August 18, 2013

George Duke

The keyboard-player, composer and producer George Duke enjoyed a multi-faceted career that lasted close to five decades and tapped into the collective consciousness from a variety of directions. His résumé read like a who's who of jazz, funk and soul and included collaborations with Cannonball Adderley, Frank Zappa and Miles Davis, as well as Al Jarreau, Anita Baker, Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson – particularly on the title track for the superstar's Off the Wall album in 1979.

Duke produced hit records for Jeffrey Osborne – the ballad "On the Wings of Love" in 1982, the floorfiller "Stay with Me Tonight" in 1983 – and Deniece Williams's ebullient US No 1 "Let's Hear It for the Boy", from the Footloose soundtrack in 1984. He also scored films and was musical director for myriad events, including 11 Soul Train Music Awards and Nelson Mandela: An International Tribute for a Free South Africa at Wembley Stadium in 1990.

Both as leader of his own jazz-fusion band and in partnership with the virtuoso bassist Stanley Clarke, he was a crossover colossus, making the most of his multi-instrumental skills as well as his affecting falsetto on the synth-led disco smash "Reach for It" (1978), the smooth ballad "Sweet Baby" (1981) and the irrepressible "Shine On" (1982), which all charted in the US and across Continental Europe. In the UK, his most popular album was A Brazilian Love Affair, reflecting his passion for the country and its music. It was recorded in Rio de Janeiro in 1979 with the vocalists Milton Nascimento and Flora Purim and the percussionist Airto Moreira.

The versatile and prolific Duke was also a mainstay of the Montreux Jazz Festival, where he performed over a dozen times and debuted his ambitious Muir Woods Suite for orchestra and small jazz band – subsequently released in 1995. "Serious black orchestral writers don't often have the opportunity to have their works performed, so I realise I was blessed to have this chance. Besides, I've always liked breaking down barriers," he remarked. "I used to call my music Multi-Stylistic. I grew up listening to all kinds of music, and I didn't see why I should be kept in a box musically. I felt that there is intrinsic worth in all forms of music, even the simpler forms. I've always wanted to bring cultures and music together – you know, make a nice stew."

George Duke was born in San Rafael, California, in 1946, he grew up in Marin City, located a few miles north of San Francisco. He demanded a piano after his mother took him to see Duke Ellington in concert when he was four, and he began taking lessons a couple of years later. He was already absorbing influences like the gospel he heard in his local Baptist church. "That's where I first began to play funky," he said. "I saw how music could trigger emotions in a cause-and-effect relationship."

By the early Sixties, he was playing jazz with fellow pupils at Tamalpais High School, and developing a style influenced by the West Coast luminaries Les McCann and Cal Tjader, as well as Davis. He would eventually collaborate with the trumpeter as composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist on a brace of tracks on the Eighties albums Tutu and Amandla.

While studying trombone and composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, he gigged with his own trio, and sometimes with Jarreau – then working as a rehabilitation counselor in the city, but soon to emerge as one of the preeminent jazz vocalists of the era. They reunited in the early Eighties when Duke played on Jarreau's Breakin' Away album and in 1988 when he produced the vocalist's Grammy-nominated Heart's Horizon album.

After depping for McCann on a quiet Monday night at The Jazz Workshop in San Francisco in 1966, Duke was approached by SABA Records to cut an album he felt didn't reflect his potential. "For some reason, I thought all I had to do was play the head of a tune real nice and then proceed to rattle off myriads of notes at high velocity. This did not make for a pleasing result, but it was all I knew," he said of his first studio recording.

Duke completed a Masters degree in composition at San Francisco State University and had a short spell teaching jazz and American culture at Merritt Junior College in nearby Oakland, before hooking up with the talented French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty after sending his US label World Pacific a note stating, "there is no other pianist for this guy but me." In September 1969, they recorded The Jean-Luc Ponty Experience with the George Duke Trio album live at Thee Experience club in Los Angeles, where Duke found himself playing a Fender Rhodes, since the requested acoustic piano was nowhere to be seen.

"The club was packed, so I knew I had to be on. Jean-Luc and I had developed a buzz on the West Coast because of our high intensity progressive jazz style. In attendance were Frank Zappa, Quincy Jones and Cannonball Adderley," he recalled of the groundbreaking jazz-fusion recording that preceded the emergence of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report on the East Coast.

