George Duke (1946-2013) wore many hats throughout his career: keyboardist, composer, producer, arranger, singer. His solo discography encompassed 40 albums while his collaborations included LPs with such jazz luminaries as Jean-Luc Ponty, Billy Cobham, Stanley Clarke, and Dexter Gordon. He produced records for A Taste of Honey, Sister Sledge, Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester, Miles Davis, Al Jarreau, and Smokey Robinson. Jazz was only part of the George Duke story, as his music fused the genre with the strains of soul, rhythm and blues, dance, and pop. Cherry Red's SoulMusic Records imprint has celebrated Duke on numerous album reissues as well on the 2016 double-disc set Shine On: The Anthology - The Epic Years. That collection drew upon Duke's tenure with the Epic label between 1977 and 1984. Now, SoulMusic is picking up where Shine On left off with the new No Rhyme, No Reason: The Elektra/Warner Years (1985-2000). The 3-CD, 45-track compendium offers highlights from Duke's three Elektra albums (Thief in the Night, George Duke, and Night After Night) and his six Warner Bros. LPs (Snapshot, The Muir Woods Suite, Illusions, Is Love Enough?, After Hours, and Cool). Though the set spans 15 years, Duke's sound was remarkably consistent yet always fresh and of the moment.
Elektra/Warner was the third major label affiliation of Duke's lifetime. His career in jazz began at the German MPS label, where he recorded for the decade of 1966-1976. Epic transformed him from a jazz pianist with a remarkably diverse background (including significant work with Frank Zappa throughout the 1970s as can be heard on the new Zappa/Erie box set) into a full-fledged crossover fusion superstar. Charles Waring's liner notes quote Duke on his tenure with Zappa: "I was a jazz player and that's all I wanted to know, but Frank opened me up to the world of music. He was the first person to get me to play synthesizers and told me, 'Music is a white canvas and you can paint any picture on it you want'...He just tore the musical elitism out of me." When Duke "graduated" from Zappa's Mothers of Invention line-up, he was ready to take the burgeoning world of jazz fusion by storm. At Epic, he charted four consecutive top 20 R&B albums between 1977 and 1979, with the singles "Reach for It" and "Dukey Stick" making the top five of the R&B singles survey. "Reach for It" as well as the later "Sweet Baby" (with Stanley Clarke) and "Shine On" would find Duke on the pop chart, too. 1984's Epic swansong Rendezvous lacked a chart placement, and Duke was looking to start fresh at Elektra.
1985's Thief in the Night is represented on the first CD of this set along with George Duke (1986) and Night After Night (1989). Thief leaned heavily into the R&B sounds of the day, with sequencers, synthesizers, and drum machines shaping the sound. Duke made use, too, of the Synclavier, a synth/sampling device also favored by his old mentor, Frank Zappa. While Duke's multitude of keyboards were most prominently heard, the human touch was also provided by such esteemed colleagues as drummer John Robinson, percussionist Paulinho da Costa, guitarist Paul Jackson Jr., and guest vocalists James Ingram, Deniece Williams, and Shirley Jones of The Jones Girls. Ingram co-wrote and is heard on the pop-oriented single "I Surrender;" Duke's own title track reached the top 40 of the R&B chart while just missing the top 20 Dance. The album was suitably varied with slow jams such as "Love Mission," co-written by Brian Potter ("Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got)," "Country Boy (You've Got Your Feet in L.A.)") and Len Ron Hanks, and Duke was rewarded for the effort with placements on both the Billboard 200 and R&B Albums chart.
George Duke, its simple title representing a fresh start, welcomed much of the same personnel as well as some new faces including vocalist and Mothers of Invention bandmate Napoleon Murphy Brock, bassist Byron Miller, and drummer Ndugu Chancler. Though the techno-funk of "Broken Glass" (complete with appropriate sound effects and prominent vocoder) got the attention on the R&B chart, the heart of George Duke was the lush ballad "Good Friend." Much in the vein of Dionne Warwick and Friends' "That's What Friends Are For," Duke welcomed an A-list of famous friends to take turns singing a verse, among them Jeffrey Osborne, Stephanie Mills, Irene Cara, Joyce Kennedy of Mother's Finest, Kenny Loggins, and Deniece Williams. Another highlight of the LP was the transporting, primarily instrumental "African Violet," featuring Dianne Reeves and Josie James on its chanted refrain. George Duke performed about as well as its predecessor, but the artist was disappointed and waited over two years before releasing a third Elektra LP. The SoulMusic anthology includes both of the singles from Night After Night ("Guilty" and a revival of Skip Scarborough's "Love Ballad," a hit for both LTD and George Benson) and further tracks that showcase the album at its finest, such as Duke's revival of the Anita Baker favorite "Same Old Love" with him on the acoustic piano. But when Night After Night failed to catch on broadly despite an impressive No. 11 Jazz Albums showing, the piano man decamped from Elektra and set up shop at sister label Warner Bros. Records.
Tracks from Duke's first three Warner LPs - Snapshot (1992), Illusions (1995), and Muir Woods Suite (1996) - comprise most of the second disc of this set. Ever loyal, Duke enlisted many of his Elektra collaborators for Snapshot including Paul Jackson, Jr., Ndugu Chancler, Byron Miller, and Paulinho da Costa as well as fellow jazz luminaries Hubert Laws and Airto Moreira. Jeffrey Osborne and Deniece Williams were back, too, and Earth, Wind & Fire's Philip Bailey also lent his vocals with them on the all-star "Fame." Sheila E was on hand for drums, and Duke welcomed a young saxophonist whom he had championed, Everette Harp. As a composer and a leader, Duke was reinvigorated as he lent somewhat more heavily into his jazz roots while still turning out a funky, rhythmic set. The bubbly title track melded smooth jazz and New Jack Swing; the persuasive ballad "No Rhyme, No Reason" became the LP's most successful track (No. 24 R&B). Snapshot became Duke's only album to top the Contemporary Jazz Albums chart and also reached the top 40 in R&B Albums. It set the stage for further success at Warner.
