An interview with George Duke reveals insight into his upcoming performance with Jeffery Osborne at the 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival, his new CD, Dreamweaver & more

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Jazz Gypsy: You have had such an amazing career and such a staggering body of work, you are definitely considered music royalty.

George Duke: Well, I don't know about all that, I'm just a piano player for a lot of years.

Jazz Gypsy: Well a lot of times musicians complain about having to pay lawyers, accountants, and managers and such but I want to know if you have to pay a historian to keep track of all the things you've done and you plan on doing?

George Duke: Well, obviously I have a legal team. I have a lawyer, an agent but I don't have a manager any more. In terms of keeping up with what I've done, no I've done a pretty good job of keeping up with what I've done. But if you ask me how many albums I've put out, I couldn't tell you. I haven't counted. I'm going to have to do that once of these days because I keep getting asked that but actually, I have no idea. But, I know it's in the 40's, later 30's probably the amount of solo albums I've put out. But yeah, I've done a lot of things. But between my son and myself, we've done a pretty good job of keeping track.

Jazz Gypsy: You just referred to yourself as a piano player, but how would you really describe yourself because you've done so many things?

George Duke: I'm just a piano player. That's kind of where it started and probably in the end where it's going to end up. That's primarily what I do. Obviously, I sing a little bit and I play some other instruments and I produce records and all that but that's all an off shoot of playing the piano.

Jazz Gypsy: So you have worked in every genre of music; jazz, gospel, funk, R&B, soul fusion, avante guarde, and rock. Is there any genre of music that you haven't worked in or any genre of music you would not like to work in? I think the only thing I haven't seen [on your resume] is country.

George Duke: I haven't done anything in country at this point, however, I have worked with Lyle Lovett. That's an interesting story that I'll have to tell you about at another time that I found out from Lyle. I did so some things with Lyle, some television shows, and I did some movie things with him, mostly gospel tunes, but I haven't investigated the country thing, but the R&B thing in me kind of satisfies that home grown thing. I don't know much about country music. If I don't know anything about it, then I generally stay away from it. But country music is like pop music now or like what pop music was back in the 80's.

Jazz Gypsy: That is absolutely true. How would you say those other genre's of music are similar or are they different?

George Duke: It's like wearing different clothes. For me, if you have the ability and you understand kind of what makes a style work, I don't see why musicians shouldn't be able to investigate that and bring it out in their musical palette. It seems, they are different, they are different personalities. You can not play jazz the way that you play authentic Brazilian music. Those are two different ways of looking at rhythm and different ways of looking at melody and all of that. Just the whole general demeanor is different. It's possible to put the two together. But it's better if you know what makes them work in the first place. And, that you have to investigate. For me, for example, to learn how to really plan Brazilian music, I had to go to Brazil. I had to absorb the culture and really try and figure out what makes this music tick. And, I had to do that with everything. Whether it was funk, straight ahead jazz,, I had to put my whole soul and body into it to kind of figure out why this works and how to make it work from scratch and how to develop it.

Jazz Gypsy: Also, I don't have the right question, but what I want to get at is how did you give yourself permission to not to be pigeon holed like so many other artists?

George Duke: That's a decision. Each musician has a decision to make. First of all they have to find out who they are as a musician and then make a decision about whether they are going to stand on that or not, come what may, stand on that or not. And, for me, early on when I was working with Frank Zappa, and Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis and those guys, they kind of impressed upon me the importance of including all styles of music in what I play. Just make yourself aware of it and if there's something you don't want to use in your own music but there's something valuable in all forms of music and even simple forms of music. There are some things that certain jazz guys wouldn't even consider because it was beneath them to play certain styles of music or certain kinds of music. ..too simple, blah, blah, blah. Well, these guys that I worked with, Cannonball Adderley, Frank Zappa, and people like that, broke those barriers down for me. And, so once I figured out who I was, it was really okay to allow the humor to come out in my music. It was really okay to play rock , to play jazz, to play funk, to play of that and still remain true to myself and have the music have integrity. Then I decided to stand on that. Certain musicians said, "I'm a straight ahead jazz musician, that's where I'm going to stay". And, I applaud that. That's fine. But, that's not who I am. Honestly, that's not who I am. So, I decided to stand on who I am and I'm still the same today as I was yesterday.

Jazz Gypsy: So, it sounds like that is what has helped you to work with every body in the industry.

George Duke: Absolutely because I don't try and prejudge any music. For instance, even though I haven't done any country music, I don't want to prejudge it in terms of it's value because it's valuable to somebody! For example, you can take Parliament Funkadelic. I love Parliament Funkadelic. I love them as much as I do Stravinsky. Now that is a big stretch for a lot of people and I understand that but it's not a stretch for me.

