Gabor Szabo Biography

Gabor Szabo
b: March 8, 1936. d: February 26, 1982.

Magical Connection

In May 1970, Szabo assembled a sextet including Richard Thompson (keyboards), Wolfgang Melz (electric bass), Jim Keltner (drums), Lynn Blessing (vibes) and Hal Gordon (percussion). His new working group was consciously more percussive and, more significantly, as capable of solid jazz support as they were familiar and comfortable with the differing challenges that rock proposed.

Classically trained pianist Richard Thompson had already toured with the Beach Boys. Both he and Fender bassist Wolfgang Melz were part of the successful pop group, the Association. Vibraphonist Lynn Blessing, a Paul Horn protégé, had recently released his own album of rock-influenced jazz, Sunset Painter (Epic 26488). And all three had recently worked in John Klemmer’s groundbreaking groups.

Now, with his intentions clearly developed, Szabo assembled his group in the studio that summer to record Magical Connection for an eclectic new independent label, Blue Thumb. The record received lukewarm critical appraisal and, unfortunately, sparse sales.

Szabo with Richard Thompson (c. mid 70s)

Szabo would perform throughout the year with variations of the sextet; sometimes as a quartet, others as a quintet. Talented Fender bassist Wolfgang Melz rapidly ascended in importance to the group, providing guitar-quality pyro-technique (before Jaco Pastorious made it irrelevant) and a number of appealing compositions. Melz enhanced Szabo’s book of standards, originals and pop covers with tunes like the fiery “Fingers” (co-written with Szabo),”Rambler,” “Help Me Build A Lifetime” and “Reinhardt.”

In early 1971, Blue Thumb paired Szabo with famed session guitarist and songwriter Bobby Womack to produce High Contrast, a collaboration which endures as a favorite among critics and fans. Even today this record has cult appeal for those discovering the varied work of Bobby Womack and jazz listeners unaware of Szabo’s music in the 1960s.

The album, which serves as a blueprint for the less successful production dates Szabo would participate in later in the decade, features a soulful side of Szabo’s melodic playing, inspired by the silky R & B grooves laid down by Womack (who features some of the songs made famous on his renowned LPs, Communication and Across 110th Street).

High Contrast

“Breezin,” a song Womack brought to the session especially for Gabor Szabo, later became a hit for George Benson (whose album of the same name was also produced by High Contrast‘s producer, Tommy LiPuma).

During this period, Szabo briefly reunited with Charles Lloyd for a studio recording under the reedman’s name (Waves) and a live record under the guitarist’s name (Gabor Szabo Live – issued 1974).

That summer, Szabo accepted an opportunity to become closer to one of his biggest fans, Carlos Santana; who, by 1972, was a world-renowned rock star with a popularity that easily eclipsed Szabo’s. Szabo spent several weeks that summer at Santana’s home in San Francisco, playing with the rock guitarist (whose own sound had evolved into a unique and worthwhile wail of rock, blues, Latin and soul) and his group.

Gabor Szabo (c. early 70s)

It was during this point that Carlos Santana was looking to change the direction of his band and fuse elements of jazz into his recognizable blends of music. Szabo proposed that he and Santana form a group together. Santana declined to begin working with John McLaughlin and Larry Young in a group that yielded the exceptionally fine and creative Love Devotion And Surrender album.

Szabo and Santana, however, remained friends and over the following years collaborated on several songs together. One of their collaborations, “Gardenia,” was modified by Santana (and Herbie Hancock) during the sessions for Santana’s 1980 solo album, The Swing Of Delight. Although Szabo’s contributions were written out of the song, Santana later dedicated the song to Szabo in a DownBeat interview.

Szabo, a man who often formed deep and lasting friendships, seized an opportunity later that summer to renew his relationship with fellow Hungarian and childhood friend Peter Totth. Totth also left Hungary in 1956 and settled in Sweden, where he became an active arranger in jazz and television (he later relocated to the United States).

Small World

Szabo and his wife, Alicia, went to Stockholm in August 1972 and Totth arranged a recording session with Lars Samuelsson, owner of Four Leaf Clover records. The result, Small World, yielded one of Szabo’s finest recordings, pairing the guitarist effectively with European fusion guitarist Janne Schaeffer and offering a sterling solo interpretation of Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez.”

Upon his return to the United States, Szabo sought to rekindle the excitement (and sales) of his mid 60s recordings. He teamed with Creed Taylor, whose CTI Records produced some of the finest (and most profitable) jazz in the early 70s.

The guitarist headed to New York in December 1972 to record Mizrab, an exceptional recording that contains two outstanding performances in Szabo’s own “Mizrab” and “Thirteen,” an adaptation of a Hungarian folk song.

Mizrab

Although the record was made with studio musicians, it reunited Szabo with bassist (and fellow Chico Hamilton “discovery”) Ron Carter and paired him with fellow Berklee alum Bob James (CTI’s in-house arranger at the time). James and Szabo quickly developed a brilliant and effective chemistry that was explored only during Szabo’s brief tenure with CTI: on Rambler, Paul Demond’s Skylark (both 1974) and Macho (1975).

Szabo still performed primarily throughout the West Coast in a variety of aggregates that periodically reunited him with old bandmates Jimmy Stewart and Louis Kabok. Keyboard players Richard ThompsonMike Wofford and Joanne Grauer were also heard in Szabo’s units.

During this period, one of the few constants in his band was drummer Bob Morin — whose trio with Thompson and Wolfgang Melz more often than not constituted Szabo’s “working group.” In September of 1973, Szabo was invited to bring his group to Carnegie Hall in New York to play as part of a guitar triple bill which also featured Laurindo Almedia and John Fahey.

Rambler

During his trip to New York that September, he recorded Rambler at Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studios.