Illusions boasted appearances by Stanley Clarke on its sleek title track and Dianne Reeves, saxophonist Kirk Whalum, and another great bassist, Ray Brown, on the smoky "So I'll Pretend." With flourishes of dance, reggae, and even rock on the selections here, Illusions underscored that Duke's musical reach was far-ranging, indeed. 1996's Muir Woods Suite was a true stylistic detour for the composer-leader: a modern jazz classical suite celebrating San Francisco's Muir Woods National Monument. As the suite is best heard in its entirety, No Rhyme, No Reason instead features a contemporary live bonus track, the gently swinging "Montreux Nights," with Duke deftly tickling the ivories in a trio format with Clarke on bass and Chester Thompson on drums.
The final trio of Duke's Warner albums are showcased on the third disc. Is Love Enough? (1997) was anchored by the sultry title track sung by Rachelle Ferrell and Lori Perry. Vesta Williams took the lead on "It's Our World," a tune developed from Duke's theme to the UPN sitcom Malcolm and Eddie. Elsewhere, Duke and his by-now familiar supporting cast of musicians conjured a romantic mood (the sensual, slow-burning "Fill the Need" with vocals from Ferrell and veteran session singer Jim Gilstrap; the sweet "Thinkin' 'Bout You"). Love clearly was enough, as the album reached the top five of both the Jazz and Contemporary Jazz charts. But Duke wasn't keen to repeat himself. After Hours (1998) was his first purely instrumental album in two decades. "The Touch" and "From Dusk to Dawn" have been selected to represent this most elegant of albums. Five songs from Cool (2000) bring the collection to a close, including the modernized samba of "If You Will" featuring another old friend of Duke's, Brazilian singer Flora Purim and the moving "The Times We've Known," an adaptation of a Charles Aznavour chanson sung by a tender Duke which transforms into a gospel rouser. Cool ended Duke's Warner Bros. tenure with his third consecutive Contemporary Jazz top ten LP.
No Rhyme, No Reason: The Elektra/Warner Years (1985-2000) is housed within an eight-panel digipak and includes a 28-page booklet with liner notes by Charles Waring and thumbnails of the album covers and related memorabilia. Reissue producer David Nathan also includes a brief and affectionate appreciation of the late Duke. Nick Robbins has remastered the audio.
George Duke left behind a massive legacy in all of the genres to which he brought his impeccable musicianship. No Rhyme, No Reason is a delectable overview of his varied artistry at its finest and funkiest. It's available now at the links below from Cherry Red and SoulMusic Records.
- Surrender (feat. James Ingram)
- Thief in the Night
- We're Supposed to Have Fun
- Love Mission
- La La
- Broken Glass
- Good Friend (feat. Stephanie Mills, Irene Cara, Joyce Kennedy, Kenny Loggins & Deniece Williams)
- Stand with Your Man
- Island Girl
- This Morning, You and Love
- African Violet
- Love Ballad
- Same Ole Love
- Say Hello
- Brazilian Coffee
- This Lovin'
- Mystery Eyes
- Guilty (Part 2)
- 560 SL
- Rise Up
- No Rhyme, No Reason
- Six O'Clock
- Fame (feat. Chante Moore, Deniece Williams, Howard Hewett, Jeffrey Osborne, Keith Washington, Lori Perry, Phil Perry, and Philip Bailey)
- Keeping Love Alive
- Love Can Be So Cold
- Life and Times (feat. James Ingram, Joyce Kennedy, Marvin Winans, Mervyn Warren, Rachelle Ferrell, Sheila Hutchinson, Wanda Vaughn, and Jeanette Hawes)
- C'est La Vie
- So I'll Pretend (with Dianne Reeves)
- Montreux Nights
- Is Love Enough (feat. Rachelle Ferrell, Lori Perry, and Jim Gilstrap)
- It's Summertime (feat. Jim Gilstrap and Phil Perry)
- It's Our World (feat. Lori Perry and Vesta Williams)
- Fill the Need (feat. Rachelle Ferrell and Jim Gilstrap)
- Thinkin' 'Bout You
- The Touch
- From Dusk to Dawn
- She's Amazing (with Chante Moore)
- If You Will (with Flora Purim)
- Never Be Another (feat. Anointed)
- All About You (with The Johnson Sisters)
- The Times We've Known (with Perri)
CD 1, Tracks 1-6 from Thief in the Night, Elektra LP 60398-1, 1985
CD 1, Tracks 7-12 from George Duke, Elektra LP 60480-1, 1986
CD 1, Tracks 13-18 and CD 2, Tracks 1, 3 & 4 from Night After Night, Elektra LP 60778-1, 1989
CD 2, Track 2 from Elektra single E7-69315, 1989
CD 2, Tracks 5-9 from Snapshot, Warner Bros. CD 9 45026-2, 1992
CD 2, Tracks 10-14 from Illusions, Warner Bros. CD 9 45755-2, 1995
CD 2, Track 15 from Muir Woods Suite, Warner Bros. CD 46132-2, 1996
CD 3, Tracks 1-5 from Is Love Enough?, Warner Bros. CD 9 46494-2, 1997
CD 3, Tracks 6-7 from After Hours, Warner Bros. CD 9 47073-2, 1998
CD 3, Tracks 8-12 from Cool, Warner Bros. CD 9 47660-2, 2000