Out of devastating pain comes DreamWeaver, the new disc, which GRAMMY® Award-winning keyboardist/composer/arranger/producer George Duke considers his "most honest album in several years." The making of DreamWeaver occurred after his wife, Corine, passed away. Struck with grief, he found it difficult to work during that period. "I didn't feel like creating any music, which was odd, because normally that's the easiest thing for me to do," he says, "Sometimes, I would walk into the studio and say, ‘Nah. It's not going to happen.'"
Duke's mojo returned while on a Capital Cruise. During the first couple of days, he didn't play any music, but did check out some of the other bands. "By the third day, something happened," he remembers. After returning to his cabin around 4 a.m. from listening to music, inspiration ignited. "I went back on the deck and watched the sun come up. A couple of songs started coming to me; I got out my pen and paper, and started writing."
With the assistance of an illustrious cast of musicians that includes bassists Christian McBride and Stanley Clarke; singers Teena Marie, Lalah Hathaway, Rachelle Ferrell, and Jeffrey Osborne; guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr. and the late Jef Lee Johnson; among others, DreamWeaver, set for release July 16, 2013 on Heads Up International, a division of Concord Music Group, finds Duke emphasizing more instrumentals than in the past as well as concentrating more on his mastery on various synthesizers.
Like the bulk of Duke's discography, DreamWeaver accentuates eclecticism with 15 tracks that range from swinging jazz and sweat funk to gospel-inflected pop and sensual R&B ballads. As the title implies, Duke likens mixing all of the idioms to weaving a sonic fabric. He also compares that stylistic dynamism to life. "Everything is in transition - from hot to cold, from life to death," he philosophizes, "I wanted to incorporate that kind of thing and include a lot of things that are a part of my life."
The disc begins and ends with allusions of nothingness, starting with the title track, a sparse etude, and finishes with "Happy Trails," a misty ballad that was at first just dedicated to Duke's wife, but later gained more emotional poignancy because of the sudden passing of Johnson, whose distinctive guitar work fades out the conclusion. In between, the disc unfolds with the evocative, mid-tempo modern jazz composition, "Stones of Orion," showcasing Duke's crystalline piano improvisations along with longtime collaborator Clarke on upright bass; the feisty 15-minute workout, "Burnt Sausage Jam," a track that Duke refurbished from his 2002 Facing the Music sessions with Johnson, McBride, and drummer Lil' John Roberts; the frisky gangster-leaning groover, "Round the Way Girl;" the feet-friendly burner, "Jazzmatazz;" and the heartfelt ballad, "Missing You," another direct tribute to Duke's wife.
The whimsical "Trippin'" is Duke at his most autobiographical as the lyrics go down memory lane and touch upon his formative years in California's Bay Area, where as a kid, he heard legendary musicians such as Les McCann and Ray Charles, and eventually becoming a jazz musician, particularly due to his work with the iconic Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. In fact, the song's recurring "Ahoom!" is a discreet shout out to Cannonball, because it was a phrase that the alto saxophonist would often use.
The simmering ballad, "Ball and Chain," features some of the last recorded vocal works from R&B songstress, Teena Marie, who died in 2010. Duke worked with Marie on her 2009 Stax Records disc, Congo Square. Afterward, she wanted Duke to produce a full-length jazz album. "Ball and Chain" is one of the tunes that came from those sessions before Marie's untimely passing. Duke offered the song to Beautiful, Marie's 2013 posthumous disc, but the producers declined. With the blessings of Marie's daughter, Alia Rose and Marie's estate, Duke added horns and releases it here.
Another standout is "Change the World," an all-star vocal tour de force featuring Hathaway, Osborne, Freddie Jackson, BeBe Winans, and Howard Hewett. In the tradition of Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," and U.S.A. for Africa's "We Are the World," it's a gospel-inflected message song, pleading for global unity. "Musicians need to talk about the issues of the day, realizing that the probability of making any kind of change in the world is more than likely a pipe dream anyway. But that doesn't mean you can't say it or act on it. Music should tell the truth," Duke says.
With almost a half a century career, Duke is one today's most prolific living jazz legends. From leading a jazz trio with a young Al Jarreau during his formative years to working with Jean-Luc Ponty, which afforded Duke's first recording contract with MPS Records and his first exposure to Europe, to his incredible work with Adderley, drummer Billy Cobham, and Frank Zappa, to his cherished stream of jazz-funk records in the '70s, Duke found his mark not only in his eclecticism, but also his signature approach to the synthesizer, which often prized less pyrotechnics in favor of blues elements.
"I didn't hear anybody playing the blues on the synthesizer," Duke recalls, "When I was with Billy Cobham, I said, ‘We need to bring some R&B into fusion,' because at that time, it just seemed like people were just playing a lot of notes really fast, especially on the synthesizer. I thought it would work if we put an R&B vibe into the fusion element to reach the people."
He keeps that quality intact as evidenced on DreamWeaver. "For me, I need the blues in there; that Ancient Source that really emanated from Africa," he says when asked about his approach to jazz, "Jazz formed from the merging of European and African elements in a spontaneous context, so if you take away either element from the music, it ceases to be living, growing and ever changing real jazz, for me."