As the title suggests, My Old Friend, Grammy-award winning singer and song stylist Al Jarreau pays a loving tribute to one of his longtime kindred spirits – the legendary keyboardist, composer and producer George Duke, who unexpectedly passed away last year. By gathering an impressive list of special guests that include bassists Marcus Miller and Stanley Clarke; saxophonists Gerald Albright and Boney James; and singers Dianne Reeves, Kelly Price, Lalah Hathaway and Jeffrey Osborne; among others, the new disc gives a delightful snapshot of Duke’s expansive musical range that includes post-bop, jazz-fusion, R&B and Brazilian jazz.
“I wanted to show part of the range of George’s music and the brilliance of his work, which accounts for the impact he had on various musicians in the last half century,” Jarreau explains.
Before Jarreau embarks on his invigorating exploration into Duke’s repertoire on the disc, he sets the stage with a gem he pulled from his own songbook, “My Old Friend,” from his 1981 landmark LP Breakin’ Away. Nestled inside a laidback, mid-tempo groove, the song’s themes of lasting friendship articulate the central theme of the disc.
From there, Jarreau invites fellow Concord Records artist and Duke’s cousin, Dianne Reeves, to sing on a gleeful rendition of Duke’s “Someday,” an early jazz-funk from his 1975 LP, I Love the Blues, She Heard My Cry. The two singers’ voices mesh spectacularly as the serenade Duke’s amorous lyrics. “It was wonderful singing that song with Dianne; it felt so right,” Jarreau recalls, obviously pleased with the new rendition.
Legendary bassist and producer Marcus Miller joins the party of a fantastic makeover of “Backyard Ritual,” a tune that Duke penned for Miles Davis’ 1986 classic Tutu. On the new version Jarreau adds mystery and caprice with lyrics touching upon the spiritual aspects to music-making. Miller provides not only the hypnotic bass lines but also a haunting bass clarinet solo.
Brazilian jazz played a huge role in both Jarreau and Duke’s respective careers. In fact, both fell in love with Brazilian music around the same time in the late-’60s. On the disc, Al tackles two songs from Duke’s phenomenal 1980 LP, A Brazilian Love Affair – “Summer Breezin’” and “A Brazilian Love Affair.” On the former, Jarreau supplies evocative lyrics that honor both the composer and the South American country while the latter finds Reeves returning for a funk-fueled rendezvous. Both renditions also showcase Clarke’s amazing electric bass work and deft arrangements.
With Clarke, Duke nailed an enormous pop-R&B hit with the 1981 ballad “Sweet Baby.” Clarke appears on this remarkable rendition too as well as Hathaway who lends her smoldering alto to the song, giving it a sense of sensuality.
As the Stanley Clarke/George Duke Project, the dynamic duo also recorded the soaring ballad “Every Reason to Smile,” featuring R&B crooner Jeffrey Osborne. Jarreau invites Osborne to reprise his role on the makeover while also sublimely interjecting Osborne’s 1982 breakout hit, “On the Wings of Love,” which Duke originally produced.
“No Rhyme, No Reason” from the 1992 disc, Snapshot, provided Duke yet another timeless Quiet Storm hit that continues to reap heavy rotation on urban radio stations. With the help of songstress Kelly Price, Jarreau delivers an impassioned reading of the lyrics that touch upon a potentially clandestine love affair.
Jarreau incorporates some of Duke’s latter work with sumptuous makeover of “Bring Me Joy,” which appeared on Duke’s 2010 disc, Déjà Vu. Saxophonist Boney James, who arranged the rendition, also unfurls a raspy solo that glides across the languid melody.
Also from Déjà Vu is the slinky “You Touch My Brain,” a funk tune that echoes Sly & the Family Stone. Jarreau handles the humorous blues-laden lyrics superbly while he shares vocal duties with the incomparable Dr. John, who brings a swampy New Orleans vibe. “To sing it with Dr. John in that style just extends the meaning of this great song,” Jarreau enthuses.
Jarreau first met Duke in 1965 when he moved to San Francisco from his hometown of Milwaukee after a stint with the U.S. Army Reserves. Jarreau was working as a social worker and a rehabilitation counselor while also pounding the San Francisco streets for jazz gigs. A young Duke was already making a name for himself in the city by playing weekends at the Half Note. One Sunday night jam session, Jarreau came upon stage and tore it up. The club owner immediately asked Jarreau if he would be willing to join George Duke’s trio on a regular basis. Jarreau leaped at the opportunity and worked with the George Duke Trio for three years, even recording a live LP. “We played together three years at that club; it closed in 1968 and George and I moved on. But that was a very important period for me,” Jarreau recalls.
My Old Friend will surely extend the legacy of George Duke as well as become another crowning jewel in Jarreau own distinguished repertoire. “There are great moments all over this project,” Jarreau says proudly. “I couldn’t possibly cover George’s full range. But I wanted to give people a fun listen with his music for Duke’s diehard fans to once again, enjoy themselves through his music.”