George Duke, who began his career as a jazz pianist in the 1960s but made his name by crossing musical boundaries, died on Monday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 67.
He had suffered heart complications after being treated for chronic lymphocytic leukemia, said his manager, Darryl Porter, who confirmed the death.
The name of the instrument with which Mr. Duke is perhaps most closely associated also describes his approach to music: synthesizer. While he remained a respected figure in the jazz world, over the years he also played keyboards with Frank Zappa and Michael Jackson, sang lead on a Top 20 single and produced pop and rhythm-and-blues hits for others. His work has been sampled by hip-hop and electronic artists, including Daft Punk.
By the early 1970s he had performed and recorded with Adderley, the jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. (His long stint with Zappa included an appearance, with the rest of the band, in the feature film “200 Motels.”) Zappa “told me one day that I should play synthesizers,” Mr. Duke wrote on his Web site. “It was as simple as that!” Urged by Zappa, he said, he experimented with a few types of synthesizers before settling on the ARP Odyssey, “purely to be different from Jan Hammer, who was playing the Minimoog.” Mr. Hammer was a member of the guitarist John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, one of the first jazz-rock fusion bands to achieve widespread success.
As a leader, Mr. Duke focused in the middle and late 1970s on groove-oriented funk. His versatility also made him a sought-after collaborator. Working in Rio de Janeiro in 1979, he recorded one of his best-known albums, “A Brazilian Love Affair,” with the singers Milton Nascimento and Flora Purim. He also worked with other major names in fusion, including the drummer Billy Cobham, with whom he was co-leader of a band in the 1970s, and the bassist Stanley Clarke, with whom he formed the Clarke/Duke Project in 1981.
I chose this clip from a concert at the Roxy in 1973 because this was an important band for me growing up. I saw this same exact group at The Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden on Halloween and they blew me away. I'd never seen a band as tight as this in my young life. I was a stone cold rocker in the 1970's, but when I heard Over-Nite Sensation I became a Zappa disciple and because of that, I also worshiped George Duke. Not only was he an amazing keyboard player and mini-Moog man, but could he ever sing. They were a huge influence on me becoming a musician myself.
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The songs listed on this clip are
00:00 Intro (3:50)
03:50 Montana (7:00)
10:50 The Hook - The Booger Man - Dupree's Paradise (20:30)
He sings the lead on Montana, then right around 10:56, Duke goes into a blistering solo. This session captures his true genius. He went on to do many other excellent things, but for me he'll always be an integral part of one of the greatest bands of all time.