Gabor Szabo: Macho

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 exotic eclecticism.

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 provoke.

His playing 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.”

Gábor 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.

He 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 Tjader.

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.

MACHO arrived 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.” 

MACHO also 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).

Starting 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 intoxicating groove.

The 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).

Finally, 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.

Copyright 2002 Douglas Payne. All rights reserved.