George Duke Proves He's King of the Crowd

Give George Duke credit for one thing: He knows how to work a crowd. On Tuesday, in the opening set of a six-night run at Catalina Bar & Grill, he was the consummate performer. Structuring most of his quartet's appearance around his just-released new album, "After Hours" (Warner Bros.), he entertained the full house by mixing a running narrative of a romantic evening with his highly suggestive music.

Duke has long been one of the most versatile artists in contemporary music--a busy producer, songwriter, arranger, vocalist and keyboardist. Few can rival his capacity to create funk-driven rhythmic grooves. But the new album--his first completely instrumental jazz release in more than two decades--showcases his capacity to blend his busy improvised keyboard lines with his virtually irresistible rhythms.

Toward that end, Duke was the primary soloist for most of the set. Not until the final two or three numbers did he open up the proceedings to the other players, with guitarist Ray Fuller and drummer Ndugu Chancler stepping forward to further underscore the funk aspects of the music.

Except for those few brief moments, however, the evening belonged to Duke. And he was more than capable of carrying it. His description of the tale behind the music was, by any definition, first-rate storytelling, with both the titles and the tunes perfectly characterizing the progression of events--from the opening journey home in "Road Rage" to the sensuousness of "Together as One."

And his soloing--especially in the too-few moments when he colored his improvisations with stirring, gospel-based inflections--was attention-grabbing, clearly revealing his intertwined jazz and gospel-connected roots.

The audience, clearly more drawn to funk than jazz, often calling for past hits, nonetheless cheered every solo. But Duke, determined to stick to the presentation of music from his album, waited until his closing number to deliver a brief, thoroughly funk-driven number. Light and grooving, it was a fitting bit of dessert for a menu of music that had explored the more substantive aspects of Duke's creative expression.

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