Duke’s ode to his birth sign took a downtempo interpretation of the 1970’s astrophilia.
Jazz fusion and space go hand in hand. The proliferation of synthesizers throughout the mid-20th Century helped forge the amicable relationship. Outer space warbles and droning wavelengths could be replicated at the push of a button. The cosmos, being largely unexplored, served as a theme around which fusion artists could build their sound, uniting listeners through a shared fascination with the great beyond.
In 1973, George Duke engaged a similar fascination on his third studio album, Faces in Reflection. But instead of gargantuan arrangements that could emulate the gaping void of space, Duke opted for a tight-knit quartet that brought space to the everyman.
“Capricorn,” the second song off Faces, hears Duke team up with John Heard and Leon “Ndugu” Chancler for a soulful and introspective jaunt through the galaxy. A reference to his birth sign, “Capricorn” begins with Duke’s harmonious vocal humming cozied between drum and bass before he breaks into the steady, six-note melody that drives the song.
The song’s air of absence fuels its rhythm. Rather than jam-packing measures with guest artists (of which Duke had no shortage of access thanks to relationships with Jean Luc-Ponty and Frank Zappa,), he opted for an intimate arrangement, his keyboard volleying back-and-forth with Heard’s bass work.
Despite the care with which Duke composed “Capricorn,” it would be the Julian “Cannonball” Adderly rendition that would stick around. In 1972, Cannonball enlisted Duke, as well as Walter Booker (bass), Roy McCurdy (drums), and his brother Nat Adderley (cornet), for a live performance at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. The set, organized and produced by David Axelrod, gave birth to the sample friendly version of “Capricorn,” which has seen use by the likes of Pete Rock, Mac Miller and plenty more.
Adderley accurately captures the original song’s down to earth vibe as he raps to the crowd. “In this era when so many people are relatively hip, making references to the stars and various signs of the zodiac, to indicate some kinship, it’s nice when someone can dig it objectively and say ‘well hell I don’t know nothing about what’s happening with my sign.’”
Though Adderley would continue to record an album to codify the entire zodiac, “Capricorn” proved to be the major hit. Pete Rock borrowed the piano phrases for he and C.L. Smooth’s 1994 hit, “In the House.”
The intro track to their second and final collaborative album, “In the House” is a worldly bop, jiving with “Capricorn’s” fleshly understanding of the zodiac. Smooth delivers his trademark brand of carnal slick talk, while Rock blesses the track with his unshakable microphone confidence, challenging all manner of “Copycats and rugrats, sit back and watch a champion.” “In the House” falls in line with a common feature of 1990s hip-hop samples, featuring dialed up percussion that prods samples to their breaking points.
Mac Miller’s “Poppy” channels a similar spirit, using Heard’s vibrating bass line to accentuate Miller’s tribute to his late grandfather. Common perhaps takes Adderley’s interpretation of Cannonball most literally, using one of Duke’s piano phrases as the backdrop for the radio interlude on Resurrection’s “WMOE.”
George Duke’s original, understated melody was “Capricorn’s” ticket to the future. Unlike the synth laden cosmography of Dexter Wansel’s Life on Mars or Aquarian Dream’s Fantasy, Capricorn supported the idea that jazz fusion could rub shoulders with the first part of the genre’s namesake. Passing on fanfare, “Capricorn” wields Duke’s love of improvisation skillfully, and carefully avoids the acid trip synth fits of his contemporaries.