Best known today as a pop producer and ebullient funkmeister on the electric keyboards, George Duke has often downplayed his deep jazz roots in concert. Yet on Thursday night, before an industry-dominated crowd at the Roxy, Duke wrapped up his latest tour with a strong, mostly instrumental set that stylistically seemed to say, “You can have it all.”
For about two hours, Duke roamed around his sonic spectrum, weighing in with lots of the funky stuff but also allowing himself plenty of room to stretch out. Likewise, Duke’s first album for Warner Bros. (and his first in a long time), “Snapshot,” tries to consolidate the many George Dukes, throwing in a bit of everything into the pot.
Some of Duke’s new tunes in the set were definitely throwbacks to his past. The smooth, glossy “Snapshot” had a late-’70s feeling, while the convoluted Frank Zappa-like lines of “Bus Tours” took veteran Duke-watchers back to the explosive birth of jazz-rock. Duke also found room for a Brazilian interlude, another favorite destination in the past.
Duke used the acoustic piano mode of his Korg synthesizer much of the time, knocking out trademark, clearly etched solos over the backbeat from his disciplined band.
Though he threw in a few of the old showoff runs to please the crowd, Duke was far more effective when he used fewer notes, pausing frequently to savor the groove before plunging in again. Maturity, and perhaps the ghost of Miles Davis, whom Duke produced in the late ’80s, have left their marks–and Duke’s falsetto vocals, never his strong suit, are also taking on more expression.
Yet Duke the exuberant showman was never far from the surface. Wielding the mike, he could skillfully spin a spoken tale about temptation over a silky vamp at some length without losing the crowd’s attention. Later, he would wade into the audience with his portable wireless keyboard, wowing impressionables with some gee-whiz electronic noodling.
Toward the close, Duke reached for his most durable riff, “Reach for It,” and turned it into a talent contest, inviting members of the audience onstage to jam with the band. Ironically, Duke didn’t recognize the winner of his “amateur” contest, soul-belting Vanessa Williams from Fox TV’s “Melrose Place.”