In 1966 the owner of Saba Records, Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, entered a nightclub where he expected to hear Les McCann, but taking the stage that evening was another pianist, George Duke. Because of his performance, Duke was offered a cozy situation for launching a recording career. With Saba and its later incarnation, MPS, Duke was free to experiment endlessly, bouncing around to different styles, some radio- friendly and some not. The records sounded great, and Duke was able to work with some of the best jazz, fusion, Brazilian, rock, and soul musicians of the period. Musically the high point of the ten-year collaboration with Brunner- Schwer occurred during the MPS years, which saw six full-length releases (one a double LP); the albums from that period comprise The Era Will Prevail. That this music has staying power Madlib, A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, and other rappers who have sampled Duke’s songs would attest, as would Zappa fans who recognize Duke as an important sideman. Cut from original mastertapes, this stylish-looking set boasts polished sound that skillfully blends Duke’s richly-layered keyboards with the intricacies of some first-rate rhythm sections.
The first album in the series, The Inner Source is a double LP with one platter primarily devoted to soul jazz and the other to Latin jazz. While that record has its virtues, it’s the one that followed, Faces in Reflection, that set the template for the remaining MPS releases. Working with the latest toys—instruments like Clavinets, Fender Rhodes electric pianos, ARP synthesizers, and Minimoogs— Duke created music that was heady yet soulful and sophisticated yet accessible. Unlike some 1970s musicians surrounded by racks of keyboards, Duke focused less on flash, pyrotechnics, and displays of virtuosity than colorful soundscapes that could mesmerize the listener.
Next to Duke, the musician most responsible for shaping the sound during this period was frequent collaborator “Ndugu” Leon Chancler. Locking into one infectious rhythm after another while working with elite bass players (Alphonso Johnson and John Heard, mostly), Chancler steadfastly avoided the metronomic rhythms that would eventually proliferate in jazz-rock circles. On cuts like “Funny Funk,” “Look Into Her Eyes,” and “Psychosomatic Dung,” the jagged, nasty rhythms bring out the best in Duke, Chancler, and the bass player of the moment (or Duke himself, on occasion, on synthesizer bass).
Other highlights of The Era Will Prevail include the Brazilian-influenced cuts sprinkled throughout the set. Here Duke is sometimes joined by Airto (percussion) and Flora Purim, whose vocals on “Yana Aminah” offer the same ethereal flavor that helped make the first Return to Forever album so memorable. Zappa repeatedly made his presence felt during this period, including as a sideman; his guitar solos on “Love” and “Old Slippers” from Feel showcase a slightly more reigned-in and lyrical Frank. On I Love the Blues, She Heard My Cry guest artists include Zappa associates Tom Fowler, Bruce Fowler, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and Ruth Underwood, and “Echidna’s Arf” and “Uncle Remus” from The Aura Will Prevail originally appeared on Zappa albums. Although musically “Uncle Remus” resembles Duke’s mellow R&B vocal excursions, it has more bite lyrically, and its status among Zappa fans is well- deserved.