Guitarist Gabor Szabo
shook the jazz scene to attention from the very moment his metallic
guitar first jangled its way out of Chico Hamilton’s innovative
quintet on DRUMFUSION (Columbia – 1962). He quietly departed
this world a mere two decades later and now, two decades since his sad
and sudden death in 1982, his legacy seems little more than a blip of
Once, however, Gabor
Szabo very nearly defined the potential of jazz. Caught in the mid
1960s in the crossfire of what jazz was, what jazz was not and what
jazz would be, it is easy now to understand Gabor Szabo’s ability to
transcended the guitar. His sound was everything from unique and
arresting to unusual and hypnotic. Similarly, his style bore a
signature that mixed a gypsy’s sense of storytelling with a
composer’s ability to take listeners on a melodic journey.
Gabor Szabo resisted
overt weirdness and random freedom as means of expression and was far
beyond avant-garde posturing. He wanted nothing more than to
communicate with listeners and he felt truly tuned-in to his audience.
One is confounded to ponder how Gabor Szabo’s appeal can remain so
selective today. But his musical choices and steadfast beliefs too
often betrayed him and onlookers began looking elsewhere for
entertainment. Gabor’s good friend and frequent musical partner,
guitarist Jimmy Stewart put it best when he said “Gabor’s
recordings never really captured his true essence.”
István Szabó was born in Budapest, Hungary on March 8, 1936.
He developed an interest in guitar after seeing a Roy Rogers
movie in 1949. When he was 14, he received a guitar from his father as
a Christmas gift.
It was a poorly made instrument, but the young Szabo taught himself to
play, even devising his own fingering system – which accounts for
his wholly unique sound.
developed an interest in jazz listening to Willis Conover’s Voice of
America radio programs and escaped his country in 1956 at age
20 on the eve of the Communist uprising. He eventually made his way to
America, settling with his family in California.
Szabo would go on to attend Berklee
College (1958-60) and in 1961 joined Chico Hamilton’s innovative quintet featuring Charles
Lloyd. Szabo gained a strong reputation in
Hamilton’s band for crafting a wholly distinctive sound, mixing
intricate nearly freeform runs with beautifully melodic passages.
Szabo left Hamilton’s band in 1965 to join Charles Lloyd’s fiery
quartet (with Ron Carter and Tony Williams) and found a simpatico
musical ally as part of Gary McFarland’s band later that year. He
started his solo career at Impulse in 1965, then started the Skye
Recordings label in 1968 with fellow musicians Gary McFarland and Cal
After the unfortunate failure of the
short-lived Skye Recordings label only two years later (and following
Santana’s hit making success of Szabo’s “Gypsy Queen” that
same year), Szabo recorded for the outré-hip label, Blue Thumb,
notably waxing the classic “Breezin” with writer Bobby Womack on HIGH
CONTRAST (Blue Thumb – 1971). Szabo would go on to record for
Four Leaf Clover Records in Sweden and issue two of his finest records
for Creed Taylor’s CTI label in 1972 and 1973.
in 1975 as the 16th of only 20 albums Gabor Szabo recorded
as a leader, his first and last for the short-lived CTI subsidiary,
Salvation, and the fourth and last time the guitarist paired in adroit
simpatico with arranger and keyboard svengali Bob James.
Many listeners may be surprised to find that MACHO is the first-ever production credited to Bob James, who would soon apply these skills – and other lessons learned from Creed Taylor – to his own Tappan Zee label (note, too, that MACHO’s striking cover photo is courtesy of John Paul Endress, who later photographed many of the distinctive Tappan Sleeve covers).
“Creed Taylor had
gotten so busy with running CTI,” Bob James told me recently,
“that he sent me on the assignment. I was working very closely with
Creed on albums for other artists, and it was a great opportunity to
‘test my wings.’ Because Los Angeles was Gabor's home, it gave me
an opportunity to work on the west coast and experience the difference
in the studio between there and New York"
Both James and Szabo
had attended Berklee School (now the Berklee College Of Music) around
the same time and even appeared together – though they hadn’t
played together – on the same album, JAZZ IN THE CLASSROOM VOL.
II (Berklee - 1958). They were first paired by producer Creed
Taylor on the magnificent MIZRAB (CTI – 1972) and later on a
rare showcase of Szabo’s working band, RAMBLER (CTI – 1973)
and – to rather stunning effect – on Paul Desmond’s SKYLARK
(CTI – 1973). Somehow, the two musicians developed a real musical
rapport together in the studio. “It always felt great playing with
him,” reminisces Bob James, “because he played from the heart.”
James’s close friend, writer and singer Morgan Ames (who wrote such immortal American phrases as “And then there’s Maude” and “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time”), receives an associate producer credit on the record for assembling the West Coast musicians that appear on MACHO.
Bob James recalls, “highlights of the project for me included working for the first time with bass player Louis Johnson. He was one of a handful of electric bassists who set the standard for the intricate bass lines which have become so much a part of contemporary jazz.” Another important connection is MACHO drummer Harvey Mason, a future collaborator, with Bob James, in the super popular smooth-jazz group Fourplay. “This was one of the first projects where I worked creatively with Mason,” James recalls. “He and I have remained close friends and collaborators and it's interesting to me to listen back to the beginnings of that association.”
reunited Szabo with reed specialist Tom Scott, who was spotlighted
with the guitarist on Bob Thiele’s LIGHT MY FIRE (Impulse –
1967) and prominently featured on Szabo’s own WIND, SKY AND
DIAMONDS (Impulse – 1967).