Zappa hired Duke for two spells, interrupted by a couple of years during which he toured with Adderley. The keyboard-player contributed to several albums central to the Zappa oeuvre, including Chunga's Revenge (1970), the soundtrack of the 200 Motels movie (1971), and the bestselling sequence of Over-Nite Sensation, Apostrophe, Roxy & Elsewhere (all 1974), One Size Fits All and Bongo Fury (both 1975) – also featuring Captain Beefheart. The concert I saw Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, with Duke, give in Marseilles in 1974 was astonishing – and memorable for both its virtuosity and wit.

Duke thrived with Zappa, building up confidence as a vocalist, even if he never considered himself a "proper singer", and taking up the synthesizer after the guitarist bought an ARP 2600 and presented it to him as a fait accompli. "He put it next to my Rhodes. It was as simple as that," recalled Duke. "At the time, there were no presets or ways of saving patches. Not only that, but you were limited to one note at a time. So overdubbing, a good memory and management system became very important."
Indeed, Duke became such a distinctive and proficient synthesizer player and programmer that his Seventies and Eighties recordings have since been sampled by electronic acts like Daft Punk and Mylo and hip-hop stars Kanye West and Ice Cube. He also helped to popularise the keytar – a light, portable keyboard, which he strapped on to venture centre-stage during his shows.

On the 40-plus, occasionally self-indulgent but mostly engaging and excellent albums he recorded under his own name, or in partnership with other jazz-fusion stalwarts, Duke collaborated with the drummers Billy Cobham and Alphonse Mouzon and the guitarist John Scofield. He produced albums for his cousin Dianne Reeves, the vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and the disco act A Taste of Honey – and also worked with Barry Manilow, Smokey Robinson, the Pointer Sisters, Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick and Howard Hewett of Shalamar fame.

Duke seemed unstoppable, but the death of his wife, Corine, last year, hit him hard. He dedicated his recently released album, Dreamweaver, to her. 

George Duke crossed over from chronic lymphocytic leukemia in Los Angeles on August 5, 2013

"I really think it is possible to make good music and be commercial at the same time," he wrote on his website. "I believe it is the artist's responsibility to take the music to the people. Art for art's sake is nice; but if art doesn't communicate, then its worth is negated, it has not fulfilled its destiny."

August 04, 2013

Terence Blanchard

Terence Blanchard (trumpet) is one of the most important musician/composer/band leaders of his generation. His emotionally moving and technically refined playing is considered by many jazz aficionados to recall earlier jazz trumpet styles. 

Born March 13, 1962, in New Orleans, the only child to parents Wilhelmina and Joseph Oliver Blanchard, a part-time opera singer and insurance company manager, the young Blanchard was encouraged by his father, Joseph Oliver, to learn to play the piano. In the third grade he discovered jazz trumpet when a big band, featuring Alvin Alcorn on trumpet, played at a school assembly. In his teens Blanchard attended the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts, where he studied and played with saxophonist Donald Harrison. While performing with Lionel Hampton's big band, he studied for two years at Rutgers University under the tutelage of Paul Jeffrey and Bill Fielder.

In 1982 Blanchard replaced Wynton Marsalis under his recommendation in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, working in that band up to 1986 as lead soloist and musical director. He then co-led a prominent quintet with saxophonist Donald Harrison, recording seven albums for the Concord, Columbia, and Evidence record labels in five years, including a stirring in-concert tribute to the Eric Dolphy/Booker Little ensemble. 