Jazz Gypsy: [laughing] Yes, it's a big stretch for most of us.

George Duke: I can listen to [each of] them with equal respect and applaud for different reasons. Some days I can get out of the bed and say, "I'd really like to hear "Right of Spring by Stravinsky" because I like music that is deep and well thought out. On the other hand, I may get out of the bed and say, "Man, I just feel like listening to some music that is just silly, and music from the earth, so to speak that makes me feel that all I want to do is just stomp my foot on the floor".

Jazz Gypsy: So that makes me think that the way you have approached music as a career [is that] you don't have to separate that from who you as a person in your life.

George Duke: No. That is me. My music is me. There's really no separation. I'm not saying that I don't do some lyrics that may not personally represent me, because obviously I write lyrics that don't represent me personally. But, that's not true most of the time, especially later, especially on my new album. I can say that for sure because the new album, which is being released on July 16, is really all about the circumstances I've gone through over the last year. And, I've been approaching lyrics more from a reality standpoint for many years now. Starting with "Sweet Baby" and "No Rhyme No Reason", all of that comes out of real situations. That is not a made up story and I think the reality of that kind of connects with people.

Jazz Gypsy: So tell me more about your new album coming out.

George Duke: Well, it's called Dream Weaver to be released July 16th. The essential idea is that I wanted to begin this album from nothing. You know the act of creation is probably the greatest gift God gave us in being able to actually create something from nothing. You know, which is what He did. And, to allow us to be able to do that with music and to make it the way we would like to see it is a wonderful gift. So, I wanted this album to start out as was I dreaming sonic textures. So it starts out basically with a sound, almost nothing. And, then of course it ends up with the guitar player by himself, which happens to be the one who passed on. But I don't want to make it sound like this album is a dungeon or not a celebration of life, because it certainly is but there is a lot of reflection in it. There are three songs specifically kind of written around the death of my wife from last year and it was very difficult for me to go into the studio to do this record at the time because for the first time in my life I kind of felt like I didn't have anything to say. I had to reflect on it first. And, eventually, I got on this cruise, The Soul train Cruise, and I had a couple of days off and I got out on the deck one morning watching the sun come up and ideas began to flow. And, it began to happen [where] I wrote three songs that morning that are on this album. One of them I couldn't actually do, well I did it, but I had to change the lyrics because there was no way I could have actually gone into the studio and sing it. I tried but it was too emotional so I changed the lyrics rather than being so specific to be more general towards anyone. But, I don't want people to think that it's the kind of record you'll listen to and tears will start flowing, because that is not what this album is about.

Jazz Gypsy: I don't think people will expect that [from you]. So, from all the people you have worked with before is there anyone on your list that you want to work with or is there any place that you'd like to perform that you have not?

George Duke: Any place? Yeah, I've never played in China. That's something I would kind of like to do. That would be a charge. Hopefully that will happen next year. In terms of personnel to work with, yeah, I've worked with a lot of people. There are some people I'd like to work with to see whether I might be able to introduce them to another way to look at music and even take them to another level. For example Esperanza Spaulding is someone I think is tremendous and I have worked with her but I haven't worked with her in the studio. I would love to have the chance to produce a track with her or to write a song with her and kind of combine her musical ideas with mine. Ledisi is another one that I love very much and is much deeper than most people realize. We have done a Christmas song together and have done live dates together but we haven't actually gotten in the trenches and really come out with something of our own. People like that I would love to kind of work with.

Jazz Gypsy: Well, I think they may be lined up outside of your door right now.
[Laughter from both of us.]

George Duke: Well, I don't know about that.

Jazz Gypsy: My last question is, you're going to be performing at The 35th Annual Playboy Jazz festival June 15th with Jeffery Osborne. What can we expect? I know you have worked with him extensively in the past.

George Duke: Jeffery and I are old friends. We go way back. And, working with Jeffery is just like a laugh. It's just fun and what you can expect is, since we only have 50 minutes to play, you can expect just the hits and get off stage. [Laughter.] That's probably what's going to happen. And basically what the promoter of the festival told us is that we're the last act, the closing act and they want us to keep the tempo up which means that I probably won't be playing some of my more beloved songs but I'm going to keep it up, I'm going to keep it funky and light and try and send people home the right way. And, of course Jeffery, at this point I have no idea what he's going to do, but I know he's going to be woo, woo, wooing them until he can't woo woo them anymore. [Big laughter from us both.]

Jazz Gypsy: Well, thank you so very much for your time.

George Duke: You're welcome.