Bacchanal (1968)
Gabor Szabo

  1. Three King Fishers (Donovan)
  2. Love is Blue (André Popp/Pierre Cour/Bryan Blackburn)
  3. Theme from “Valley of the Dolls” (Andre Previn/Dory Previn)
  4. Bacchanal (Gabor Szabo)
  5. Sunshine Superman (Donovan)
  6. Some Velvet Morning (Lee Hazelwood)
  7. The Look of Love (Burt Bacharach/Hal David)
  8. [The] Divided City (Gabor Szabo)
  9. Sunshine Superman [single edit]
  10. (Theme From) Valley of the Dolls [single edit]
  11. The Look of Love [single edit]
  12. Bacchanal [single edit]

Gabor Szabo, Jim (Jimmy) Stewart – guitar
Lajos “Louis” Kabok – bass
Jim Keltner – drums
Hal Gordon – percussion  

Recorded on February 9, 1968, at Western Recording Studios; Los Angeles, California

Producer unlisted but likely Gary McFarland
Engineered by Andy Richardson
Original liner notes uncredited. Original quotes: Nat Hentoff, Leonard Feather

1 to 8 issued on LP in 1968 as Skye MK-3 (mono) and Skye SK-3 (stereo).
9 and 10 issued on 45 as Skye 451. 11 and 12 issued on 45 as Skye 454.
1 to 12 issued on LP and CD in 2021 as Ebalunga!!! EBL/009

“The performances on this LP have a restrained, introspective quality. Szabo’s work is lyrical, rather economical, and somewhat angular, and his tone is warm and glowing.”

Harvey Pekar, DownBeat

“Gabor Szabo is at the musical zenith of his career. This album could rank as his best to date.”

Billboard

“But for sheer lyrical beauty, few players are in Szabo’s class. His startling use of dissonance is a delight, too, and time and again he will alter a final phrase just slightly, totally reorienting a familiar tune.”

Alan Heineman, DownBeat

“This is definitely one of my ‘go to’ Gabor albums.”

Mike Stax, Ugly Things

Gabor Szabo’s Bacchanal documents one of the earliest and finest examples of what was then known as “jazz rock.” Years before this new jazz style evolved – or devolved, according to some – into “fusion,” jazz rock was mostly fashioned by younger jazz players whose ears were open to the emerging sounds coming out of rock and roll, especially those of the Beatles and, later, Jimi Hendrix.

Of course, by the mid-sixties, many jazz guys began covering then-in pop tunes to win back listeners whose tastes were going in other directions. Baritone sax great Gerry Mulligan even named his 1965 album If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em, acknowledging, however grudgingly, that jazz needed to keep up with the times. But these were little more than gimmicky ploys to attract younger listeners – those albums sounded nothing like the player’s live dates – often pleasing no one at all.

Szabo himself recorded a well-regarded string of albums for the Impulse label, wedding his own love of jazz with a fascination for rock effects and electrification (and, later, Indian sounds). But what makes Bacchanal special and different from the Impulse dates, however, is that this is not a producer’s idea of jazz rock, but rather the artist’s own concept – which is what made Gary Burton, Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis’s early work here so noteworthy.  

Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that Bacchanal doesn’t even list a producer – as though to say the author is the artist, solely responsible for his own work. Here is the way Gabor Szabo wanted to play and be heard in 1968, and over half a century later, Bacchanal stands among the most timeless of all his records.

It is the first of only two studio albums Szabo recorded with a quintet featuring Jimmy Stewart on guitar and fellow Hungarian emigre Louis (Lajos) Kabok on bass. The classically trained Stewart bonds with Szabo in a way that was alchemical and never bettered for either musician. This group, beautifully chronicled in the album’s original (and uncredited) liner notes, locked into their own sound and style, mixing jazz with rock, European and Indian sensibilities, arriving at something both commanding and unique.

Coming shortly after Szabo’s much-derided claim that “jazz is dead,” (which is not exactly what he said: speaking of the influence of rock and Indian music on jazz, he said “In a sad sense, jazz as we knew it ended”), Bacchanal is an outstanding call to arms. It is a clear musical vision that comes between the overly sweetened Wind Sky and Diamonds (1967) and the overtly commercial Gabor Szabo 1969 (1969), two of Szabo’s more prominent “join ’em” albums.

Like many other early entries in jazz rock, Bacchanal declines the bluster of rock and the cheesy accoutrements often tacked on by unhip jazz producers. It is less bookish or avant-garde than most jazz of the period and more elegant and thoughtful than most rock at the time.

For his part, Szabo was adamantly against preaching to or reaching out to the hippies. “That’s one type of audience I don’t care to impress,” he said. “They are the ones who encourage you to keep on going and play way out and play avant-garde and so on. But they don’t show up, and they don’t support you at all when the time comes when you get your own group together.”

