Live In Cleveland (2022)
Gabor Szabo

  1. It Happens (Tony Dumas)
  2. Autumn Leaves (Joseph Kosma/Jacques Prévert/Johnny Mercer)
  3. Magical Connection (John Sebastian)
  4. Concorde (Nightflight) (Gabor Szabo)

Gabor Szabo – electric guitar
unknown – keyboards, bass, drums
Charlie Kendall – announcer

Recorded August 17, 1976, by Agency Recording Studio live at the Agora Ballroom, Cleveland, Ohio

Original recording produced by Hank LoConti
Executive Producer for New World of Jazz: Denny Martin
Engineers: Arnie Rosenberg, Jim Hillenbrand, Ken Tomsick
Mastering: Jessica Thompson

1 to 10 issued in 2022 on LP as Ebalunga!!! EBL/013LP and CD as Ebalunga!!! EBL/013

One of the great pleasures of jazz is hearing its best players live.

Studio recordings all-too rarely reveal what players like Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, and Jaco Pastorius could and did accomplish live. There is an engaging intimacy between a gifted improviser and an appreciative audience that can’t be duplicated by soloists reacting to demanding producers.

For those of us who weren’t able to hear such titans live, concert recordings become a panacea to understanding what makes a great jazz musician truly great.

Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo (1936-82) issued only three live recordings during his lifetime. Significantly, the first of these, The Sorcerer (1967), remains the most popular album in the guitarist’s all-too abbreviated discography. But there were also More Sorcery (1968) and Gabor Szabo Live with Charles Lloyd (1974), offering Szabo totally in his element and at his bewitching best.

Several more of Szabo’s concert recordings have surfaced in the intervening years, including this one, superbly captured for radio broadcast live in 1976 at the 600-seat Agora Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio. It is a revelation. There is a sense here that concert patrons may have been hearing an altogether different Gabor Szabo than record buyers.

For one thing, Szabo is heard fronting what is likely his own group, rather than an army of studio musicians. In 1976, Szabo was leading a tremendous quartet with George Cables (or Joanne Grauer) on piano, Tony Dumas on bass and Sherman Ferguson on drums. Szabo had not had a band with this much jazz clout since his famed quartet with Jimmy Stewart in 1967-68 – and it is a union worth savoring: Szabo’s records during this period were light, at best, on jazz.

It’s unclear if any of these musicians are on the Agora date, but as Dumas’s “It Happens” opens the program, it’s a good bet, at least, that the bassist is on board here. But as Szabo’s ’76 quartet is not known to have recorded a studio record, Live in Cleveland is the closest thing to what a mid-seventies Szabo jazz album would sound like.

Gone, are the strings, vocals and concessions to commercial consideration so prevalent on so many of Szabo’s studio records at the time. What is present, though, is fine craftsmanship, tremendous interplay, and the exciting improvisation that good jazz always yields.

This particular concert was part of Sansui’s “New World of Jazz,” a series of 13 hour-long jazz concerts recorded at Cleveland’s iconic Agora Ballroom and broadcast over 40 FM radio stations. The series was sponsored by Sansui Electronics, a Japanese manufacturer of audio and video equipment, which previously sponsored a similar series of rock concerts recorded at the Agora as well.

Sansui was promoting its matrix QS 4-channel sound system – offering, what was considered at the time, superior diagonal separation and stereo compatibility. The firm, partnering with Agora Ballroom and Agency Recording Studio owner Hank LoConti (1929-2014), was looking to take advantage of what they rightly felt was the then-current jazz renaissance.

The concerts, captured on Tuesdays, the club’s designated “jazz night,” started broadcasting in July 1976. Kicking off the series were acts likely recorded earlier in the year: Billy Cobham and George Duke (possibly recorded in March), the Brecker Brothers, Weather Report (likely recorded on April 6), Dave Liebman and Lookout Farm and Larry Coryell & The 11th House.

