Gabor Szabo 1969 (1969)
Gabor Szabo

  1. Dear Prudence (John Lennon/Paul McCartney)
  2. Sealed with a Kiss (Peter Udell/Gary Geld)
  3. Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell)
  4. Walk Away Renee (Michael Brown/Bob Calilli/Tony Sansone)
  5. You Won’t See Me (John Lennon/Paul McCartney)
  6. Michael from Mountains (Joni Mitchell)
  7. Stormy (Buddy Buie/James Cobb/Dennis Yost)
  8. In My Life (John Lennon/Paul McCartney)
  9. I’ve Just Seen a Face (John Lennon/Paul McCartney) 
  10. Until It’s Time for You to Go (Buffie St. Marie)
  11. Somewhere I Belong (Gabor Szabo)
  12. Stormy [single edit]

Gabor Szabo, François Vaz – guitar
Mike Melvoin – organ
Lajos “Louis” Kabok – bass
Randy Cierly – electric bass
Jim Keltner – drums, percussion
George Ricci – cello

Recorded on January 20-24, 1969, at United Recording Studio, Los Angeles, California. (George Ricci likely recorded later in New York City.)

Produced by Gary McFarland. Executive Producer: Norman Schwartz
Engineer: Andy Richardson
Notes: Peter Smith. Quote: Leonard Feather

1 to 11 issued on LP in 1969 on Skye SK-9
12 and 1 issued on 45 as Skye 4515

I.

It was the year Richard Nixon took the “silent majority” to the White House. The Beatles bid farewell from a London rooftop and Neil Armstrong took one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. It was also the year that was forever marked by the Manson Family, the Zodiac Killer and Altamont.

In many ways, 1969 was a pivotal year. It was also the title of the lone album Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo (1936-82) put out that year. Gabor Szabo 1969, also known simply as 1969, is Szabo’s ninth album under his own name and is itself a pivotal release.

The title is a provocation. Is Szabo – who infamously claimed “jazz is dead” only a couple years before – proposing the forward journey jazz might take? Or, is he yielding to the commercial pressures that lead to albums with desperate-sounding words like “Now” or “Today” in the title?

Likely, it’s a bit of both. 1969 is, for the most part, a pop-rock hit parade. But it’s an unusual program, with less-than-obvious selections – delivered by the guitarist in his iconic and wholly individual way.

The album comes exactly one year after Szabo formed the Skye Recordings label with fellow musicians Gary McFarland and Cal Tjader. Like so many artist-run jazz labels before and since, however, Skye was struggling. In only its first year, it managed to release seven albums, all with popular crossover appeal. But the albums weren’t crossing over in a very big way.

“[W]e are not making strictly jazz records now,” Skye President Norman Schwartz told Record World magazine in early 1969. “The problem is, how do we convince the dealers and the stations? Some stations will say flatly, ‘We don’t program jazz.’ While some jazz stations say, ‘That’s not jazz.’” It was a conundrum that was confounding listeners, too.

Gabor Szabo exploded onto the American jazz scene in the early sixties. His unusual approach and unique sound brought something startling and new to jazz. With Chico Hamilton, Charles Lloyd and Gary McFarland, Szabo offered something few in jazz had ever heard before: guitarist as enchanter and conjurer and musician as storyteller and mesmerist.

Once Szabo declared his independence in 1966, he also proved how seamlessly jazz can blend the Beatles and Bacharach with Latin and Indian styles. The guitarist released a string of albums on Impulse that challenged many assumptions about jazz and stand out today as some of the most radical, yet appealing music of the period.

But the times were woefully a-changing. Szabo biographer Károly Libisch considers the year 1969 a “turning point” for the guitarist. The spell Szabo weaved in the press was beginning to wane. The blizzard of coverage he generated in the previous few years began to trickle off. Perhaps the rise of rock – and rock-guitar heroes – tamped down the guitarist’s exotic allure and faddish charm.

Then, too, Szabo’s erratic behavior started attracting poor notices and hastened the demise of his storied quintet, featuring guitarist Jimmy Stewart and percussionist Hal Gordon, in late 1968. Now, both Gabor Szabo, the artist and businessman, needed a hit. 1969 was his response to the call of 1969.

II.

At first glance, Szabo appeared to be mining the successful formula that brought great popularity to the recently-deceased Wes Montgomery. But one listen suggests something altogether different. While ten of the album’s eleven tracks are pop covers, these were songs that weren’t much covered in jazz. A higher-than-average quotient of “break-up” or troubled-relationship songs seem to prevail as well.

The album’s somber and overall melancholy tone is immediately apparent. Indeed, Mike Melvoin’s organ and George Ricci’s cello lend the record an unexpectedly baroque feel. (This is as close to an organ-combo record the guitarist ever came – and it sounds nothing like that sort of record.)

The surprisingly lush-sounding small group brings back bassist Louis Kabok and Jim Keltner from Szabo’s Dreams, adding Melvoin and Randy Cierly (Sterling) on electric bass, both of whom participated (with Keltner) in the November 1968 sessions for Skye’s Wendy & Bonnie album Genesis.

Guitarist François Vaz, a veteran of Lou Rawls and Carmen McRae’s bands, is a pleasant foil for Szabo. But he adds little of the chemistry or invention and inspiration Jimmy Stewart often brought to the guitarist’s quintet.