Bacchanal is the first of four albums the guitarist released on Skye, the label Szabo started in early 1968 with fellow musicians Gary McFarland and Cal Tjader. When DownBeat announced the newly-formed label in March 1968, however, it said Szabo’s first album for the label would be “a live session taped at Shelly’s Manne-Hole late in January.”

Szabo’s quintet was indeed captured with brothers Pete and Conte Candoli (both on trumpet) at the Los Angeles club, but the performance didn’t record well. “The group created its own interval,” Jimmy Stewart said. “We locked into our own pitch center, but the horns were fighting it in the mix. We just couldn’t get it to happen.”

As a result, the recording was abandoned and discussions began at Szabo’s Hollywood home about a studio recording. Stewart suggested doing an album of cover tunes, shaped by the group’s own cohesive and distinctive style, as solid a unit as the quartets of Gary Burton and Charles Lloyd and the quintets of Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley were in their own ways.

“My choices,” recalled Stewart, “were ‘The Theme from the Valley of the Dolls’ [Andre Previn] and ‘Some Velvet Morning’ [Lee Hazelwood]. Gabor loved ‘Love is Blue’ and ‘Sunshine Superman.’ We all wanted to record ‘The Look of Love.’ ‘Bacchanal’ and ‘The Divided City’ were made up in the studio and titled later.”

The haunting “Three King Fishers” opens Bacchanal in a most beguiling way. It is a psychedelic tone poem set to a raga beat. The original boasts a lovely sitar solo (played by Shawn Phillips) that certainly would have caught Szabo’s attention – and envy. Szabo avoids the sitar here, weaving a signature sitar-like spell on his guitar and delivering what Ugly Thing’s Mike Stax calls “pure genius.”

“Love is Blue,” also known as “L’amour est bleu,” is best known in America in a cover by the French bandleader Paul Mauriat. His easy-listening version of the tune spent five weeks at Number 1 on the Billboard charts in early 1968, including the week Bacchanal was recorded. The quintet spices the melody with a Spanish flair, while Gabor tempers the song’s lovely lilt with its title’s evocative color. Jimmy delivers a deviously clever counterpoint and a delirious bolero in his solo.

“Theme from Valley of the Dolls” found fame by Dionne Warwick, whose version of the André and Dory Previn theme to the 1967 film reached number 2 – while Paul Mauriat’s “Love is Blue” was number 1 – in early March 1968, when Szabo’s version of the tune was recorded. The guitarist deploys his signature use of feedback here to offer an eerie edge to the song’s lullaby-like quality. The feedback, here and throughout the album, is brief, subtle and never distorts the song’s melodic intent. This doll is fashioned as a French chanson and reveals Szabo’s under-appreciated way with a ballad.

“Sunshine Superman,” like “Three King Fishers” here and “Ferris Wheel” on Dreams, hails from Donovan’s influential Sunshine Superman (1966). The album is considered a landmark of psychedelia and had a huge impact on Gabor Szabo. The group really brings out the fun and the funk of this ode to LSD: “Unlikely as it may seem,” raved Cashbox, “‘Sunshine Superman’ goes R&B on this stunning side from Gabor Szabo.” Again, Szabo weaves a cover into something of his own, giving Donovan a spin that sounds like one of Szabo’s Jazz Raga originals.

Lee Hazelwood’s “Some Velvet Morning” was originally a duet with Nancy Sinatra that made its surprising debut on a prime-time network TV special that aired in December 1967. The song’s provocative lyrics are open to endless interpretation and its mysterious story is matched by its ethereal melody. The quintet, one of the only jazz groups to cover the oft-covered song, brings out “Velvet”’s unique blend of the mythical and the mystical. Gabor handles Lee’s part (in 4/4) and Jimmy performs Nancy’s Phaedra part (in 3/4), while both provide enchanting counterpoint to the other’s lead.

“The Look of Love” was first recorded by saxophonist Stan Getz in 1966, but it is Dusty Springfield’s version of the song, from the soundtrack to the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale, that is best known. Another Bacharach masterpiece, “The Look of Love” – later revived for the first Austin Powers movie – sounds tailor-made for Szabo, with its alternating minor and major keys. The group delivers a sensitively smoldering performance – until the song’s strangely stilted final 30 seconds.

Each of the record’s two sides concludes with a band original. The first of these, the Latin-oriented “Bacchanal,” revives “El Toro,” first heard on the Chico Hamilton Quintet’s Passin’ Thru (1962) with Szabo and Charles Lloyd (and heard by the Szabo quintet in 1967 as “Los Matadoros” from More Sorcery). “Bacchanal” works up a heady head of steam worthy of its title. In this group’s handling, the song could have easily gone on another ten minutes, driven mightily by Jim Keltner’s kinetic trap work and this quintet’s intuitive ability to listen and respond to one another.

