On Dukey Treats, George Duke returns to the big FONK of the late '70s and early '80s on this set for Heads Up. In truth, it's a bit of a surprise given the sheer laid-back tone of 2006's In a Mellow Tone, which was a piano trio date, but then, Duke hasn't been predictable for some time. What is interesting is that this return to the music that made him a commercial superstar and a platinum-selling artist coincides with a look back at his early fusion catalog by Universal in Japan, Europe, and the United States. In 2008 there have been two separate releases of Feel -- an elegant Japanese one designed for export by SPV and a bargain-priced edition in Verve's Originals series. In addition, MPS in Germany has released My Soul: The Complete MPS Fusion Recordings. But Dukey Treats isn't a fusion record. Instead, it's a funk and slick uptown soul outing. Duke surrounds himself with friends old and new on this set, including Sheila E. on percussion and backing vocals, a full horn section (including Michael "Patches" Stewart on trumpet and saxophonist Everette Harp), Jef Lee Johnson on guitars, and vocalists DeeDee Foster, Josie James, and Lynn Davis, as well as guest appearances by Leon "Ndugu" Chancler, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, and Wah Wah Watson, among others. The music walks an interesting line between backbone-slipping, hip-wriggling funk jams reminiscent of not only Duke's early experiments with the form, but also of Don Blackman's and George Clinton's -- and modern, silky rich, velvety sophisticated soul.
The title track is a great example with killer bass work by Byron Miller (who steals the show right from the groove) and nifty accompanying synth and clavinet bass by Duke. The album opener, "Everyday Hero," is a basic hard jazz funk chant, with smoking horn work and with tough bass by Michael Manson. Duke's Rhodes and clavinet shape the front of the tune while a chorus of vocalists uses the few words as another rhythmic element. (In his solo, Duke even nods to his time spent with Frank Zappa in one of his codas.) Elsewhere, such as on "I Tried to Tell You," the horns introduce a shimmering uptown ballad underscored by Duke's acoustic piano and synth strings. The soulful thang comes floating down to the listener via the twinned overdubbed electric guitars of Johnson and the oh-so-smooth vocals of James, Foster, and James Gilstrap. Another of these late-night ballads is "Listen Baby," with a shockingly solid vocal performance by Duke (they were never his strong point) trying to do his best Marvin Gaye. "A Fonk Tail" (sic) segues into the title track, and together they are so reminiscent of the Clinton P-Funk thang that they might as well be a tribute -- but they jam. Jazz fusion does make one entry on this set in "Images of Us." Duke plays a smoking Rhodes solo and synths it up, along with a four-piece horn section, rolling breaks by Ron Bruner, Jr., Manson's bass, and Johnson's guitar working the intricate changes. They turn in a knotty, groove-laden performance. Dukey Treats is a mixed bag, but it works well. It's the brightest and most enjoyable (as in "fun") record Duke has done in at least a decade, and scatalogical cover references aside (you can't mistake the title "Dukey Treats" with the image of a box of chocolates and Duke holding a keytar-shaped one in his fingers for anything else), this set is a winner. ~ Thom Jurek