George Duke – The Era Will Prevail – The MPS Studio Years (1973-1976) – MPS (7-LP box set)

George Duke – The Era Will Prevail – The MPS Studio Years (1973-1976) – MPS 0210266MSW (7-LP box set) 180 gm vinyl ****:

Solus/ The Inner Source – double LP – 1973
Feel – 1974
Faces in Reflection – 1974
The Aura Will Prevail – 1975
I Love the Blues, She Made Me Cry – 1975
Liberated Fantasies – 1976

(George Duke – piano, electric piano, Wurlitzer piano, synthesizer bass, Hohner clavinet, Arp Odyssey, Arp string ensemble, Mutron phaser, trombone, vocals. With supporting musicians including (in chronological order): John Heard – bass; Dick Berk – drums; Jerome Richardson – flute, saxophones; Luis Gasca – trumpet, flugelhorn; Armando Peraza – congas; James Leary – bass violin; Leon “Ndugu” Chancler – drums; Airto – percussion; Flora Purim – vocals; Byron Miller, George Johnson, Daryl Steurmer, Lee Ritenauer, Johnny “Guitar” Watson – guitars; Alphonso “Slim” Johnson – electric bass; Emil Richards – marimba; Napoleon Murphy Brock – vocals)

For fans of jazz fusion keyboard master George Duke, it was a fortuitous meeting in San Francisco in 1966 between Duke and MPS label owner Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer. Schwer was in San Francisco to record another artist. He decided to catch some local jazz and dropped into the iconic Jazz Workshop. He had gone there to catch Les McCann, but it was a night off for Les. Hans did hear a set from a 20-year-old pianist from Marin County that night, and was clearly intrigued. Schwer did record Duke at the club later in 1966, and five years later began a much more extensive relationship that produced studio recordings for over three years. They chronicled the development of a major keyboard artist that defied categorization.

George Duke’s career covered over five decades and produced in excess of 35 albums before he passed away in 2013. In addition to his recorded output, Duke also became famous as a record producer himself, helping artists as diverse as Barry Manilow, Smokey Robinson, Anita Baker, and Raul DeSouza, to finetune their sound.

To call Duke eclectic is an understatement as he has been influential in exploring the idioms of jazz, pop, R & B, and Brazilian stylings. He is most known, however, for his funk and fusion albums of the 70s and 80s.

MPS has just released his studio sessions of the mid 70s in an classy 180 gm LP box set complete with original art work, and more importantly in remastered acoustics in pure analogue transfer to the lacquer master. The albums are issued in gatefold, and the covers have a nice glossy finish. The sound stage is wide and the funk beats, utilizing Duke’s vast variety of keyboards, just pop from the stereo speakers.

Listening to music recorded four decades ago can be an exercise in reliving some dated styles that do not hold up well. The vocal loops can be a bit grating, but the instrumental tracks sound as fresh today as they did in the 70s. At the time they were recorded, George had been recording with Frank Zappa, and also had spent time with Cannonball Adderley’s group, replacing Joe Zawinul. He was given free rein by MPS to follow his own musical path, and that he did in spades. Funk and fusion were the public’s fascination at the time, and Duke jumped in with two feet, but not rejecting his love and expertise for soul and jazz. His influence from Zappa is apparent in his use and development of the synthesizer to flesh out his themes on the funk and fusion tracks. Duke also left space open for rock and free jazz expression, often doing so with humorous introductions.

The earliest of the sessions have more soul and jazz than the later albums that concentrated on fusion and funk. What stands out, however, on further historical review is that Duke was on the forefront of “what was happening” at the time, much like Miles Davis, setting the tone for others. George was a more than a capable vocalist and his range even covered falsetto that works well on the funk and soul tracks. He was a generous session leader and gave space for his bassists and drummers (primarily the brilliant Leon “Ndugu” Chancler) to share the limelight. The talents of Airto and Flora Purim were put to good use. However it is Duke whose keyboard prowess is most on display.

Highlights are numerous. Here in chronological order are a few:

On the double album (Solus/The Inner Source), “Love Reborn” is highly lyrical with sparkling chord changes, while “Peace” is dreamy, right in step with the electric jazz vibe of the era, such as is expressed by Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes. “My Soul” features Armando Peraza (from Santana fame) on congas and has a magnetic free flowing melody. Hearing Jerome Richardson on flute is always a treat.

It is hard to believe that we are hearing only three musicians on the tracks on Faces in Reflection, as Ndugu Chancler and John Heard are great intuitive partners for the wide palette that Duke can paint with the synthesizers and electric keyboards at his disposal. “Psychosomatic Dung” shows the Zappa influence on Duke’s early compositions.

Feel concentrates on fused funk and rock. “Live” features Duke’s falsetto vocals with a smoking hot guitar solo by Zappa under his nom de guerre, Obdewl’l. Frank returns on “Old Slippers” and his solo makes this a standout track.

I Love the Blues, She Heard My Cry, (such a great title) pairs Duke with the largest ensemble of any of the sessions on the box set. Notably, we have Johnny “Guitar” Watson sharing vocals with Duke on the title track, a straight-ahead 12-bar blues recorded in a mock “party-like setting.” Guitarist Lee Ritenauer throws down some heavy metal energy on Duke’s aptly named “Rockinrowl” complete with a dead on Hendrix impression by George. The ballad, “Someday,” shows Duke is a master of the simple but effective soul ballad idiom.

The underlying strong melody lines on the tracks of the fusion heavy, The Aura Will Prevail album help save a positive review of this album’s less pleasing vocal loops. “Dawn” and “Uncle Remus” (co-written with Zappa) are my favorite tracks.

Liberated Fantasies blends fusion with highly listenable R & B. Duke is having fun here  channeling pure funk of vintage Sly and the Family Stone with some disco influences. His vocals are strong, and on “Tryin’ and Cryin” he makes a great partner for rock vocalist Napoleon Brock. Ndugu Chancler and Airto provide superb percussion throughout this album.

For fans of fusion and funk from the 1970s, George Duke had to be a mainstay on your turntable and radio. This box set would make a nice purchase to cement the positive vibes that Mr. Duke elicited in his mastery of these musical genres. Audiophile and turntable fans will find this beautifully presented box set an enticing prospect.

—Jeff Krow

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