Sunday with George: George Duke- Faces in Reflection

It’s always kind of bothered me that George Duke gets left out of the conversation regarding the 20th century piano and/or keyboard giants.

Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarret, and Chick Corea might have had better chops (and they all played with Miles Davis) but I’ll take a George Duke album over something by them, almost every day of the week.

Mr. Duke first caught my attention on a Frank Zappa song called “Eat that Question”.

Duke’s keyboard solo runs almost half the song and sums up his MO pretty well. All it lacks is a headfirst dive into perhaps his signature weapon, the mini-Moog.

Many a keyboard player has gone to war with said instrument, and in the early 70s, it was still somewhat of a novelty— perhaps the greatest weapon that a keyboard player could use, if they wanted to compete with the guitar pyrotechnics that were in vogue at the time.

And Mr. Duke does manage to get any number of guitar voicing and colors out of his instrument. The way he bends his notes makes it so he doesn’t really need a guitar player in his bands, and for the early part of his solo career, his albums were usually guitar-free.

“Faces in Reflection” is not Mr. Duke’s most commercially successful album, and it might not even be his crowning achievement, depending on what day of the week you ask me. It’s fully magnificent though, and the last album that he recorded that was a mostly instrumental affair.

The album begins with, “The Opening”, a particularly propulsive number that shows drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancellor will be running a very tight ship. Fresh off stints with Miles Davis and Santana, but before he’d record “Tail Spinnin’” with Weather Report, Chancellor plays like a more efficient Billy Cobham, whom Duke would actually form a band with in the coming years.

It’s followed by, “Capricorn,” the first song on which Duke sings.

It’s hard to say which is more impressive— Duke’s voice, or his keyboard playing. Both are truly wonderful, but his voice is truly unreal.

Thundercat is certainly a fan as he’s more or less has made it his career-pursuit to sing EXACTLY like Duke, to the point that I thought he’d actually recruited Duke to sing on his cover of Duke’s, “For Love (I Come Your Friend).”

A slower number, “Capricorn,” is a showcase for the more sexy things Duke can do with his mini-moog. The specifics of the notes and bends he’s able to coax from said instruments are the centerpiece of his respective solos— very soulful and slick stuff.

Two piano solos follow, appropriately named, “Piano Solo 1,” and, “Piano Solo 2.”

Here Duke flexes some classical muscles in addition to injecting some afternoon beach flavor into the mix.

“Psychosomatic Dung” follows, and continues the upbeat energy from the first track. The track sounds like a hybrid of early 70s Mahavishnu Orchestra by way of Herbie Hancock. Chancellor’s drumming is particularly airtight here, and some of his flourishes are particular impressive, especially a few of the percussive tricks from his tenure with Santana that he pulls out of the bag, towards the song’s middle section.

The two songs that follow, “Faces in Reflection No. 1,” and “Maria Tres Filhos” act as both a palette cleanser and appetizer for the album’s centerpiece, and perhaps Duke’s crowning achievement, “North Beach.”

A song sampled by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest (“Midnight”) Pete Rock, J Dilla, and Slum Village, “North Beach” is a sonic odyssey that demands darkness, a cool breeze, and headphones.

I’ve not visited L.A. in over 10 years, but it’s my dream to cruise through the Hollywood Hills at about 2 in the morning with the top down listening to this as the wind blows over my head.

If there’s ever been narrative in sound, it’s to be found here. Duke’s keyboards sing, stutter-step, seize, and belch for just over 6 minutes, much to the delight of the listener. Recorded in 1974, this song still sounds 30 years ahead of the curve, and is 100% mandatory listening for anyone even mildly interested in texture or sound.

“Da Somba” is an exclamation point at the end of a grand statement, featuring top-drawer performances from Duke and Chancellor, and a particularly nimble (fretless?) bass solo from John Heard.

The album closes with “Faces in Reflection No. 2” in which Duke finally unleashes his singing voice’s full potential. In places epic, and in others understated, it ends the album nicely, teeing up the next part of Duke’s career in which his vocals would more or less come front and center.

I had the opportunity to see Mr. Duke once in 2012 and I passed, because the ticket price was too rich for my blood at the time.

I regret that. To have been able to bear witness to his obvious joy, and true love for music in-person would have been humbling to say the least.

If you’ve never heard his music, I hope this album makes you a life-long fan. Most all of his work with Frank Zappa is top-tier, and he has a few other album outside of this one that are 100% worth tracking down and investing in.

Play it with headphones, and play it with love.

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