In the '90s, Blanchard became a leader in his own right, recording for the Columbia label, performing on the soundtracks to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Mo' Better Blues, and composing the music for Lee's film Jungle Fever. In fact, Blanchard has written the score for every Spike Lee film since 1991, including Malcolm X, Clockers, Summer of Sam, 25th Hour, Inside Man, and the Hurricane Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke for HBO. With over 40 scores to his credit, Blanchard and Mark Isham are the most sought-after jazz musicians to ever compose for film. In the fall of 2000, Blanchard was named artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Keeping up with his love of live performance and touring, Blanchard also maintains a regular studio presence, recording his own original music for the Columbia, Sony Classical, and Blue Note labels. Albums include The Billie Holiday Songbook (1994), Romantic Defiance (1995), The Heart Speaks (1996), the acclaimed Wandering Moon (2000), Let's Get Lost (2001), Bounce (2003), and especially Flow (2005), which was produced by pianist Herbie Hancock and received two Grammy nominations. Blanchard has been nominated for 11 Grammys and has won four in total, including awards for New York Scene with Blakey (1984) and the soundtrack A Tale of God's Will in 2007. In 2005, Blanchard was part of McCoy Tyner's ensemble that won the Grammy in the Best Jazz Instrumental Album category for Illuminations.
A quintessential sideman as well as leader, he has worked with prominent jazz players including Cedar Walton, Abbey Lincoln, Joanne Brackeen, Jay McShann, Ralph Peterson, Ed Thigpen, J.J. Johnson, Toots Thielemans, the Olympia Brass Band, Stevie Wonder, Bill Lee, Ray Brown, Poncho Sanchez, Dr. Billy Taylor, Dr. John, Lionel Loueke, Jeff Watts, and many others. Scarecrow Press published his autobiography, Contemporary Cat. By April of 2007, the Monk Institute announced its Commitment to New Orleans initiative, which included the relocation of the program to the campus of Loyola University in New Orleans, spearheaded by Blanchard. During 2007, the Monterey Jazz Festival named Blanchard Artist-in-Residence, and the festival formed a 50th Anniversary All-Stars ensemble featuring trumpeter James Moody, Benny Green, Derrick Hodge, Kendrick Scott, and Nnenna Freelon. In 2008, Blanchard helped scored the hit film Cadillac Records. Signing with Concord Jazz in 2009, he released Choices -- recorded at the Ogden Museum of Art in Blanchard's hometown of New Orleans -- at the end of that summer. In 2011, he paid tribute to the innovative Afro-Cuban recordings of Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo by teaming up with Latin jazz percussionist Poncho Sanchez for the studio album Chano y Dizzy! In 2012, Blanchard returned to his film work by scoring the soundtrack to director George Lucas' WWII action/drama Red Tails.

“I’ve always believed that in life, what you keep in your mind is what you draw to yourself.” That’s how trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard explains the title of his 20th album, Magnetic, which finds a stunning variety of sounds and styles pulled together by the irresistible force of Blanchard’s vision.

That credo stems directly from Blanchard’s personal faith; raised in the Christian church, he has turned in recent years to Buddhism after meditating with Herbie Hancock while on the road with the legendary pianist. The idea of a spiritual magnetism “is a basic concept in any type of religion,” he says. “Both Christianity and Buddhism have forms of meditation - one’s called prayer and one’s called chanting. But it’s all about drawing on those things to help you attain enlightenment in your life at the same time that you’re trying to give back to the community.”

Magnetic gives expression to that belief through the combined voices of Blanchard’s always-scintillating quintet. Its latest incarnation brings together longtime members Brice Winston (saxophone) and Kendrick Scott (drums) with pianist Fabian Almazan, who made his debut with the group on its 2009 album Choices, and its newest member, 21-year-old bass prodigy Joshua Crumbly. In addition, they’re joined by a trio of remarkable special guests: master bassist Ron Carter, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke.

The vast array of approaches undertaken by that ensemble is striking, from the blistering bop of “Don’t Run” to the fragile ballad “Jacob’s Ladder;” the psychedelic electronic haze of “Hallucinations” to the urgent edginess of “Another Step.” As Blanchard says, “It’s a wide range of musical ideas that come together through the efforts of the guys in the band.”

Magnetic marks Blanchard’s return to Blue Note Records, which last released A Tale of God’s Will, his triumphant 2007 requiem for his home city, New Orleans, in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. That harrowingly emotional song cycle is just one of many large-scale projects Blanchard has undertaken in recent years. Since first writing music for Spike Lee’s 1990 jazz-set movie Mo’ Better Blues, Blanchard has become a renowned film composer with over 50 scores to his credit, most recently the WWII drama Red Tails for producer George Lucas.

This summer, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Jazz St. Louis will combine forces to premiere Blanchard’s first opera, Champion, an “Opera in Jazz” based on the story of the gay boxing champion Emile Griffith. This follows his recent score for Emily Mann’s Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.