“The Divided City,” possibly a double-meaning reference to Szabo’s native Budapest, is, perhaps, the album’s singular highlight. Like “Mizrab” or the later “Somewhere I Belong,” this cinematic piece seems more “composed” than such on-the-spot improvisations as “Gypsy Queen” or “Spellbinder.” Here, Gabor divides himself in two, overdubbing a haunting feedback overtop his guitar melody. The effect orchestrates the piece (like a movie cue), providing a sense of menace and moaning in equal measure.

The album’s psychedelic cover was designed by longtime Impulse designer Robert Flynn and features a Stan Brakhage-style collage by rock photographer Barry Peake. Nothing in Peake’s known oeuvre looks this abstract, yet nothing in Szabo’s discography is this trippy. Especially Bacchanal. Oddly, it would seem the cover was trying to reach those hippies the guitarist said he had no interest in reaching. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful statement that unfortunately misrepresents the music within.

Peake, working for the British New Musical Express in the sixties, was known for mod-era photos of Donovan, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles – all of whom Szabo listened very closely to, likely explaining his choice as photographer. Peake later went on to provide still photos for Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels and Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare and such mainstream film features as An American Werewolf in London, The Dresser and Babe.

Bacchannal was issued in April 1968 and reached No. 15 on Billboard’s Jazz chart, cracking the Top 200 at 157 in June. At the time, reaction was mixed. DownBeat said “It’s up to you to decide which Szabo you like better, the older one, whose work was closer to the jazz mainstream, or the Szabo of today” and CashBox couldn’t be bothered to say much more than the album “features the sparkling and frequently syncopated guitar stylings of Gabor Szabo.”

More recent writers such as Scott Yanow damn the record with faint praise, saying “the Hungarian guitarist uplifts the material and mostly turns the pieces into worthwhile jazz” while, more encouragingly, the Chicago Reader’s Mike Boyd says “I’d take his versions of ‘Theme from Valley of the Dolls’ and Lee Hazelwood’s ‘Some Velvet Morning’ over the originals any day.” Szabo’s fans, however, adore what he achieved here.

Two singles were issued from the album: “Sunshine Superman” (b/w “Theme from Valley of the Dolls”) in April and “The Look of Love” (b/w “Bacchanal”) in July, but neither ever charted. (Sergio Mendes was enjoying a Billboard top five hit of “The Look of Love” when Szabo’s version of the song was issued on 45.) In both cases, it would have served Szabo well if the DJ’s flipped the records. But none ever did.

“Three King Fishers” and “Love is Blue” were also featured in the 1968 Time-Life documentary The World We Live In: Survival in the Sea while four of the album’s songs, including the single “Sunshine Superman,” were among the nine pieces featured on the 1970 Skye-era sampler Blowin’ Some Old Smoke. Later samples from the album include “The Look of Love,” sampled in 1999 for “Feel It” by Diamond D. ft. Sadat X and “Love is Blue,” sampled in 2000 by R.I.C.A.N. for “Improvise.”

Gabor Szabo followed up Bacchanal with the magnificent Dreams before dissolving the quintet later that year. Jimmy Stewart remained friends with Szabo throughout his life and continued to play gigs with the guitarist right up to the end.

In 1974, Stewart would join Louis Kabok in Szabo’s briefly-lived but never properly recorded band The Perfect Circle, but the two guitarists only recorded together on one more occasion, for “Estaté” from the 1977 Faces album. After Szabo’s death in 1982, Stewart arranged a salute to the Hungarian guitarist, featuring former bandmates such as Kabok at Donte’s, the Los Angeles club Szabo had played throughout his all-too brief career.

The remaining quintet members were heard with Szabo on records and at gigs over the next several years. Kabok and Hal Gordon, however, went off to join The Advancement – whose lone 1969 album is a cult jazz-rock classic that, if you’re reading this, is absolutely worth tracking down. The Advancement also included keyboardist Richard Thompson and vibraphonist Lynn Blessing, who, with Gordon and Jim Keltner, would form part of Szabo’s next group, heard on 1970’s Magical Connection.

Gabor Szabo would continue to make albums like Bacchanal throughout the remainder of his recording career, mixing soft-rock covers with more fiery originals – the best of which are the CTI albums of the seventies, where Bob James complemented the guitarist the way Jimmy Stewart does here. But few of the later albums are programmed as well as Bacchanal. Even fewer have the intense dynamic and the hypnotic flair the Gabor Szabo Quintet offer up on this absolute bacchanalia of musical invention.

Douglas Payne
September 2020

Original Notes

“One of the most original, sweepingly lyrical guitarists…a singular phenomenon.”

