Not quite three years ago, one of the pillars of my youthful appreciation of instrumental music passed away. That pillar was George Duke, the keyboard player and producer extraordinaire. My reaction to hearing the news of his death was similar to how I felt when I heard Michael Jackson had died. While Duke wasn’t the entertainer Jackson was, for me, his impression upon my musical education held just as much sway as Michael.
Back when I was growing up, instrumental music was looked upon much more favorably than it is now. It was nothing to hear songs from Grover Washington, Jr., Donald Byrd, or Herbie Hancock next to the R&B hits of the day. Thanks to an older cousin of mine, I would get to hear albums from these classic masters-Mister Magic, BlackByrd and Head Hunters for example- as well as many others. Listening to those albums, and even instrumental pieces from R&B bands like Earth, Wind & Fire and the Brothers Johnson, is why I still like instrumental music today. Included among that group of artists was Duke. Like a curious listener would, I would play the Duke albums my cousin had in his collection, but one album stood out, and still does to this day. That album was Reach For It.
From the first time I heard it, I knew this would be an album that would stick with me—and that Duke would become one of my favorite artists. Though at the time, Duke probably received grief from jazz purists who wished he would go back to playing “real jazz,” there were many more people who were fond of the fusion pieces and the funky grooves to be found on Reach For It. The title track still gets me to sing along, and to these ears sounds like a precursor to what Tom Browne would do with “Funkin’ For Jamaica” a few years later. “Hot Fire” and “Diamonds” may have been the first times I heard fusion with Latin-style influences. But what really surprised was the singing. Duke had a very expressive voice—even as I wouldn’t necessarily put him in the top class of vocalists, he was certainly adequate—and he also had singers in the band as well. To me then, as now, it was a best of all worlds: funky tracks, great instrumentals, all played well.
From there, no matter what George Duke did, I was a fan. And as the 70s turned into the 80s, he began to branch out to producing other artists with more songs that I would come to enjoy. Jeffrey Osborne, once he left L.T.D., turned to Duke to produce his solo albums and had a ton of hits. Deniece Williams also got the Duke touch on “Let’s Hear It For The Boy,” among many other songs. And all the while, he kept putting out songs and albums. Duke even managed to get a top 20 pop hit with “Sweet Baby” along with Stanley Clarke, another pioneer of jazz fusion, as part of the Clarke/Duke Project. Duke’s width and breadth of musical mastery seemed to be limitless.
I miss looking up and seeing another George Duke album on the horizon, but his music will live on in my heart. He played a huge part in my musical education—and his reach never exceeded his grasp. Listening to Duke’s music was a smorgasbord of goodness.
One of my favorite instrumental songs that he did was “It’s On,” from his After Hours album from back in 1998. On that particular album, Duke eschewed the vocals, and made a relaxing, smooth and cool set. This song still sticks with me today and it makes for a nice easy listen on a Sunday. So it’s the morning groove for today.
As a bonus, I was able to find Reach For It, my favorite Duke album and the one that turned me on to his musical genius. I present it here as well. Thanks as always for reading and listening.