George Duke doesn't make a lot of appearances in clubs, more commonly turning up in large-venue engagements--most recently at Universal Amphitheatre with the Montreux 2000 all-star show. Every couple of years or so, however, he seems to feel the need to get into the trenches, experience some direct contact with his fans, and enjoy the casual, free-spirited atmosphere of a gig in a jazz room.
Tuesday night, he turned up at Catalina Bar & Grill, accompanied by four frequent associates--guitarist Ray Fuller, bassist Larry Kimpel, keyboardist David Kochanski and drummer Ndugu Chancler--obviously determined to enjoy an evening of musical spontaneity.
Seated at the grand piano, surrounded as well by a rack of electronic keyboards, Duke was a commanding presence. As large in spirit and manner as he is in girth, he was equally gregarious and witty. After more than three decades of activity in virtually every aspect of the music business, he could--and did--call upon a treasure trove of memories in his often whimsical between-tunes comments.
And although he emphasized a few tunes from his new Grammy-nominated album, "Cool," he approached his program with the same sort of stream-of-consciousness process, asking if there was anything anyone wanted to hear, suddenly deciding upon this tune or that, often tossing in references to other material.
Duke was, in short, a complete entertainment package in himself. On several occasions, in fact, he manipulated his electronic keyboards with the virtuosity of a musical wizard, once generating a driving rhythmic groove, simulating a full string orchestra on another. Interacting amiably with his players, he sang with the alacrity of an instrumentalist, delivered several stinging excursions through funk-driven bebop, and satisfied calls from the crowd with such familiar Duke items as "Anticipation," "6 O'Clock" and "No Rhyme, No Reason."
All this was managed, packaged and offered in superb fashion despite the fact that the audio--typically for an opening set--was still not properly balanced, often leaving Duke's vocals buried beneath Chancler's busy, chattering drums. But no matter. Given the rarity of opportunities to hear this marvelously eclectic artist in action, in such a relaxed and intimate setting, a few distractions can be tolerated.
The George Duke Quintet at Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd. Tonight and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., $30 cover. Tonight and Saturday at 10:30 p.m. and Sunday at 9:30 p.m., $27. Two-drink minimum. (323) 466-2210.