Fusion is no longer a dirty word – it’s everywhere on the jazz scene in many different guises, from Led Bib to Jamie Cullum.
But George Duke was one of the genre’s originals and part of a generation of musicians – including Tony Williams, Stanley Clarke and Airto, for example – for whom mixing styles was completely natural.
A quick glance at Duke’s sideman gigs proves his versatility, from soul-jazz with Cannonball Adderley to scatological fusion/rock with Frank Zappa, and his solo albums have carried on this eclectic approach though always shot through with humour, funky comping and a trademark solo synth sound as recognisable as Joe Zawinul‘s or Jan Hammer‘s.
Coming to the end of his world tour, Duke was candid about his plans for this Ronnie’s show, saying ‘We’re gonna play funk, soul, Brazilian, fusion, jazz – the whole thang!’
And he wasn’t lying. The breezy opening number pitted summery wordless vocals over a propulsive samba beat and some ‘Giant Steps‘ chord changes and featured a fine, searching solo from Duke. ‘Up On It’ was a furious fusion meltdown in the classic mid-’70s style with a thunderous bass solo by Michael Manson quoting Miles Davis’s ‘Sshh…Peaceful‘ and a beautifully constructed guitar solo by Jef Lee Johnson which suggested some of Vernon Reid or Sonny Sharrock‘s more outre statements.
Duke’s swampy, gurgling synth frequencies caused delight in the Ronnie’s audience as did his liberal quoting of ‘Birdland’, a tip of the hat to some other fusion forefathers.
After the break, delectable vocalist Shannon Pearson took centre stage on the ballad ‘So I’ll Pretend’, previously sung by Dianne Reeves on Duke’s album Illusions. Featuring the killer couplet, ‘Now your love ain’t all that, and you’re getting kinda fat…’, Pearson made the song all her own with an emotive, tender performance.
A 15-minute ‘Brazilian Love Affair’ had the crowd purring and then the energy level went through the roof as the gig ended with a stunning funk medley, from Parliament‘s ‘Mothership Connection’ with hilarious sub-bass spoken word intro, through Sly Stone‘s ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’ to Duke’s own floorfiller ‘Dukey Stick’.
Duke’s former, much-missed boss Zappa famously asked, ‘Does humour belong in music?’ This gig conclusively answered in the affirmative. An uplifting night of fusion. Ah, that F word again…