The late musician’s influential legacy is saluted on 'My Old Friend,' featuring guests Lalah Hathaway, Dianne Reeves, Gerald Albright and more.
It’s a year to the day (Aug. 5) since the untimely death of revered Grammy-winning keyboardist, composer and producer George Duke. Coinciding with that anniversary is today’s release of My Old Friend: Celebrating George Duke (Concord Records) from fellow Grammy-winning artist Al Jarreau.
“Someone asked me if maybe it was a little early to do a tribute album,” Jarreau tells Billboard during a recent concert stopover in Lisbon, Portugal. “I said, ‘No sir, I’m 10 years late.’”
Duke’s multi-faceted career -- spanning 40+ years and ranging from post-bop, symphony and acoustic/electronic jazz to R&B/soul/funk and everything in between -- also sparked collaborations with everyone from Frank Zappa, Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis to Stanley Clarke, Gladys Knight and Michael Jackson (keyboard on Off the Wall). That adventurous spirit courses throughout My Old Friend. Joining Jarreau is a parade of guests who also crossed paths with Duke, including Clarke, Gerald Albright, Duke’s cousin Dianne Reeves, Marcus Miller, Lalah Hathaway, Jeffrey Osborne, Kelly Price and Dr. John.
The set’s 10 tracks showcase various chapters in the late artist’s prolific career. Alongside such trademarks as the Clarke/Duke Project's R&B/pop hit “Sweet Baby” (with guest Hathaway), “No Rhyme, No Reason” (Price) and “Someday” (Reeves) are Duke’s forays into jazz (“Brazilian Love Affair,” “Backyard Ritual”), blues/funk (“You Touch My Brain”) and record production (Osborne’s R&B hit “On the Wings of Love”). Produced by Concord chief creative officer John Burk and musicians Clarke, Miller and Boney James, the album also features a special appearance by Duke on the 2010 track “Bring Me Joy” with guest James.
Longtime Duke friend Jarreau admits it “scared the crap out of me,” when Burk suggested doing a Duke tribute while the pair was discussing plans for Jarreau’s next studio album. “Of course, I had to say yes,” Jarreau continues. “But doing George Duke is a serious undertaking. I picked areas where I thought it was important for people to hear his work -- but also wanted to represent what he did in my own way and have it be real.”
Jarreau first met Duke in 1965 after moving to San Francisco from Milwaukee. Then-social worker/rehabilitation counselor Jarreau spent his nights gigging in local jazz clubs. One Sunday night, he found himself jamming at the Half Note with a young Duke. The jam session later turned into a three-year gig with the George Duke Trio before Duke and Jarreau went their separate ways.
Clarke, another longtime friend, met Duke in 1971 when the latter was playing with jazz legend Adderley. “George’s passing is still kind of surreal,” Clarke told Billboard before he, Jarreau and others saluted Duke’s influential legacy at the Playboy Jazz Festival in June. “He was a real soldier for the arts. There’s a skill set he had as a fantastic musician that’s going to be missed.”
Adds Jarreau with a laugh, “George took me to school, Duke University. And he’s still teaching and giving.” And what would Duke have to say about My Old Friend? “What I hope he’s saying is ‘Good job, Al. But don’t stop. Let me put this little bug in your ear to think about.’”