'm not afraid to do it on one record at a show."
Duke and his combo will perform a full set of classic and brand-new material at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center this week. They're touring in support of Duke's new studio album titled Déjà Vu, which revisits some of his more funk 'n' soul oriented pieces from the 1970s.
The collection features guest performances by trumpeter Nicholas Payton, flutist Hubert Laws, and saxophonist Bob Sheppard. Guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, drummer Teddy Campbell, bassist Larry Kimpel, and vocalists Lamont Van Hook and Shannon Pearson comprise Duke's band on this tour.
"The majority of the band I normally tour with will be on stage with me, but we'll have a few special guests," says Duke. "I've worked with these musicians a lot on gigs and in the studio, and we're familiar with each other."
Duke's sidemen better have their chops up if they want to hang with the bandleader's typical musical detours on stage. Whether it's more breezy and spiritual smooth jazz (as on Duke's previous album, 2008's Dukey Treats) or more raw funk-rock grooves in the vein of George Clinton's Parliament or Sly Stone, the set will bounce from style to style.
"I still love music that pushes the envelope," Duke says. "If I decide to write a song, it might not be geared toward a smooth jazz radio format. I simply play the music I want to play — the music the spirt leads me to play. Style is irrelevant. It doesn't matter whether it's jazz, funk, Latin, ballads ... I don't care. The intent is more important than the style itself. The style is the vehicle and not an end itself."
Duke, 64, grew up in the San Francisco area where he caught as many rock and funk concerts as jazz gigs. His earliest collaborations are pretty impressive, as he played with all sorts of innovators in rock and jazz — from Frank Zappa to Cannonball Adderley.
"It was our quest back in the day to become distinct personalities," remembers Duke. "Now, it's much more homogenized. The championing of the individual has diminished."
In the early and mid '70s, Duke made his mark as a versatile keyboardist, gifted in both composition and improvisation and capable of handling delicate ballads or wild jam sessions. During the experimental fusion era, he swapped licks and phrases with like-minded jazz scientists like bassist Stanley Clarke, drummer Billy Cobham, and trumpeter Miles Davis.
"There was a lot of crossover in those days," Duke remembers "Man, you could go out and see Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and Country Joe and the Fish on the same bill ... and maybe Miles Davis was opening. That cross-pollination of styles and the conversation between musicians of different styles is what's missing in music today."
While many of the major rock and jazz record labels in the 1970s supported innovation and experimentation, and allowed their acts to develop as artists, the modern music business is far less nurturing. Duke finds much of it to be restrictive and fickle enough to effectively discourage players and their general approach to music.
"I think the tone of music today and musicians in general has become much more conservative," he says. "It's very much like the economy. People become more conservative and don't spend as much, and the record labels don't spend as much. Musicians follow suit. The music doesn't have as much edge. It's become more passive and smooth. Some musicians hold back, but that's not me."
He certainly doesn't play it safe on Déjà Vu. While much of it slinks at a mellow pace, many tracks reflect Duke's love for dynamic musical variety — from the Latin-flavored album opener "A Melody" (peppered with some of Duke's wild synth work) and the bluesy and soulful "Oh, Really" to the more jazzy "Ripple in Time," a tribute to Miles Davis featuring Oscar Brashear on trumpet.
"Jazz has always been a sponge," Duke says. "Jazz musicians have always looked to other styles of music to use the elements they liked. That's what we did with fusion. Once it stops doing that, it will die."