I first became aware of George Duke as a member of Zappa’s “Roxy & Elsewhere” band, and I quickly got to love his funky attack, his near-perfect licks, his humour, and his all-around exceptional musicianship. Like here:
I’ve been listening over and over to Zappa albums from that period, notably Roxy & Elsewhere and the amazing Helsinki Concert (second in the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series), plus a host of bootlegs and what have you. There’s studio albums, too, from the time George Duke was in the band, but it’s the live performances that have stayed with me, especially when it comes to Duke. His skill, ability to roll with the punches, his improvisations, and most of all his sheer musicality truly shines in these performances. Go listen to his groove on Roxy, and to his vocals and rock-solid pace on Helsinki. There’s a total of 15 Zappa albums with Duke, most of the great albums, and all of them doing a good job of answering Zappa’s “Does Humor Belong In Music” question.
In the early 80’s I realized Duke had a solo career, and I bought some of his latin albums. They didn’t really stick with me – I guess I’ll never really be a big latin fan. I’ve had a great time with some of his more Jazz-focused efforts, but to me George Duke was always the perfect sideman, for Zappa and for a range of Jazz legends.
I managed to see him live a couple of times, and he was hard to anything but love. A great guy, always smiling, always listening to his audience and his fellow musicians, always putting heart into his performance. It’s been just a week since the release of his final album DreamWeaver, a tribute to his late wife who died of cancer a year ago.
And now he’s gone himself. If there’s some place musicians get to go, I’m sure Frank has been waiting for him. Maybe they can together enjoy some of that Cosmic Debris.