The album opens with “Dear Prudence,” the first of four Beatles covers heard here. Szabo’s “Prudence” is true to the original – and seductively and appropriately leans to an Indian sound – but like too much of the album, fades just as the guitarist makes something of his own of the song.

“Someone must have given Gabor a copy of Rubber Soul,” noted Mike Stax of Ugly Things, “because he does three songs from that album here: ‘You Won’t See Me,’ ‘In My Life’ and ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face.’” All three are pretty straight-forward, and, with the exception of “Face,” restrict Gabor to making the melody statement and little more. The minimalist “In My Life” is beautifully handled – aided by an effectively modulated cello part – but ends all-too abruptly and a bit unimaginatively.

Szabo must have also sampled Judy Collins’s 1967 album Wildflowers for the two Joni Mitchell numbers, “Michael from Mountains,” and “Both Sides Now.” “Michael” allows Szabo to take some welcome creative liberties while the ethereal “Both Sides Now,” surely one of the album’s highpoints, finds Melvoin adding a wistful counterpoint that beautifully brings out the song’s existential sadness.

Another of the album’s highlights is “Stormy,” the 1968 Classics IV hit. It was new at the time Szabo first covered it, but it’s easy to see how personal this song might have been for the guitarist. The lyrics seemed to echo much of the regret he was beginning to experience in his life and his music: “Oh Stormy, bring back that sunny day.”

Little wonder that the song stayed in the guitarist’s repertoire until the end of his life. “Stormy” could also be heard on the 1974 album Gabor Szabo Live and Belsta River, from 1978, the same year Santana released its version of the song, which later became a Top 40 hit.

“Stormy” (backed with “Dear Prudence”) was issued as a limited-run promotional-only single. But it did not garner the airplay or popularity necessary for widespread release. Later, however, John Legend sampled “Stormy” (specifically Melvoin’s organ intro) for his Top 10 hit “Save Room.”

Brian Hyland’s 1962 hit “Sealed with a Kiss” (which was most recently a hit for Gary Lewis) could easily have come from Dreams, with Vaz in Jimmy Stewart mode, Ricci bowing beneath the sad refrain and Szabo sealing it with a mere peck of a passionate solo.

The Left Banke’s 1966 baroque-rock hit “Walk Away Renee” benefits from Szabo’s always tasteful use of controlled feedback and winds up with the guitarist’s patented jingle jangle, which again fades just as it gets interesting. Buffy St. Marie’s folkish “Until It’s Time for You to Go” (which probably came to Szabo via Nancy Sinatra’s version) is perfect for a guitarist steeped in Hungarian folk traditions.

The album’s single most riveting and memorable track is Szabo’s sole original, “Somewhere I Belong.” The typically hypnotic Szabo line is so captivating that one is inclined to forget all else that came before it. There is more of Szabo’s fire and flair for melodic invention here than anywhere else on the record.

It finds Szabo in conversations with himself. The title evokes a search (for self? for peace? for home? for Nirvana?), while the song’s many voices suggest the answer is likely elusive. Libisch astutely likens this moody and entrancing bit of psyche rock to “Careful with That Axe, Eugene,” from Pink Floyd’s landmark Ummagumma, released later in the year.

III.

Around the time of this album’s January 1969 sessions, Szabo, Vaz and Kabok performed live at Shelly’s Manne Hole, their sets likely seasoned with songs from 1969. A couple weeks later, the trio was joined by drummer Al Cecchi for a week’s engagement at the famed El Matador club in San Francisco.

It was there in the early-morning hours of February 4 that Szabo was beaten, stabbed and robbed. The incident was likely drug-related, but Szabo remarkably managed to come back for that night’s performance. The pain, it seems, was too much for him, so he went back home to Los Angeles while the trio finished out the remainder of the week’s gig without him.

The album was released in August 1969, six months after the Frisco incident. Initial reviews were positive. Cash Box raved that Gabor Szabo 1969 “is magnificent music, and an album that deserves great success” while Record World called it “luscious guitaring” that features “lots of contemporary material, which he makes completely his own.”

DownBeat, which didn’t address the album until the no-longer 1969 of January 1970, bemoaned Szabo’s transition from “developer of complex, eclectic solo lines” to performer of pop songs. The magazine did, however, praise Szabo’s good taste in material and talent for “eliminating the worthless and weighing out a fine, pure distillate.”

Szabo was charged with promoting 1969 during his September run in Las Vegas with Lena Horne at Caesar’s Palace. This is likely where the singer became acquainted with “In My Life,” which not only appears on the duo’s album Lena & Gabor (recorded in late 1969) but was also a feature for Ms. Horne on the March 1970 TV special “Harry & Lena.”

Gabor Szabo 1969 never did find the success it was seeking. But it remains a lovely listening experience that finds the guitarist at his melodic best at an important crossroads in his recording career.  

Libisch praises the record as “an elaborate, beautifully played [and] pleasant record.” But AllMusic’s Alex Henderson probably says it best when he states “[t]he Hungarian guitarist doesn’t always stretch out as much as he could on this album” but he “still deserves credit for bringing a jazz perspective to songs that so many other improvisers were ignoring.”

Douglas Payne
June 2021