August 5th 2013 was a sad day for music and a sad day for me too. The world lost George Duke and his passing meant that something special had ended. We all have our favourite musicians, songs and albums but George and I through his music. went back a long way. He changed a lot of stuff in my head. He soothed and excited me, comforted me through troubled times and showed me so much about melody, atmosphere and especially texture that is has stuck inside my consciousness for longer than I care to think about.
Listening for a deeper meaning
Perhaps the fact that my introduction to George coincided with my interest in more serious audio in the home has something to do with it because that was when I started to have the hardware in place to really explore his work through listening. He gave me the appetite to look deeper and deeper and to think about what I was hearing from all sorts of angles that I hadn’t considered before. I carried those moods and melodies in my head for days and I was inspired to investigate a whole new genre of music that I acquired a hunger for. He opened my ears to possibilities and showed me that music and emotion work together when the time is right and the best systems encourage and reward this.
He’d been around for years but I never knew any of his music until I got hold of a copy of Feel and what a piece of work it was. Still is actually. Armed with a Linn LP12 with a Grace arm and a Supex cartridge, a Naim 160 and a pair of stand-mounted Quad Electrostatics I got to know that album intimately. It’s moods and progressions would go round and round inside my head, often making falling to sleep quite difficult.
Synthesisers can be cold, impersonal, whiny and squeaky things. Teeth-grindingly annoying in fact. But just as the makers of the best of them were providing much more fine and precise control of the note envelopes, here was the possibility for some real sonic experimentation of the type that had never been possible before. All it needed was a lot of keyboard skill but more importantly, taste. There’s the killer. The Mini-Moog was monophonic but George had the ability to fashion real touchable texture from those oscillators. In fact, some will say that, as a bass synth, the mini-moog hasn’t been equalled even now especially with the advanced capabilities of the samplers that use recorded instruments as their baseline. Forget the sheer ghastliness and faux grandiosity of most of the synth stuff of the time. This man could play and he bent whatever synths he had at his disposal to his will with the sensitivity and touch of a master.
I got the impression that his vision of beauty within music took him further into those particular electronics than so many others who inflicted such screeching pain on us. He played for Zappa and that itself is some measure of his quality as a musician because Frank only ever employed the very best. The sheer depth, complexity and intensity of the Zappa catalogue and his well-known demands were well suited to George’s abilities. In fact I loved the fact that he credited Frank with getting rid of the musical elitism that often finds root and grows within the naturally extravagantly talented musician. I imagine that he encouraged George to shrug off the constraints of the formality he was feeling through an acoustic piano-fed jazz background and just let it all hang out for a while. Well, he rose to that one.
He was prolific and as the albums rolled out it became clear that, as far as the electronics were concerned George was always going to squeeze some funk in there. He also made albums showcasing this side of his nature with bass-player extraordinaire Stanley Clarke with whom he made 11 albums and I believe they were very successful. In all honesty, I swerved that side of things, preferring the ballads and the Latin-flavoured up-tempo numbers that always showed a delicious delicacy, partly because George always included the most able and genuine percussionists like Airto and singers like Flora Purim who made 10 albums with him. So many musicians, when entering the realm of Brazilian rhythms tend to throw the kitchen sink at it but George’s lightness of touch as both a player and a producer gave these numbers a delicious transparency and authentic flavour. His playing never screamed.
A soft voice and full of character
For me though, the texture-laden slower numbers are those that will live on the longest. He never had the greatest voice technically and he could quite easily have drafted in any number of big names to carry the songs, but he didn’t. His voice was soft but full of character and when you write and sing your own songs it often brings something extra to the performances and this is what George always did. His wasn’t a classic wide-range voice who could draw emotion out of you but his ear for a melody and concept of scale and ability to paint colourful backdrops are the things that linger. George was always concerned with the details. There were always short instrumental interludes on those albums, usually based on a theme or a mood around which he would weave a breathy, magical spell of tonal embellishments and keyboard voices with real subtlety and skill. Always expression, as if he could actually simulate the human voice through his technical expertise with envelope control.
But there was yet another side completely and that was his ability as an acoustic piano player and there are a few albums in that catalogue too. The jazz influences are always there as was his lovely way with phrasing melodies and considered solos, all of course with that exquisite touch.
I always find it disconcerting when listening to musicians that you really liked and followed after they pass. For me it adds a degree of poignancy and even sadness as if the lens has grown slightly misty. It’s like that with George. I like to dig into his catalogue when I am in the mood and with a healthy catalogue number-wise of albums of pure Duke to pick from, plus innumerable examples of collaborative releases, there’s a lot of him out there. He played with just about everyone and bought his skill and gifts to innumerable releases.
So, thanks again George for a lifetime devoted to music. The gifts you gave will always live with me. As I write this I am listening to Brazilian Fusion ( a compilation released just after his death in 2013), loving the promise of Sunrise and enjoying the superb playing and scintillating percussion and vocal arrangements. It was Feel that grabbed me all those years ago and gave me so many great evenings of listening and wondering. I turned so many people onto George’s music through those Quad electrostatics because that system really opened your ears to its inner workings with its scale, clarity and pure presence.. That used to be what audio was all about – listening and sharing. Things are different now but the musical spirit within us is surely still alive.
Put simply, his personality and musicianship shone through and elevated his music and I will always miss that.
Audiophile Musings from the Music Corner