Other shows recorded include Ben Sidran (July 13 – possibly the original date Szabo was scheduled to play), Pat Martino (July 20 – on a bill with Steve Kuhn with Harvie Swartz) and Ronnie Laws (July 27). Also scheduled for the series were Michal Urbaniak, (probably) John Klemmer, Gary Burton, and Dave Brubeck and David Sanborn.

While it’s unclear if all of these concerts were recorded or broadcast, the series continued well into November 1976 with such acts as Lonnie Liston Smith (September 14), Anthony Braxton (September 28), Tony Williams Lifetime (October 5), Dizzy Gillespie (October 19), Shawn Phillips (November 2), Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Orchestra (November 9), Brian Auger (November 16) and Gato Barbieri (November 23).

“Each show’s 16-track master tape was mixed through the Sansui QS 4-channel encoder,” according to an August 1976 Billboard article detailing the arrangement, “for distribution to the 40 FM stations throughout the United States that bought the series” – allowing for three commercial spots for local dealers to advertise.

The New World of Jazz series – originally advertised as “Sansui Presents ‘A Whole New World of Jazz’” – aired here in Pittsburgh on Sunday evenings at 11 pm on WYDD FM 104.7, a station known better for its album-oriented rock (AOR). But the Agora had long had a relationship with Cleveland’s 100.7 WMMS, another rock station that also aired the New World of Jazz series.

For Gabor Szabo’s set (one at 8 pm and the other at 11), the funky “It Happens” opens. It’s a natural for Szabo’s guitar and the groove is right for this electric quartet. Written by bassist Tony Dumas – who had already recorded with Patrice Rushen, Johnny Hammond and George Cables – “It Happens” was a highlight of Szabo’s live sets that year. Surprisingly, the song never appeared on any of the guitarist’s albums, but it can be heard, with Dumas in tow, on J.J. Johnson and Nat Adderley’s 1978 album The Yokohama Concert.

“It Happens” sounds positively sleepy, however, compared to the energized standard “Autumn Leaves.” Szabo opens the tune in signature spellbinding mode (he first waxed the song on the 1966 album Spellbinder) that launches a dynamic piano solo suggesting George Cables’ fingerprints are all over the keys. Each member of the band gets a moment in the spotlight, showing how well this quartet shined together.

“Magical Connection” was, by this time, a signature tune in Szabo’s repertoire. First heard on the guitarist’s 1970 album of the same name, the song pays tribute to the way Szabo connects and communicates with his audience. “Magical Connection” was written by John Sebastian, then enjoying the biggest hit of his career with “Welcome Back,” the theme song to the ABC-TV sit-com Welcome Back, Kotter. The pianist, playing Rhodes during the melody statements, switches to piano for a solo that neatly blends near-free jazz with easy listening flourishes in an alchemy that suits the song superbly.

Closing out with Szabo’s attractive Corea-esque “Concorde (Nightflight),” Szabo and company gel perfectly here for what writer Ed Harrison, in a review of the quartet the month before at the Roxy in Los Angeles, said “successfully capture[s] the intensity of being on a plane at night.” Szabo always thrived in Latin climes and this one, a high point of his then-recent Nightflight album (released in May of that year), is the ideal climax to a wonderful set.

It remains unknown if this music was the result of one set or a compilation of titles from both sets. If more recordings by Szabo at the Agora Ballroom exist, they too remain unknown. What is clear is that this concert finally showcases one of Gabor Szabo’s finest and otherwise unrecorded bands. It also captures the guitarist doing what he does best: casting his spell over an appreciative audience.

While the Cleveland concert would not be “the last time I’ll ever play,” Gabor Szabo surely made people happy that night. Four decades after Gabor Szabo passed away at age 45, Live in Cleveland lives on to make the rest of us happy, too.

Douglas Payne
August 2021

With very special thanks to Marc Baranowski and Mark Cathcart.