Duke has love affair with variety

By Mark Kmetzko

Scene, 19 December 1974

Zappa's keyboardist George Duke is hard to pin down

The normal progression for a jazz musician is to start as a sideman and eventually work his way up to heading his own group. But not Georg Duke. Despite the fact he’s made his presence more than felt in bands with Jean Luc Ponty, Cannonball Adderley and Frank Zappa, Duke’s ambitions don’t include forming a band of his own – at least not in the near future. And his reason is a very rational one – “The economy’s too unstable at this time. I’d rather play with someone already established.”

A realistic approach like that is hard to find in a young musician. But it’s more than just realism that keeps Duke from heading a band. For it’s doubtful if any one group of musicians could satisfy Duke’s musical whims from day to day. He loves all kinds of music and being a sideman affords him the freedom to change musical styles (and/or bands) whenever he feels the need.

At the moment, Duke is happy surrounded by keyboards in Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. “Frank’s music is highly structured, but there’s room to be yourself in it,” Duke told SCENE while in Cleveland recently. Added to that, though, is the opportunity to get into varied musics as a member of Zappa’s crew. Mother music, vintage 1974, combines rock, jazz, R&B and a strong dose of humor, which Duke also appreciates, if his brief on-stage comedy forays are any indication.

Duke’s past reflects his everchanging tastes as well. He first came to the public’s attention as the keyboardist in jazz violinist Jean Luc Ponty’s group, where he came to the attention of someone else – Frank Zappa. Zappa had come to the club to hear Ponty, but wound up offering Duke a week or so try-out with the Mothers. The deal was, according to Duke, that if he liked playing with the group after the try-out, he could stay. He did, and what followed was Duke’s first recorded work with Zappa, the jazz-influenced HOT RATS album, which also featured violinist Ponty (who later became a Mother himself for a tour or so).

Then, true to his musical wanderlust and love of jazz, Duke quit Zappa to accept the keyboard position in Cannonball Adderley’s band. What followed was an association that was fruitful for those of us lucky enough to have heard/seen it, but not so enjoyable for the keyboardist. As he explained it, “I was overworked with Cannon. He’d play the theme of a tune, and signal to me to solo, but when I was done I’d look around to let him know and he’d be off somewhere hittin’ on a chick or somethin’. I had to keep playing until he was ready.” Besides this, Duke didn’t especially like the musical direction Adderley was headed in.

So, ironically, it was back to Zappa, where Duke has stayed for the past several years. As he says now, “Some of the stuff Frank does I don’t care for, but there’s so much that I really do like that it balances out.” The keyboardist credits Zappa himself as being as much of a reason to stay on as the music. “Frank has so much electricity going through him, he can't wear a watch – it won’t run,” he said. “You can just feel a change in the atmosphere when he walks on stage.”

Duke’s desire to play the sideman role doesn’t mean that he never plays the star. In between gigs with major bands, he has maintained his own small group (up until a year ago), and with the help of two of its members – drummer Ndugu and bassist John Heard – Duke has released two “solo” albums on BASF records. According to Duke, he and Zappa went looking for a label for the keyboardist and decided upon the small BASF company, “because with them I have total control of the music. Plus they’re small and they can do more for me than a company with a lot of artists.”

The first album, FACES IN REFLECTION, differs from the second, FEEL, in that the basic trio was augmented by such luminaries as percussionist extraordinaire Airto Moreira, his vocalist/wife Flora Purim and Zappa on guitar. But what ties the two together is, once again, Duke’s multi-faceted style. Both albums include a wide range of genres; from R&B, to rock, to latin, to jazz.

One aspect of Duke’s albums that might seem a bit surprising considering Duke’s past keyboard accomplishments is that he sings on them. Duke, however, is adamant about the importance of vocals to his music, and that’s part of his gripe about a lot of jazz performers – that they cover only the instrumental aspect. Talking about the probability of more vocals on his next album, Duke said, “I’m thinking about a lot of things I want to say on the next album and a lot of them can only be said with lyrics.” Of course, some of Duke’s affinity for singing can be tied to the fact that he has a fine voice, one that can often be heard in a background role in the Mothers.

But Duke’s keyboard work is what keeps him alive; and as is not surprising, he is also hard to pin down when it come to keyboards. His album and his live work demonstrate equal strength on piano, organ, synthesizers and mellotron; but wasn’t always that way. Like many jazz keyboardists, Duke started out playing piano and not much else. Then he met Zappa and with his encouragement, Duke began experimentation with electronic keyboards; something that plays no small part in the Mothers’ sound today.

Duke’s most definite future plans concern a next album. He said that he had planned another studio album, but due to Zappa’s recording of each night’s gig, there’s some good semi-solo Duke material on tape. “We may put these together and release it as a live album,” he said.

But knowing Duke, he may just do a complete turnabout and release a studio album of classical pieces or something. As he says about his chameleon outlook on music, “Maybe I’m spreading myself too thin, but I’m doing what I want to do.”