Zappa’s so straight he’s bizarre

By Max Jones

Melody Maker, July 11, 1970

At the electric organ is another of the new Mothers.

He is George Duke, San Francisco-born pianist who has been working with the “infamous and repulsive rocking teen combo” (as Zappa’s press release has it) off and on since February, though this was his first tour.

Duke’s is a jazz background. After learning piano as a child, with the normal study of theory and the classics, he branched out into jazz during the later school years.

He started with his own group in San Francisco “playing any clubs I could get, over a period I don’t think there was one I missed.” While working at Jazz Workshop, Duke made his first album.

“It was in ’66 and I recorded for Saba. We were a quartet for that, with David Simmons on bass trumpet. Afterwards, the Saba rep called me to say that Jean Luc Ponty was coming over, and maybe I could work with him.

“So I called Dick Bock and told him my idea. I sent him a tape and I was working with Ponty. Simple so that. The first time I met him was on the session for ‘Electric Connections.’ It was a big band with Gerald Wilson arranging and directing the band. From that point, I worked on every album Ponty made.

Zappa recorded Ponty and did all the writing for the date. The French fiddle player, said Duke, get some nice publicity out of that album.

“So we’re working now on plans for another,” he said.

“At any rate, as a result of these sessions I met other people in the business, and one was Don Ellis. I worked with him about a year, that was the electric rock band which had three drummers. No, they weren’t amplified.”

Duke added that the percussionists – timbales, conga, etc. – scarcely needed amplification.

“When you worked with Don you couldn’t hear what was going on on the other side of the room. Because of the three drummers sitting next to you.

“I heard his orchestra at Basin Street West recently and he was doing more of a jazz thing than rock. He’s changed again. I admire Don, though. I think he’s got a lot to say, and he can really play these time signatures.

“I did the last Ellis album, forget what it’s called. No, I wasn’t on the ‘Underground’ record. Pete Robinson made that. I didn’t like ‘Underground.’ For me it doesn’t get off the ground.”

Since Bobby Hutcherson, the West Coast vibesman, moved over to San Francisco George Duke has been playing piano in his group too.

“Over the past five or six months I’ve worked with my own group, with Bobby’s and Don Ellis’ band as well as with the Mothers. This is my fourth trip to Europe, by the way.”

So what’s it like for a jazz pianist among the Mothers.

“It’s been great, everything has worked out. I consider myself lucky to be able to work with people who can really play and also make money at all. It is a lot of fun. I just close my eyes and I’m not afraid with Frank. I guess that sums it up: music and so enormous lot of fun.

“Of course, you won’t work long with Frank unless you’re a good musician. He does a lot of things that play simply but require plenty of concentration and he does other things for which a lot of technique is needed.

“Another difficulty could be fitting in. With Ian Underwood and me together in the group. He’s basically classically orientated and I’m jazz orientated. We play two different styles and it’s great. Rather like putting Herbie Hancock and Fats Waller together on a session.

“The only hesitation I had about joining was this question of fitting in with the image the group has ... an image of jazz and pop. Because I’m not about to change my image in join any group. But in fact, it’s all been working out beautifully.”

Interesting, I said. And what about Frank Zappa, how’s he orientated? “Oh, you know, he does everything from films to avant-garde electronic music. But he’s really so straight that he’s bizarre.”