Magical Connection (1970)
Gabor Szabo

  1. Sombrero Sam (Charles Lloyd)
  2. (They Long to Be) Close to You (Burt Bacharach/Hal David)
  3. Country Illusion (Wolfgang Melz)
  4. Lady with Child (Chuck Blore/Jerry Wright/Don Richman)
  5. Pretty Girl Why (Stephen Stills)
  6. Hum A Song (From Your Heart) (Richard Ross)
  7. Magical Connection (John Sebastian)
  8. Fred and Betty (Gabor Szabo/Richard Thompson)
  9. Love Theme from Spartacus (Alex North)
    Unissued Tracks
  10. Come Together (John Lennon/Paul McCartney)
  11. Hungarian Rhapsody (Franz Liszt)
  12. Feelin’ Alright (Dave Mason)
  13. Down on the Corner (John Fogerty)
  14. Feelin’ Alright [alt take]
  15. The Rambler (Wolfgang Melz)

Gabor Szabo – guitar  
Richard Thompson – keyboards
Wolfgang Melz – electric bass
Jim Keltner – drums
Lynn Blessing – vibes
Emil Richards (1, 4, 8-10), Hal Gordon, Sandra Crouch [listed], Felix “Flaco” Falcon [listed] – percussion
[Erno Neufeld – concertmaster; George Kast, Marilyn Baker, Jack Gootkin, Henry Ferber, Ambrose Russo, Leonard Malarsky, Jerome Reisler – violin; Allan Harshman, Myron Sandler – viola; Anne Goodman, Frederick Seykora – cello; Jules Chaikin – contractor; Nick DeCaro – arranger, conductor] – strings (2, 3, 8, 9)

Recorded May 27 (1, 10), June 3 (6, 11, 12), June 5 (4, 7), June 10 (3, 13), June 12 (14), June 13 (5), June 15 (2), June 26 (15), June 27 (9) and ? (8), 1970, in Los Angeles, California.

Produced by Tommy LiPuma
Engineered by Richard Moore, Bruce Botnick

1 to 9 issued on LP in 1970 as Blue Thumb BTS-23
2 and 9 issued on 45 as Blue Thumb 7118

(The following comes from my review of the 2021 Big Pink CD release of Magical Connection published in Ugly Things #57 – Summer 2021.)

While Santana was breaking out with their hit “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen,” guitarist Gabor Szabo – writer of the largely improvised “Gypsy Queen” – put out his own album, the far too-little regarded Magical Connection. The first of three records Szabo made for Bob Krasnow’s Blue Thumb label, Magical Connection is a largely transitional record in the guitarist’s catalog: veering between the jazz-rock of the sixties toward the electric fusion of the seventies.

Originally issued in November 1970, this album should not be confused with the 2015 Hi Hat release of the same name, which documents a 1976 concert performance that also features the title song.

Szabo’s tenth solo record finally gets its first-ever CD release by the South Korean label Big Pink, which has also issued Szabo-related CDs by The Advancement (some of whom appear here) and Lynn Blessing (who also appears here) that are well worth checking out. This Big Pink issue beautifully replicates this album’s gatefold release, with its bizarre cover and inside spread – while providing a nice insert with Szabo’s biography and discography.

It’s a terrific presentation and a superb-sounding release of an unfortunately forgotten chapter in the guitarist’s all-too brief discography. Here, Szabo assembled a remarkably cohesive group of musicians that were as adept at jazz accompaniment and improvisation as welcoming to rock’s rhythms and electrification.

Keyboardist Richard Thompson had played with the Beach Boys, Spanky and Our Gang (“Lazy Day”) and John Klemmer. Bassist Wolfgang Melz did time with John Klemmer and The Doors. Sandra Crouch (Andraé’s sister) played with Mongo Santamaria and Neil Diamond. And, of course, Jim Keltner, whose earliest records were with Szabo, had been on hits by Delaney and Bonnie and Joe Cocker.

The group coheres surprising well, making an especially nice noise, though, perhaps, a bit too mellifluous for its own good. Any pretension toward the edge of rock is smoothed over and the result remarkably prefigures the early 70s fusion for which CTI would soon become reviled and, later, revered (little wonder that Szabo himself would head to CTI in a few short years).

Nick DeCaro, who, at the time, was known for sweetening songs by Andy William and Claudine Longet, adds mostly unnecessary strings on several tracks here – “Close to You,” “Country Illusion,” “Fred and Betty” and “Love Theme form Spartacus.” The additions are negligible but show that the players – and their handlers – were unsure where to take the music at this point.

