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Duke of Diversity

George Duke, Marcus Miller, David Sanborn

Wednesday, June 1, 8pm. Kleinhans Music Hall, Symphony Circle. Tickets:

Keyboard virtuouso George Duke talks about Zappa, improv, and his new trio

On a night in the early 1970s, a young keyboardist named George Duke was given as a gift the first synthesizer he would ever own. Duke, a straight-laced jazz-fusion player, was reluctant to accept. But the man, his bandleader, insisted. “Look,” he said. “I’m gonna stick it on your Fender Rhodes and maybe you’ll bump into it and a sound will come out that you like.”

That man was Frank Zappa.

When analyzing the arc of Duke’s career as a musician, it’s hard not to pinpoint the years he spent alongside Zappa in the early- and- mid-1970s as the true beginning of growth. “He taught me a lot, and he got me to open up as a musician,” Duke said during a phone interview. “I never even understood at the time why the whole Zappa ‘family’ was there. I was a straight-ahead kind of cat. I didn’t smile a lot. But Frank just went in there and opened me right up—opened the world up.” One night, Zappa pulled Duke aside and advised him, “Man, you should sing. You should let your humor come out. You’ve gotta find a way to get to the front of the stage.”

Duke did just that. He would go on to become an integral part of Zappa’s band, as both a singer and a player. Along the way, he furthered his will-to-be-weird by hanging around the eccentric characters that orbited Zappa’s world. Onstage during the Bongo Fury tour, Zappa would set up the late Captain Beefheart directly in front of his amp and play a shrill chord just to giggle at his spastic reaction. Beefheart, who couldn’t remember the lyrics to any of the songs, often played sitting down so he could read from the dozens of hand-scrawled cheat sheets that littered the stage. After each show Beefheart would pace up and down the aisle of the tour bus. When they got to the hotel, he would continue at this manic clip well after the rest of the band had settled in for the night. “I never saw him sleep,” Duke said.

Duke parted ways with Zappa in 1975 to pursue life as a solo artist. His departure was bittersweet. “You kind of had to revolve in his world, and if you didn’t, then you were out of his world,” he said. “When I left the band I was pretty much dead to Frank.” Duke, however, does not harbor a grudge. Upon reflection, he said, “It’s almost like he knew he didn’t have a lot of time. He didn’t have time to fool around. He packed so much stuff into what I consider a short life.”

In 1976, before transitioning into his solo career, Duke joined up with former Miles Davis session-man and Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer, Billy Cobham. That same year, Cobham and Duke would release a live album and play an electrifying set with bassist Alphonso Johnson and guitarist John Scofield at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. During a period that included such purist fusion bands as Return to Forever and Mahavishnu, Cobham and Duke added a new twist to the genre: R&B. “I thought things were getting too serious. It seemed like guys were kind of playing a lot of notes just to play a lot of notes. The whole goal of the Cobham-Duke thing was to create high-powered music but to put some comedy in it.” A YouTube video of Cobham’s “Red Baron” from the Montreux set shows Duke’s keyboard rig decorated with helmeted mannequin heads and toy sharks. Zappa had left his mark.

After his tangent with Cobham—musically, the two would reconnect on and off over the next three decades—Duke set out on his own and expanded his palette. “I truly believe that, for an artist, style is irrelevant,” Duke said. “Categorization is for you guys. We can’t be concerned about that. We should just emote.” The funk-themed Reach For It (1977) was a commercial hit. He played keys on Off the Wall. In 1979 he made a record of horn-soaked Latin-jazz, A Brazilian Love Affair, in Rio de Janeiro. In the early 1980s he released Guardian of the Light, an operatic Star Wars-inspired album that was “music to a film that was never made.”

On each of these records, Duke played synthesizers.

Ever since his Zappa years, Duke has found joy in diversifying his résumé. “That’s the way I like it because it keeps me interested,” he said. “I’m the same person, but I don’t want to wear the same clothes every day or eat the same food. I love pasta—but I don’t want it every day.”

His desire to explore new genres inspired his current project: a collaboration with award-winning artists Marcus Miller (bass) and David Sanborn (saxophone). The trio, which will play material from all three artists’ catalogs, performs at Kleinhan’s on Wednesday night. “Without a doubt it will be eclectic,” Duke said. “What’s interesting to me is to see if we can take this and come up with a new baby, not just to rehash the old stuff. Unless we can do it in a new way, which I think we can.”

The tour came together when the executive director of the Jazz Cruise Line, Michael Lazaroff, hatched the idea to promote a string of shows that would feature Miller and Sanborn. At the time, Duke was at home in Los Angeles recording on “The Jazz Greats,” a track off Bootsy Collins’ latest album, The Funk Capital of the World. Then one day Duke, who had already worked with Miller and Sanborn separately, got a call from his agent who asked him if he was interested in joining the group. “I don’t think my agent actually thought I would be, but I said, ‘Hey, that’s fun. This could be an interesting package.’”

The trio began tour rehearsals on Monday. Duke said he looks forward to the prospect of three frontmen challenging each other onstage. “The majority of the music will probably be improvised,” Duke said. “Playing off of each other, I think that’s the interesting part. A lot of times when you’re in your own band you don’t have that level of talent that you could play off of, which can spur you on to do things you wouldn’t normally do.”

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