Faces (1977)
Gabor Szabo

  1. The Biz (Bobby Lyle)
  2. Magic Mystic Faces (Gabor Szabo/Sylvia St. James)
  3. Gloomy Day (William Henderson/Sylvia St. James)
  4. Desiring You (William Jeffery)
  5. Misty Malarky Ying Yang (Marlon McLain)
  6. Alicia [aka Time] (Gabor Szabo/Peter Totth)
  7. The Last Song (Gabor Szabo)
  8. Estaté (Bruno Martino/Bruno Brighetti)
  9. The Biz [single edit]
  10. Alicia [single edit]

Gabor Szabo – guitar
Bobby Lyle – electric piano
Dean Gant – synthesizer programming
Marlon McClain – electric guitar
Jimmy Stewart [as James O. Stewart] – acoustic guitar (8)
Nathaniel Phillips – electric bass
Bruce Carter – drums
I. “Rini” Kramer – percussion (4, 7)

Oscar Brashear, Denny Christianson – trumpet
George Bohannon – trombone
Ernie Watts – tenor sax
Vance Tenort, Paul C. Shure, Bonnie Douglas, Assa Drori, Irving Geller, Irma Neumann, Haim Shtrum, Carroll Stephens, Robert Sushel – violin
James Dunham, Janet Lakatos – viola
Nathan Gershman, David H. Speltz – cello
Sylvia St. James, Deborah Shotlow, Suandra Alexander, Cheryl Alexander – vocal (1-3, 7)

Arranged by William Jeffrey (strings/horns except 1 and 8) and Wayne Henderson (horns on 1)

Recorded March and April 1977 at ABC Studios, Los Angeles

Produced by Wayne Henderson
Engineered by Reginald Dozier and Mallory Earl

1 to 8 issued on LP in 1977 as Mercury SRM-1-1141
9 and 10 issued on 45 as Mercury 73957
1 to 10 issued on CD in 2015 as Vocalion CDSML 8503

Although using new ingredients, the recipe for Faces is nearly identical to the much more disappointing Nightflight. Yet this new record collects a stronger group of songs and elicits some of the guitarist’s more athletic (and audible) playing. Still, however, the musicians present are nearly as negligible as the Philadelphia studio players asleep at the wheel of Bunny Sigler’s production.

Szabo, who’s output since at least 1969 had been almost exclusively in this vein, produces one of his more cohesive pop-jazz confections here; somewhat resembling George Benson’s successful and trend-setting Breezin’ formula.

This is due, perhaps, to like-minded producer Wayne Henderson, a trombonist who left the [Jazz] Crusaders the previous year to concentrate on solo recordings and productions very similar to this one for people like saxophonist Ronnie Laws. Henderson’s productions, more timely than timeless, were professional and well crafted and quite often interchangeable.

But while Henderson established the foundation or mood, he certainly provided ample room for unique voices to transcend the proceedings. As with Ronnie Laws elsewhere, with Szabo, he succeeds.

The disco trash of “The Biz,” “Desiring You” and “Misty Malarky Ying Yang” are hardly feathers in anybody’s cap. But neither are these pieces as easy to write off as so much of the manufactured music the genre enforced on so many jazz players at the time. All three pieces invite the guitarist into a setting to which he was amenable and provide ample space for some fiery playing.

Szabo skates effortlessly over the slick production and crafts a welcome and jangled counterpoint to the pleasant grooves. But “Desiring You,” seemingly borne of the Bob James songbook, and “The Biz” (where the vocalists implore “a little more Gabor” after unfortunately confessing that “it’s a whiz doin’ the biz”) pale to the jam-like quality of “Misty Malarky Ying Yang.”

Here, Szabo and Bobby Lyle play off one another the way the guitarist would in the past with Bob James (Lyle’s solo has an effective Bob James meets Herbie Hancock quality to it) and with Mark Levine on 1971’s “Fingers.”

