You know how sometimes something happens and it hits you harder than you expect? That’s how I felt a couple nights ago when I glanced at the trending topics on Twitter (where you can follow all of us, btw). This is always a bit dangerous, because the internet is often a microcosm of scary reminders about the world at large. That night, however, I noticed something odd: George Duke, jazz legend, featured in among the Justin Bieber hashtags. I’d love to say I was excited and hopeful that he was doing something exciting and noteworthy that got him some modern attention. Duke worked with Frank Zappa, well known for recruiting super talented and avant-garde musicians, so he was technically capable of nearly anything. I knew better, though. There’s only one way a man like George Duke breaks the twitter trend stronghold, and even then it was a surprise to see him there. I clicked, and it was confirmed: George Duke, dead at 67.
Admittedly, I knew very little about the man outside of his Zappa connection, but that was enough to make the announcement seem surreal. Hadn’t I just thought this summer that it would be amazing if George toured with either Dweezil’s fall tour based on Roxy and Elsewhere or someday got together with Project/Object, regular Ike Willis’ performing buddies and frequent haunt of various ’70s era Zappa alums? Didn’t I pull out his album Feel for the first time recently? Isn’t he the first voice I hear on my favorite of Frank’s albums? All true. And now he’s gone. The impact that fact had on me was surprising.
I would like to, then, interrupt my regularly scheduled programming to talk about the man in the only context I truly feel qualified to speak from.
Duke’s voice cuts through a bouncy, spacey intro when it first appears on Frank Zappa’s One Size Fits All. He turns a nonsense lyric about a vehicle landing in the Andes into a beautiful jazz riff, persevering despite the signature Zappa disruptions peppering the track. That is perhaps the thing one notes first about Duke’s time with Zappa: he is probably the most conventionally talented vocalist in the stable (especially considering tracks fronted by Sal Marquez, Terry Bozzio, and even Captain Beefheart). It is less obvious the way his keys leave their mark across the tracks they touch, but when you listen to the album through, and you consider the tone on the intro to “Po-Jama People,” or their synthetic austerity sustaining over the march rhythm of “Andy,” you start to realize just how important he was to the late editions of The Mothers of Invention.
That’s what Zappa did best: picked musicians who could play his compositions well and distinctively. “Inca Roads” is perhaps as perfect an example of what the man was about as any song, despite its lack of his more well-known controversial side. The epic 8-minute-plus track gives everyone a moment to shine. It also gives everyone a moment to make you question what music is. Can a song be interrupted by a jumble of voices and seemingly random instrumental hits? Does it need to be about something serious, or can you repeat “guacamole queen” thrice as it approaches its denouement? How many movements of this sort of puckish nonsense can you listen to? Well, here, the answer seems to be “at least 9 minutes worth.”
To me, it’s an easy 9 minutes. The solo that comes in at 2:00 is probably one of Frank’s finest, with a funky bassline underneath as a counterpoint, almost acting as a second competing solo. When the exultant “ah”s come in, you’ve already made it through half of the piece, and if you can come into this speedier jazz exploration after that slice of guitar heaven unwilling to finish the ride, well, I don’t know what to tell you. Duke gets to show off here again, this time on the keys during the second solo, and the mood has shifted from the chilled out to the frenetic. It’s a song that never seems to overstay its welcome, because it keeps changing before it’s possible.
Great music should leave you wanting more, no matter how long it lasts. So when a man who gave the world so much music dies early, as his bandleader did decades ago, it should be commemorated. We should take it as a sign that there is something out there to find that we can never get more of. This was my intro, and it may well be yours. I hope we all take the time to do a bit more exploring in his honor.
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