After the broad scope of such lofty undertakings, returning to a small group setting can be a challenge. “You get accustomed to having so many different colors at your disposal,” he says. “So I try to figure out a way to have as much diversity in everything that we play, the same expansive color palette as when you have an orchestra and voices.”

One way that Blanchard expands his palette on Magnetic is through the use of electronics, creating an overdriven, electric guitar-like sound for his horn during “Pet Step Sitter’s Theme Song” or brewing the mind-altering atmospherics of “Hallucinations.”

The latter tune, though titled by Blanchard’s 14-year-old daughter, also touches on the lifelong spiritual search evoked by the album-opening title track and “Central Focus,” which was originally recorded twenty years ago on Blanchard’s album Simply Stated. “When chanting for meditation,” he says, “you can have those moments of reflection that will bring new ideas to you. Some people may not call them hallucinations, but I think they’re all related in some fashion.”

Not every tune comes from such profound motives. The hard-bopping “Don’t Run” was written solely with the intention of allowing the band to joust with Ravi Coltrane’s soprano and Ron Carter’s mighty bass runs. The title was inspired by a taunt from Carter to Blanchard, asking only half-jokingly when the trumpeter would call on the legendary bassist’s services. “Stop running from me, man,” Blanchard recalls him saying, and when Carter speaks, you listen.

Coltrane’s contributions, which also include a taut, powerhouse turn on tenor for “Pet Step Sitter’s Theme Song,” came about simply because Blanchard was blown away by the saxophonist’s latest album, Spirit Fiction. “Ravi has developed a style and a sound that’s very unique,” Blanchard explains. “It’s an incredible feat given who his father was and what instrument his father played. But his being on my record has nothing to do with any of that; his being on my record is simply due to the fact that I love the way he plays.”

The same goes for Benin-born Lionel Loueke, who first came to prominence through Blanchard’s quintet before becoming widely renowned as one of the most innovative guitarists and vocalists in modern jazz. “He’s a very unique talent,” Blanchard says. “Lionel always brings a certain spirit and energy to any project that he’s a part of.”

Blanchard also readily sings the praises of his core group, which has been evolving over two years together to reach the deeply attuned point at which Magnetic finds them. “I’ve always appreciated the artistry of Brice and Kendrick,” he says of the band’s two veterans. “They’ve very seriously committed to developing their own unique styles of playing.”

Of newcomer Crumbly, he says, “Josh is a young guy who’s very talented and brings a lot to the group.” And of Almazan, he continues, “Fabian has been growing by leaps and bounds. His harmonic knowledge has taken the band in interesting directions and he colors things in ways that I think are very fresh and forward-thinking.”

So enamored is the bandleader of Almazan’s talents that he affords the pianist a solo spotlight, the captivating “Comet.” Almazan, Blanchard says, “plays with such grace and beauty. We did five or six takes and all of them were so beautiful that it was a hard to choose just one.”

Each member of the group provides their own contributions to the album: Crumbly, the lovely and delicate “Jacob’s Ladder;” Scott, the forceful, rhythmically intense “No Borders Just Horizons;” Winston the lithe and intricate “Time To Spare;” and Almazan an “emotional roller coaster” dedicated to his mother, “Pet Step Sitters Theme Song,” which is later reprised as “Another Step.”

“We had so much fun playing that tune that we just couldn’t leave it,” Blanchard explains. I thought it showed the diverse nature of the group, when you see the directions that it goes into, totally different from the first take.”

In his role as mentor to his younger bandmates, Blanchard takes the mantle from his own onetime mentor, Art Blakey. Stressing the importance for young musicians to compose as well as improvise, Blanchard recalls the legendary drummer’s advice: “Art Blakey told us that composition was the path to finding your own voice. If you improvise, you don’t sit down and reflect coldly on what it is you’re playing because you’re moving so quickly onto the next thing. Whereas when you compose, you have to sit down and really contemplate what each note means and how you get from one to the next. That in itself will create a style.”

Terence Blanchard’s own style continues to evolve and expand in exciting and compelling fashion. Magnetic is sure to capture listeners with an attractive power nearly impossible to resist.

To Visit Terence Blanchard's website CLICK HERE