Nat Hentoff

”More exotic and kinetic than any other flurry in the past decade…he blends the sound of jazz guitar with echoes of Liverpool and images of India.”

Leonard Feather, Melody Maker

mys’tic, mys’tic-al, a. [L, mysticus; Gr. mystikos.]

Hidden from or obscure to human knowledge or comprehension; pertaining to what is obscure or incomprehensible; mysterious; dark; obscure.

Gabor Szabo is a true mystic. He does not clothe himself in exotic robes or adorn himself with beads or charms. His hair does not flow about his shoulders. His hands do not form meditative postures.

His mysticism does not have the visibility of a tourist attraction, but lies within, manifesting itself only in his music.

Szabo appears on stage with a minimum of stir. His group stationed silently behind him, Szabo invariably begins to play alone till he finds the mood he is seeking. At no perceptible signal, his men join him, weaving the bare thread of a tune into intricate variations and songs-within-songs.

With Szabo curved around his guitar in the fetal-like crouch that is his habitual stance, they move from one song to the next, Szabo leading players and audiences as intuitively as a medium conducting a séance. TLike the scent of burning incense, the séance-like mood permeates every corner as Szabo molds the music into the shape of his own imaginings.

Suddenly, he turns to his amplifier, his body swaying in rhythmic convolutions. Backing and twisting before the dark box, his concentration as fierce as a mystic trying to materialize a spirit, he draws out gaunt, eerie sounds that fill the room like a presence from another time.

As if coming across immeasurable distances, the sounds conjure up ghosts of Bagdad, the ominous call of the shofar, the ancient reverberating voices of the sitar, the tamboura.

The song-spirit having released its message, it is permitted to slip back to its dark resting place. The audience sighs, smiles and focuses again on their immediate surroundings with the distinct impression of having returned from a journey. For many, their return is endowed with a sense of heightened awareness similar to awakening from a hypnotic trance in which the hypnotist had said, “You will awake feeling rested, refreshed and alert.”

Acclaimed for the “fierce virility” of his playing and his “haunting lyricism,” his “fanciful complexity” and his “compelling simplicity,” it is, finally, the singular originality of his quest that sets Szabo’s music apart from all others. For Szabo is after the hidden soul of a melody, and to this end he will spare no effort, digging, probing and deciphering. And if what emerges was indeed within the melody or within Szabo himself matters little.

Szabo would be the first to agree that without the individual contribution of each of his players, it would be impossible for him to achieve his goals. Together on a nearly regular basis since Szabo formed the group in the summer of 1966, they are tuned in to Szabo and deeply involved with his musical ideas.

Classically-trained bassist Louis Kabok is a fellow-Hungarian who escaped from Budapest, as did Szabo, at the time of the Revolution. A longtime friend of Szabo’s, he shares and understands Szabo’s musical heritage, adding great strength to the group. His imaginative approach to bowing and great technical dexterity allow him to perform feats beyond the scope of most bass players – as in the opening passages of Bacchanal, where his playing sounds like a bass guitar. 

Hal Gordon is another rarity. A conga player without a Latin chromosome to call his own, he prefers congas to set drums because he can “feel them under my hand.” His skill at such instrumental exotica as finger cymbals, the cabassa, the tambourine and various sticks and gourds – plus the ability to use them with twentieth century freshness – enlarges the group’s sound spectrum significantly.

Jim Stewart is to Szabo what Paul Desmond was to Dave Brubeck, a musical sophisticate with a virtuoso’s sensitivity to the instrument he plays.* His classical guitar never competes with Szabo’s but relates directly to the needs of the music. On Bacchanal and Divided City, the voice of his guitar stands out pure and clear as water from a mountain stream.

Drummer Jim Keltner is regarded as a real “find” by the group, to whom even good jazz and rock drummers always sounded either too heavy or too hard or too predictable. Keltner’s playing had the perfect combination – a light touch but great depth of feeling. Although he has worked with rock groups and recorded extensively, it is with Szabo that he has really come into his own. His contribution can be felt throughout the album, but listen particularly to his work with Gordon on Sunshine Superman.

The way Szabo’s group works together resembles nothing so much as a Gypsy band, in which the lead violinist sets down the tempo and the tune and then his players join and develop it. There is the same kind of spontaneity, the same telepathy from one player to another. Without pre-set arrangements, they can build a song until it becomes part of a new composition. And though they play today’s melodies and utilize electronic effects, their kinship to the young electronic groups is slight. The others are outward-bound and use distortion and shock effects to convey a message of the future. The far-out sounds of Szabo’s group evoke that which already lies within.

* In an interview with Waxpoetics (Issue #12, Spring 2005), Jimmy Stewart regarded this characterization of his musical relationship with Gabor Szabo as “one of the highest compliments of my career.” Return