What Goes Around 

Crossing over the jazz-rock divide, two '70s fusion leaders take the stage again.


The Clarke/Duke Project continues a 30-year, off-and-on collaboration. It's just returned from a European tour that included stops in Russia, Spain, Austria and Switzerland. A planned stop in Israel was canceled when the rockets started falling. "I hated to do it. I've never been there, and I've never canceled a concert before," Duke says. "But we held a vote, and nobody — not even the wives — wanted to go." (The group plans to try again when its international tour resumes in November.)

Although both Clarke and Duke are fundamentally jazz players, they originally gained fame on opposite sides of the jazz/rock divide. Clarke's fast, fluid finger-popped runs on the fretted electric bass made him a breakout member of Chick Corea's band Return to Forever. Duke was a longtime keyboardist in iconoclastic rocker Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. The conventional history of fusion begins with Miles Davis' seminal "Bitches Brew" (Corea, like almost all of the era's leaders, was a sideman on that recording), but Zappa has an equally valid claim as the originator. His avant jazz-rock blitzkrieg "King Kong" (on the album "Uncle Meat") predated Miles' "Brew" sessions by several months.

Zappa's outsider mix of bone-deep sarcasm, sophomoric humor and sophisticated composition (colliding '50s doo-wop with Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring") was an unlikely setting for an aggressively straight-ahead jazz pianist. "I didn't get it at first," Duke recalls, "but Frank liked things that didn't go together, and he needed musicians who could play the complex music he was writing."

Because they were both on the Epic Records label, Duke and Clarke worked together on a number of isolated sessions in the '70s before their first joint release as the Clarke/Duke Project in 1981. By then the fires of fusion were shifting into the commercial romanticism of contemporary R&B, and Duke became a master of the genre, a confident, hit-making producer for artists such as Denise Williams, Najee and Miles Davis.

"My time with Frank [Zappa] is why I do what I do today," Duke says, "bringing together all kind of music — Brazilian, jazz, rock, funk. The critics gave me a lot of heat when I stared playing funk; they said I sold out. But people like Zappa, Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis encouraged me to open up the entire palette."

Whatever artistic sins of accessibility Duke has committed — prettiness and mass appeal are always critically suspect — they are a reflection of more than mere commercial calculation. His new CD, "In a Mellow Tone," is a highly personal blend of standards and originals. Under the light dusting of wind chimes and other standard studio-sweetening, the keyboard lines are bluesy and straightforward, the vocals unadorned and character-driven. "The best records," Duke says, "are done for love, not money."

In today's market, they may not get done at all. "If I were 23 now, I'm not sure that I could do what we did then," Duke says. "It's much harder; there is no support from major labels. But then again, there is the Internet, MySpace and the ability to open your own independent label."

As times changed, Clarke, like Duke, slid behind the scenes, transitioning from superstar front man to studio sideman and film-score composer ("Boyz n the Hood," "Passenger 57"). His reunion with Duke is a return to the halcyon days when their bands sold out arenas and, perhaps, a chance for audiences to hear why. S

The Clarke/Duke Project plays Fridays at Sunset Aug. 18 in Kanawha Plaza at 8th and East Canal streets downtown. Tickets are $20-$25. Children 10 and younger are admitted free of charge; children 13 and younger must have adult supervision. Music begins at 6:30 p.m.; the main act begins between 8 and 8:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the door or at www.fridaysatsunset.com.

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