November 25, 2008

Contempo November 2008

On the 2005 inaugural Dave Koz and Friends At Sea Cruise, George Duke rose from his piano and keyboard rack after playing his long-loved pop ballad “Sweet Baby” and declared, revival style, just before embarking on some serious grooving: “I wanna tell y’all…God made me funky, so if you got a problem with that, take it up with Him!” Longtime Dukeys who had been following the legendary performer’s dual career as a jazz fusion pioneer and slick R&B/pop producer were no doubt disappointed when he released the generally low key piano trio project In A Mellow Tone on his own label, BPM Records. If the Creator made him a funkster, the thought steam followed, why weren’t his studio projects this decade reflecting this vibe?

If those were repertoire expanding tricks, Duke is more than compensating for the departures with Dukey Treats, his decidedly old school and ultra-funkified debut on Heads Up Records. He’d been listening to his fans all along, especially those that would come up to him after his shows—which always end with nods to Sly Stone, James Brown and a big dance party—and ask when he’d be translating that feel goodness to the studio. Duke came of age in the 60s and started recording in the 70s when funk music was a powerful force not just in pop culture but in social discourse. Artists could rouse the crowd to its feet while addressing hardcore political and social issues like the battle of the sexes, poverty and racial discord.

Duke brings us back to that long celebrated R&B mindset with a mix of bouncing, horn blasting intensity (as on “Everyday Hero,” a playful ode to the unrecognized champions in our society—doctors, teachers, firefighters), spaced out humor (“A Fonk Tail”) and socially relevant commentary (“Sudan,” which features impassioned guest vocals by Teena Marie and Jonathan Butler). He also has his rhythm sections recording live like they did regularly back in the day. Yet Duke insists his aim was not really a tribute to old school, but a bridge between past and present.

One of the unique ways he accomplishes this is by working with a unique combination of band mates from 30 years ago and today. Ndugu Chancler, Byron Miller and Sheila E. (then Escovedo) were all part of his famed “Dukey Stick” band that recorded Don’t Let Go in 1978 and toured with him. Also present in the mix are his new cats, Michael Manson (bass), Jef Lee Johnson (guitar) and Ron Bruner, Jr. on drums. Rather than keep these reps of the different decades separate, the keyboardist generally makes Dukey Treats a party, with Johnson jamming alongside Sheila and Chancler on the slow burning singalong title track and the bluesy, brassy “Mercy” (featuring lead vocals and raps by Josie James, Lynn Davis and Napoleon Murphy Brock). Miller and Chancler multi-task as vocalist/rappers on the goofy and fun, George Clintonesque “Creepin’ (another track with Johnson). Duke exclusively showcases his current guys as the foundation behind “Sudan” and the spicy, highly syncopated seven and a half minute jam “Images Of Us” that closes the set. Another highlight is the vibrant “Are You Ready?” which sounds like Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” gone sideways.

“It finally dawned on me that it was time to do a funk-oriented project,” he says, “but the key was to create it as seen through my vision as an artist and musician today. I could have gone straight pop, but I laid everything on a bed of jazz improvisation. To me, the most prominent element of the classic vibe is the balance of social commentary and humorous stuff. There’s just not a lot of funny music being played in R&B today…everything’s so heavy, and I wanted the kind of light spontaneity so everyone involved, from the veterans to the new kids, could have a blast. Because I’m at the point in my career where I don’t have to create tracks just for airplay, my most important criterion was having a series of songs they could play well and that everyone could dig. The reason I called it Dukey Treats was because, like in my live shows, I want musical experience to be like Forrest Gump—a box of chocolates, never knowing what you’re gonna get. The music on an album shouldn’t have to all taste the same. Jazz does not have to be homogenized to be successful.”

Duke has been giving back in the educational arena for many years now, acting as an artist in residence at Berklee and mentoring with such organizations as the Louis Armstrong Camp and the Next Generation Festival in Monterey. Though he’s not always happy with the tendency for young musicians to create with machines rather than mastering their instruments—especially among African Americans-- he’s been encouraged by the great up and comers he’s encountered in places like New Orleans. His goal is not only to help them learn the basics about making viable and meaningful music, but also helping shape their sensibilities about it. He admits it was easier back in the 70’s for upstarts, who could score record deals that allowed them to make any kind of album they wanted without worrying about marketing till later.

“Musicians these days feel they need to have that big radio hit to be viable,” he says, “and it takes chutzpah to buck that system, but it’s not just dreaming to say there are future artists out there who will approach record making from this more independent mindset. Can you imagine someone telling Miles Davis what to do, or radio dictating that he couldn’t do this or that? The first thing people notice with Dukey Treats is the variety, but I’ve always had the freedom to be diverse. That spirit came from working with legends who saw no boundaries…Miles, Cannonball Adderley and Frank Zappa. They were all very inclusive stylistically, always trying to push things to another level.

“Following their example,” he adds, “I never got trapped as just a jazz or R&B artist. To me, as long as it’s honestly presented, it’s a valid means of expression. I don’t make music to please everyone, I do it first because I love it. That’s the bottom line. Music is as important to society and people as their refrigerator. Its aural nutrients do for the soul what the stuff in the fridge does for the stomach.”


While the majority of smooth fans on the festival and cruise circuits can be seen at these events sipping from a glass of wine, Shilts is the one artist they can count on to take a swig of beer between songs onstage. Well known to genre audiences for his decade plus tenure in U.K. jazz groove sensations Down To The Bone, the popular saxman can blame his lust for pints on his British roots even though he now lives in the suburbia of Palmdale, California. NuGroove, which has released his perfectly in the pocket, instantly amiable and danceable Jigsaw Life, is his third label for as many albums—a definite sign of economic instability in the genre. But there’s an upside to the story. NuGroove was actually the first label DTTB signed with in the mid-90s and the one which released their 1997 debut From Manhattan to Staten. Like his previous disc HeadBoppin’, Jigsaw Life forges a path away from the wild dance party jam band vibe of his regular ensemble and focuses on groove, style and strong pop melodies. George Duke would be proud of the major blasts of funk energy on tracks like “Back On The Hudson” and the old school soul vibe of “Too Close For The Edge,” not to mention the rousing, clubby “Time Gentlemen Please.” Shilts didn’t live it the first time but he seems eager to bring us back there—to draw from the album’s cool title concept—“Piece by Piece,” a cut he originally wrote for Rick Braun and Richard Elliot, and beat by beat.


Personal Taste

1) Linda Eder, The Other Side Of Me (Verve) – True to its title, the renowned Great White Way and pop standards powerhouse returns to the pop/country roots many of her fans may not be aware of on this spectacularly organic, harmonically colorful collection that’s every bit as compelling as her work in the genre on which she’s based her nearly two decade career.
2) Michael Lington, Heat (NuGroove)
3) Dave Koz, Greatest Hits (Capitol)
4) Althea Rene, No Restrictions (Red Cat Music Group)
5) Gregorian, Masters of Chant (Curb Records)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at November 25, 2008 8:35 AM