Blues Alley might as well change its name to Funk Central as long as George Duke is in town. The prolific keyboardist and producer spent much of Thursday night partying it up with a request-happy crowd at the Georgetown club. The big turnout and boisterous response clearly lifted Duke's spirits, and for good reason: Prior to the arrests in the sniper case, Duke said, he kept hearing from fans in Maryland saying, "We love you, but we ain't coming."
Then again, Duke nearly always seems happy onstage, joking with his band mates while eagerly previewing new material or exhuming old favorites. Currently leading a seasoned quintet, he opened the show with "Oh Oh," a playful and noisy funk anthem he recorded with bassist Stanley Clarke in the late '80s. It took a while for the crowd to latch on to the call-and-response chant and for Duke to navigate his way around a malfunctioning keyboard, but the band ultimately carved out the first of several deep-pocket grooves.
Later, after shamelessly plugging his new CD, "Face the Music," Duke began playing tunes from the album with mixed results. "Black Messiah, Pt. 2," a tribute to Duke's mentor and former boss Cannonball Adderley, offered a contemporary keyboard take on vintage soul jazz sounds. "Chillin' " and "Guess You're Not the One," on the other hand, veered toward smooth-jazz tedium. After explaining that he also enjoys making music that isn't likely to be heard on radio, Duke embarked on a synth-swept odyssey that might have tickled another of his early bandleaders: Frank Zappa.
In the end, though, funk ruled. The audience wanted to hear "Reach for It," a late-'70s party track that Duke said was "born up the street at the Cellar Door." Duke happily obliged, with exuberant support from fellow keyboardist Dave Kochanski, guitarist Ray Fuller, bassist Sam Sims and drummer John Roberts.
The engagement runs through Sunday.
-- Mike Joyce