b: March 8, 1936. d: February 26, 1982.
Encouraged by Chico Hamilton to develop his own unique style, Gabor Szabo found 1965 to be a most decisive turning point in his career. He had matured from mere player and rhythmist to recognized musical force and unique jazz personality.
His metallic sound and mixture of single-note phrasings with chordal flurries was easily recognized and admired by jazz listeners. Shortly after celebrating the birth of his son, Blaise, on February 10, Szabo left the Hamilton group to accept an invitation to join Charles Lloyd’s newly-formed quartet; what Szabo would later call a “supergroup,” featuring bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams (or Pete LaRoca).
While Szabo would continue to actively record with Hamilton for the next year and a half (two excellent Latin-flavored dates, El Chico and The Further Adventures of El Chico), he began to perform in New York clubs with the Lloyd quartet and in the Spring of 1965 recorded Of Course, Of Course, a superior collection of challenging Lloyd performances in the Spring of 1965.
While Szabo enjoyed and appreciated the harmonious musical contrasts created with Lloyd, his tastes were less inclined toward Lloyd’s “energy music” and more toward the romanticism of ballads and the appeal of rock-and-roll.
Gary McFarland, a fellow Berklee student who had since made a name for himself as a significant jazz composer and arranger with several impressive collaborations (Stan Getz, John Lewis and Bill Evans), had similar feelings and, like Szabo, wanted to bring jazz and rock together.
Following the popular success of McFarland’s Soft Samba record, McFarland was afforded the opportunity to assemble a working quintet. He invited Szabo to participate and the two began a successful musical union that would last over the next five years.
With McFarland, Szabo recorded The In Sound for Verve, a terrific sampler of McFarland’s popular sensibilities and Szabo’s effective soloing. The two paired again later in the year to record the guitarist’s debut solo recording, Gypsy ’66, for Impulse! Records.
McFarland was then commissioned to have a jazz orchestra perform his compositions at Lincoln Center in February 1966. He was given the opportunity to choose the very best of New York’s jazz musicians for the orchestra and wrote a piece, “Mountain Heir,” in honor of his star guitarist, Gabor Szabo. The event solidified Szabo’s new star status and led Szabo to begin pursuing his own solo career in jazz.
Szabo’s solo career was memorably launched in May 1966 when he teamed with Chico Hamilton and Ron Carter for what arguably remains his very best recording, Spellbinder.
The album is an inventive, exciting and unusual collection of Szabo originals, jazz standards and rock tunes like Sonny & Cher’s hit “Bang Bang” that benefits by its jam-session origins and Latin flourishes. It also yielded a hit in 1970 when the rock group Santana added the riff of Szabo’s “Gypsy Queen” to its Top 40 version of “Black Magic Woman.”
Later in the month, Szabo again collaborated with Gary McFarland on Simpatico, an uneven collection of brief, Beatlesque pop tunes clearly aimed toward a more commercial audience (i.e. non-jazz listeners).
Szabo was now listening intently to the young guitarists who were making new sounds in rock; especially Eric Clapton, George Harrison and, a little later, Jimi Hendrix.
After many years of fascination with Indian music and the work of Ravi Shankar, Szabo assembled a small group featuring drummer Bernard Purdie in August 1966 to record Jazz Raga.
This outstanding collection successfully wed Szabo’s divergent interests in jazz, rock and Indian music — but found the iconoclastic guitarist overdubbing his own sitar playing (on a badly-tuned instrument) overtop his equally sitar-like guitar playing.
While the album received mixed reactions, it furthered Szabo’s willingness to experiment and even innovate.