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(photo credit: Courtesy)
When he was a young child, jazz-funk keyboard player George Duke thought he had one groovy relative. This "relative," he recalls, was none other than Duke Ellington, whom Duke saw in concert as a four-year-old, convinced his mother had taken him to see some cousin do his thing on stage. "I was only small," says Duke in a telephone interview from Helsinki, where he's touring prior to his show at Tel Aviv's Hangar 11 with bass guitarist Stanley Clarke tomorrow night. "I don't remember too much about the concert, but I do remember his name was Duke. He had to be a relative, right?"
But more than imagined blood ties with one of the greatest American composers of the 20th century, Duke remembers being enchanted by the music Ellington played. "That was it for me," he says. "I knew I wanted to play piano."
Fifty-six years on, the younger Duke is packing in the crowds at his own gigs and selling CDs all over the globe as one of the world's most acclaimed purveyors of funk music. He's paid his musical dues in a plethora of genres. Three years after that formative exposure to Ellington's magic, he began studying piano while absorbing the roots of contemporary black music at his local Baptist church. "That's where I first began to play funky," he says. "I really learned a lot about music from the church. I saw how music could trigger emotions in a cause-and-effect relationship."
While Duke is now known primarily as a purveyor of funk, he's also played over the course of his career with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, fellow funk titan Billy Cobham and the late, legendary enfant terrible of the rock world. Frank Zappa. He's been playing with his current partner, Clarke, for over 30 years ago.
Did casting his artistic so net so wide hinder his relationship with fans and critics? The Zappa episode of his career is a case in point, and Duke is happily unrepentant about his musical meandering. "You've got to do what you feel comfortable with," he says. "I subscribe to the Miles Davis school. Miles kept searching and doing different things."
His time with Zappa also left its mark on his professional evolution. "When I was in [Zappa's] band, all the jazz critics starting saying, 'Well, he used to be a good piano player.' But, I can't let critics, or even fans, dictate what I do as an artist," he says.
Now 60, Duke wishes more artists would adopt his approach to making music - and that they would be less influenced by the commercial demands of the profession. "There are too many artists, especially young ones, doing whatever radio and other people expect from them," he says. "I think the art form gets stifled to a degree because people don't experiment - they are afraid to experiment because the music won't get played on the radio. But an artist, at a certain point, has to take a stand and say, 'This is who I am, this what my art is. Take it or leave it.' Especially these days, that's hard to do. I'd hate to be a young artist coming up right now."