The set is a particularly well-programed blend of off-beat covers and low-key band originals. Surprisingly starting with neither the title song nor a pop cover, the album gets off to a galloping good start with “Sombrero Sam,” the 1966 song the Charles Lloyd Quartet hit with shortly after Szabo left Lloyd’s employ.

Covers include the Carpenters’ breakout hit “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” an earworm that seems perfectly suited to Szabo’s lighter side, Buffalo Springfield’s 1969 single “Pretty Girl Why,” Jerry Wright’s otherwise mawkish “Lady with Child” (originally called “See the Lady with Child”) and Lulu’s catchy Top 40 hit “Hum a Song (From Your Heart).”

Not surprisingly, Szabo improves upon the originals, particularly on “Hum a Song,” where he fires up the funk and fires off some of his best playing on the record.

The album’s highlight, though, is surely the album’s enchanting title track (curiously buried in the middle of the record’s second side). It is an inspired concoction. Szabo is so commanding, indeed spellbinding, on John Sebastian’s “Magical Connection,” that it seems as though the song was written especially for him.

Originally heard on the record John B. Sebastian (also engineered by Magical Connection’s Bruce Botnick), the transfixing hippy poem is about the supernatural mystery of two hearts becoming one (and possibly suggests the impetus for Szabo to add vibes to his group – not to mention one of the only two places on the album where Szabo briefly deploys his crowd-pleasing feedback effect, the other being “Fred and Betty”).

This connection is precisely the union Szabo, the musician, constantly strived to make with his audience. So magical is his connection to this particular song that “Magical Connection” was kept in Szabo’s repertoire throughout the remainder of his career, becoming one of the guitarist’s signature pieces and most popular performances.

Bassist Wolfgang Melz’s lovely “Country Illusion” begs the question why the album couldn’t have been more band originals and less pop covers. The odd two-part invention “Fred and Betty” probably answers that question.

Sadly, the German émigré Melz, who was a tremendous asset to Szabo’s group, remains to this day a vastly underrated musician and composer. Melz contributed a good number of songs to Szabo’s band book during the early seventies and the guitarist gave over the majority of his 1973 album, Rambler, to the bassist’s intriguing compositions.

In yet another surprise, the record closes with the lovely “Love Theme from Spartacus,” the 1960 movie theme previously covered by Yusef Lateef, Bill Evans and Ramsey Lewis (and now considered a jazz standard). It was likely Szabo himself who suggested the tune and he lends it the exotic lyrical lilt that only he could provide. Unaccountably, though, the song fades just as Szabo warms it into a low burn of the “Divided City” or “Somewhere I Belong” strata that he was so well-versed at delivering.

A decade later, Carlos Santana, no doubt inspired by Szabo’s performance here, would deliver his own exceptionally Szabo-esque take on the “Spartacus” theme, a spell he’d weave with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter.

Magical Connection goes down well upon each hearing but somehow invites fewer repeated listens than it deserves. “There is very little new about this album,” wrote Record World in 1970, “very little that one would call ground-breaking jazz. But throughout, the listening is mighty pretty and mighty easy.” Agreed.

Szabo, in melodic mode throughout, skates through the set so breezily that it feels less like the gauntlet that “Gypsy Queen” threw down only a few years before and more like the appeal of someone hoping to be liked – or desperate to be heard.

Curiously, during these sessions Szabo and company tackled such better-known – and potentially fierier – fare as “Come Together,” “Feelin’ Alright” and “Down on the Corner” (not to mention Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” and Melz’s “Rambler,” which the guitarist recorded for later albums). Since the final product (and the Big Pink CD) offers up none of these pieces, it seems the producers didn’t want to present Szabo as an obvious coverer of pop tunes – something suggesting a has-been playing catch-up.

Musically, there’s nothing wrong with this record. But its failure to tap into the zeitgeist and its ultimate lack of popular success (the album did reach number 13 on Billboard’s Jazz chart) is likely the reason Blue Thumb insisted on bringing in gun-for-hire Bobby Womack for Szabo’s next record, High Contrast.

The better-known High Contrast is, in this writer’s opinion, only a moderately stronger album – in fact a favorite of many Gabor Szabo fans – but the nearly-forgotten Magical Connection presents the seed of what went into making that album and offers much that is worth hearing again – or, for many, the first time.