MACHO is among
Gabor Szabo’s most successful and cohesive fusions, a rebuff to
anyone who would dispute the guitarist’s triumph in blending a wide
array of forms and styles. Here, he weaves an unwieldy maze of
classic, ballad and in-vogue funk structures with gypsy sensibility
and a masterful understanding of jazz exploration.
Franz Liszt’s (1811-1886)
"Hungarian Rhapsody #2" (or, “Hungarian Rhapsody for Piano
in C Sharp Minor, S 244/2” - 1847) begins MACHO with a
fascinating investigation of Gabor Szabo’s Hungarian heritage.
Although Szabo had earlier explored the music of Hungarian composer
Zoltan Kodaly (DREAMS – Skye – 1968) - and indeed, had
recorded an unissued version of the the Liszt classic in 1970, the
guitarist had a renewed fervor for his homeland, having recently
returned from Hungary in his first journey back since his escape in
1956. “Musically, the trip has renewed my awareness of my Hungarian
Gypsy heritage,” Szabo told Guitar Player’s Frankie Nemko in 1975.
“I want to merge elements of both my acoustic and electric styles
with a return to my musical roots.” He succeeds most admirably, trading lines with Bob James’s
keyboards and propelled by a grand and surprisingly funky arrangement
that effectively pays tribute to the original. James adds, “I
knew this piece well. When I mentioned the idea of adapting it, Gabor
liked it, so I plunged in. Doing jazz interpretations of classical
themes was something that Creed Taylor was always pushing for, so I
knew he'd be into the concept.”
Time is then conveyed through Bob
James’s hypnotic, lullaby-like electric piano on Szabo’s lovely
ballad feature, “Time.” The sorcery for which Szabo became famous
is palpable here. First featured in Lawrence Bock’s never-released
Szabo documentary film, RISING (where Szabo is accompanied by
George Cables and Louis Johnson), “Time” went on to become a
staple of Szabo’s concert performances throughout the remainder of
his life. It was later re-titled
“Alicia,” after Szabo’s wife, and featured on the
guitarist’s final American album, FACES (Mercury – 1977).
“Transylvania Boogie,” one of Bob
James’s funkiest-ever tunes and baddest-ever breaks (after
“Nautilus” and “Mardi Gras,” of course), is up next. “I
wanted to blend in a few aspects of Gabor's European heritage and
influence,” James recalls today. “But this was a little
tongue-in-cheek. Still, it’s interesting to listen back to the
difference in the funk grooves we were playing at that time compared
to today.” This is about as funky as Gabor really ever got –
matched only by “Baby Rattle Snake,” from MACHO’s
follow-up, NIGHTFLIGHT (Mercury – 1976).
the original LP’s second side was the very Headhunter-like
“Ziggidy Zag,” by the original Headhunter drummer himself, Harvey
Mason. This is classic 1970s LA funk from the man who played on nearly
every bit of funk coming out of the Hollywood Hills back in the day.
Szabo and James are in their collective element here, casting an
enchanting spell together – as they had previously on “Mizrab,”
“Thirteen” and “Romance de Amor” – over Mason’s
elegant Spanish-flavored tone poem, “Macho,” is a favorite Szabo
theme and finds the guitarist in classic form, provoked – as if by a
matador’s muleta – by Bob James’s moody flourishes on piano and
– like the cheering crowds - Louis Johnson’s rhythmic appreciation
on electric bass. The song was born as “El Toro,” a jam featuring
Szabo with Charles Lloyd and Chico Hamilton on the drummer’s PASSIN’
THRU (Impulse – 1962), rekindled as the title track to Szabo’s
own BACCHANAL (Skye – 1968), revisited by Szabo with Charles
Lloyd on Lloyd’s WAVES (A&M – 1972) and then, to a
lesser degree, explored again on “24 Carat” from Szabo’s BELSTA
RIVER (Four Leaf Clover – 1978).
as all CTI albums seemingly require the presence of at least one jazz
cover of a recent pop hit (a lesson that gave Creed Taylor great
success at Verve in the 1960s), MACHO closes with a cover of
Phoebe Snow’s lovely hit song, “Poetry Man.” The choice of
Snow’s haunting hit, featured on her eponymous debut album (Shelter
– 1973, released in 1974), is interesting since the original version
also included the contributions of Bob James and Ralph MacDonald, who
reprise their roles here – much as they did on “Feel Like Making
Love” for BOB JAMES ONE (CTI – 1974). Szabo lends true
gypsy poetry to these lines, buffered by Bob James’s lovely
signature support on electric piano. Although there were no
radio-ready singles released from MACHO, surely if there was an
attempt to make Szabo’s cover of “Poetry Man” into a hit, it
could have found the same success that Bob James’s gorgeous and
definitive “Angela (Theme From ‘Taxi’)” did a few years later.
It is a truly lovely moment to end an album with such a virile title.
But surely it begs for so much more.
MACHO is, perhaps, Gabor Szabo’s last significant recording. The guitarist went on to record two more records for Mercury, one last record for the Swedish label, Four Leaf Clover, and, finally, an album that Atlantic Records rejected in 1979 that was brought out by Szabo himself in Hungary during 1981. The guitarist fell ill later that year, while still in Budapest, and died on February 26, 1982, in a Hungarian hospital. He was buried in Budapest.
Bob James put it well
when he told me “It was a big loss to our jazz community when Gabor
passed away. He was truly an original talent, with an individual style
and approach that pre-dated many of the trends toward a more global
flavor to jazz.” Indeed, MACHO offers solid proof of the
wondrous sound he left for the world to hear.