The Birth of the Tepid
Jazz enthusiasts have long bemoaned the tempting fruits of the dreaded “crossover”. During the ‘70s, a time of restless experimentation and genre-crossing, there was a constant fear among the critical establishment that great jazz musicians would start channeling their energies away from straight jazz (i.e., art) and into watered-down pop music in an attempt to achieve greater commercial success. These fears led to condemnation of many of the great jazz-rock albums of the ‘70s (even Miles Davis’s monolithic funk-jazz epic A Tribute to Jack Johnson was considered a “sell-out”) but ultimately many of their worst fears were realized by the end of the decade. Jazz-rock begat “fusion”, a lighter and more accessible style of vaguely jazzy funk, which in turn led directly to the horrors of smooth jazz.
George Duke’s successful, and critically derided, career is often given as Exhibit A on the dangers of the jazz world colliding with the pop world. A talented jazz pianist, Duke gained prominence as a crucial member of the ‘70s incarnation of Frank Zappa’s Mothers. He was a gifted keyboardist, willing to experiment with a variety of new synthesizers in a multitude of genres, and, what is equally important, a charismatic showman who was able to stand out while performing with such characters as Zappa, Flo & Eddie, and even the legendary Captain Beefheart. Zappa rewarded him with a rare co-writing credit (the gorgeous and mournful “Uncle Remus”) and even let him record his first big studio album with his leftover studio time. Inspired by his work with Zappa, he produced quality jazz-funk tracks, even scoring a pop hit with the p-funk flavored “Dukey Stick”.
Despite the fact that he divided his time between the pop world and the jazz world, he spent much of his formative time touring with Cannonball Adderley; the jazz critics worried that his chart success would come at the expense of his music. True enough, like many talented jazz-rock artists, Duke found himself singing the jazz-influenced R&B and the too-tasteful mood pieces that would later be labeled “smooth jazz”.
This new collection, part of the new Jazz Moods series from Sony/Legacy, provides an opportunity to reassess Duke’s role in the creation of smooth jazz. Because Legacy has classified, somewhat arbitrarily, his retrospective as part of the ‘Round Midnight mood, the album contains none of Duke’s groundbreaking funk workouts. Instead, this collection compiles the cream of Duke’s smoother, presumably more midnight-flavored, Sony material.
The opening track, “Sweet Baby”, a Top Twenty duet with bassist Stanley Clarke, makes the best argument that Duke’s George Benson-esque transformation into pop vocalist was a good idea. “Sweet Baby” is underplayed and charming, with a memorable chorus. Although not a jazz song by any stretch of the imagination, it benefits from a jazzy looseness missing from most R&B songs. The song captures, and captures beautifully, a mellow sound that could not be expressed by a pure jazz number or a straightforward soul song. The next number, “Stay Awhile”, however, finds Duke repeating the “Sweet Baby” formula several years later, trying and failing to duplicate the ineffable appeal of “Sweet Baby”. Most of the other uninspired vocal numbers, heavy on falsetto vocals and light on Duke’s always impressive soloing, show that, despite Duke’s best efforts, the song was nothing more than a fluke.
The only other songs that make any impression come from earlier in Duke’s career, most notably the tracks from Duke’s great fusion albums A Brazilian Love Affair and Follow the Rainbow. Incorporating a slight tropical influence, these tracks (“Love Reborn”, “Corrine”, “Summer Breezin’”, and “I Need You Now”) show a younger Duke playing the smooth R&B angle while incorporating both the sense of rhythm and propulsion he learned in jazz and the ferocious synthesizer playing he pioneered during his tenure with the Mothers. These songs truly do capture the midnight sound the album title promises. In contrast, most of the other songs on the collection capture the feel of mid-afternoon trapped behind a supermarket check out lane, particularly the grating new-age instrumental “Thinking of You”.
This collection, in at least one respect, does silence the jazz critics. George Duke, as this collection shows, was not a victim of smooth jazz. He was more than capable of producing great music even in this heavily derided genre; instead he, like many other artists, lost his way during the ‘80s. Recent efforts have shown Duke reaffirming that crossover jazz can still be a valid artistic medium, but this collection will do nothing to help repair Duke’s image unless it convinces consumers to pick up a copy of A Brazilian Love Affair.