Where Faces succeeds most is in the prevalence of strong, melodic material. The gossamer ballads and slower pieces offer respite from the disco pretense and present Szabo and his compositions in favorable, if occasionally over-arranged, circumstances. “Magic Mystic Faces,” “Gloomy Day,” “Alicia,” “The Last Song” and “Estaté” relent to allow the guitarist an opportunity to dig in and explore more emotional terrain.

These melodies are intentionally “radio friendly.” But Szabo exhibits an alluring melancholy charm, despite the vocalists’ stifling oohs and ahhs. Szabo’s “The Last Song” and “Alicia” are, perhaps, most memorable of all for the guitarist’s audibly sincere performances.

“Alicia,” named for Szabo’s wife at the time – they separated in 1977 and divorced the following year – and credited to both Szabo and Peter Totth, is simply a retitling of “Time” (from Macho, where it’s credited to Szabo alone). But the guitarist lends a much more mournful quality to “Alicia” absent in “Time.” This leads naturally into the similar, but more haunting performance of “The Last Song,” one of Szabo’s strongest and most memorable ballad compositions.

Of the ballads, “Estaté” offers a familiarity askew with the rest of the recording. Although commanding a sad and dispiriting performance, the two guitars seem to cry out of a self-reliant loneliness — especially in the context of all that precedes it on Faces.

But the familiarity is due to the return of Jimmy Stewart; briefly billing himself as “James O. Stewart” at the advice of a therapist helping him establish more of his own identity.

“Wayne [Henderson] and [engineer] Reggie Dozier wanted us to do it as a little bit of Brazilian funk,” recalled Stewart. “I was using some snap-bass licks. But it just wasn’t working. Finally, Wayne says ‘let’s drop this’ and we decided to do it as a duet.”

Certainly a welcome return, the song was a celebration of the reunion between the two partners and San Francisco radio station KKGO, which considered it as such, often aired this tune instead of the 45 release of “The Biz.” It became a sort of local hit in a town that knew these players well.

Although Faces is not an essential document of Gabor Szabo’s talents, it offers attractive points of context for the artist in an unfortunately unflattering era. One must remember, too, that Szabo sought to record himself in such situations.

Whether commercial resignation or genuine appeal drove him, this music represents the way Gabor Szabo chose to express himself on record — despite the greater purity of emotional beauty and hypnotic friction he revealed to concert audiences.

In a press release titled Gabor Szabo: A Biography, Mercury Records described the guitarist’s “all encompassing musical image” as impossible to categorize and outlined his feelings about (or concessions to) music:

Gabor is often asked if he considers himself a jazz musician and while in many respects that is what he fundamentally is, he prefers to think of himself as a contemporary musician with an obligation to both record and concert audiences. “I play as if it were the last time I’ll ever play,” he says. “I just want to make people happy.”

Whether this represents hyperbolic spin or genuine dedication, Szabo seemed exhausted with the music by 1977 and often succumbed to rather lazy playing, simple tunes and easily acceptable formats.

The guitarist still attempted performing to his audience’s expectations. But it’s likely he – like so many jazz players in the seventies – no longer understood the audience. There were no more bold gestures longer – such as a Jazz Raga (1967) – or genuinely successful individual statements – like Dreams (1968).

Released a full five years before the guitarist’s death, Faces was ultimately Gabor Szabo’s final recorded document released in his adopted homeland. The album didn’t fare particularly well and Szabo and Mercury parted ways a short time later.

Szabo went on to sign with Atlantic Records – for whom he recorded the album Femme Fatale – but was dropped by the label before the album was even released. Szabo then recorded a live album for longtime manager Norman Schwartz’s Gryphon label in 1979, but for whatever reason this was never released either.

Eventually, Szabo took the Femme Fatale tapes to Hungary, where he was able to secure an LP release on the Pepita label of the American-made recording in 1981, shortly before his death.