Personnel: George Duke (vocals, keyboards, synthesizer); Stanley Clarke (vocals, bass guitar); Sheila Escovedo (vocals, percussion); Josie James, Lynn Davis , Milton Nascimento, Napoleon Murphy Brock (vocals); Charles Icarus Johnson (guitar); Byron Miller (bass guitar); Leon "Ndugu" Chancler, Ricky Lawson (drums).
First the confusion: The date on the back of this set is 2004, but it's only being issued in 2006. This is one of those mysteries of the recording industry. Okay: the music. The Essential George Duke is a double-disc, 31-track set documenting George Duke's years with Epic between 1977 and 1984 that netted an astonishing 11 albums, and the third Stanley Clarke/Duke project disc recorded in 1990. These were the years that Duke -- never a jazz purist anyway -- decided to take a tough swing at the R&B charts. He succeeded. The heyday of disco certainly had its appeal for Duke, but so did funk and urban soul. This was also the period when he enjoyed chart success in the States with the classic funk jam "Reach for It," from the album of the same name, and "Dukey Stick" -- both tracks deeply influenced, if not outright extrapolated from George Clinton's P-Funk sound -- complete with inflated bass, party backing vocals, loose dialogue thrown in, and the obligatory "take it to the bridge." But what the hell, these tunes sound as fine now as they did then! They've aged well. Most of the material here has. Duke is a master musician, and despite the many players who have come through his bands, the core -- Sheila E., Byron Miller, Ricky Lawson, Ndugu Leon Chancler, Charles Johnson, Lynn Davis, Josie James, Napoleon "Napi" Brocks -- never let him down in the studio. Wise editing decisions allow the listener to hear multiple cuts from albums like Don't Let Go, Follow the Rainbow, A Brazilian Love Affair, both Clarke/Duke project discs, (and one from the third), Rendezvous, and Guardian of the Light. Only the title track is here for "Reach for It," but it's the right one. The bonus material is a bit dodgy but still fun, and includes the 12" versions of "Dukey Stick," and "Reach for It." Jazz fans who abandoned Duke during these years will find little to interest them, but those out there searching used record stores for classic funk and disco recordings will find this a treasure trove of tough, slick grooves. Recommended. ~ Thom Jurek