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Published: 2005/04/04
by Pat Buzby

Duke – George Duke

Bizarre Planet 0007US8FM

We at get odd choices of CDs to review now and then. Given the rock-centered aesthetic of most writers at this website, sending a new George Duke CD here is a bit like asking Maureen Dowd to ghostwrite George Bush's autobiography. However, many jambands revere Frank Zappa, and Duke, one of the few musicians who could tackle the thorniest modern-classical passages and the most lowdown funk grooves, graduated from Zappa’s musical university with a staggering grade point average.

On his own, though, Duke has gone the smooth jazz route. From the first perky seconds of this disc's opener, with slam-dunk brass/vocal hooks and a slap-happy rhythm section surrounding Duke's relaxed, mildly gospel-flavored piano, Duke shows that he’s still on that road. Duke has its strong points — it presents the work of some great musicians, such as Airto, Christian McBride and Duke’s onetime Zappa bandmates, Walt and Bruce Fowler — and its harmonic sophistication is something which ought to be more of a presence in other genres of popular music.

Unfortunately, Duke often reminds this listener why many who frequent this website scurry whenever someone utters the phrase "smooth jazz." "Superwoman," for instance, seems set to at least give us an instrumental reminder of a well-crafted Stevie Wonder melody, but it breaks its own spell by having a canned, faux-Stevie chorus cut in with snatches of the lyric. This music can’t stop telling you how much it wants you to like it. It’s friendly on the surface, but its apparent fear of what might happen if it gives us a lengthy non-vocal passage, a dark sentiment or an unfamiliar texture isn’t necessarily friendly at all.

The penultimate track, "Hybrids," is a surprise 18-minute detour in Duke's parade of five-minute cuts. It's an excursion in the vein of '80s Miles Davis (more akin to his bands' onstage outings of that decade than his studio records, which started considering the same "smooth jazz" ideas that most of Duke espouses) which generates some real heat at a few points, especially when soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson and guitarist Jef Lee Johnson have the spotlight, and finds Duke breaking out some raw old-school keyboard effects. There are rambling patches, too, but in the middle of an obsessively to-the-point program, it’s something of a relief that Duke left them in.

Elsewhere, though, Duke leads this listener to a question about attitudes. Duke’s been working in this vein for three decades, so there must be plenty of support for his apparent view that the artist should give his listeners what he thinks they want, rather than what he thinks they need. If you sympathize with that view, you might like Duke. If not, you probably stopped reading this review as soon as the phrase "smooth jazz" appeared above — and there’s not much on the disc to make me say that you made the wrong decision.

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