The Troy Street Observer

Gabor Szabo: The Sorcerer

There was excitement in the air on Boylston Street on the night of April 14, 1967. The sign outside the Jazz Workshop announced, “Live Recording Tonite!” Inside, the crew from Impulse Records was setting up to record the Gabor Szabo Quintet. Cables snaked out the door to a van parked out front, where producer Bob Thiele sat at the mixing board. If all went well, the session would produce guitarist Gabor Szabo’s first live recording, and his fourth album for Impulse in two years.

Photo of Gabor Szabo, 1967
Gabor Szabo, 1967

Gabor Szabo grew up in Budapest, where as a boy he heard the gypsies play. He saw Roy Rogers in a movie and knew he wanted to be a guitar player, but he forgot about cowboys when he heard jazz on the Voice of America. He fled Communist Hungary in 1956 as a refugee.

Szabo first settled in Los Angeles, coming east in 1958 to study at Berklee, one of its earliest international students. He studied guitar with Chet Kruley and arranging with Herb Pomeroy. The international contingent during Gabor’s two years at Berklee included pianists Toshiko Akiyoshi and Dizzy Sal, trombonist Mike Gibbs, drummer Petar Spassov, and arranger Arif Mardin.

Szabo played with the International Youth Band at Newport in 1958, with Dusko Gojkovic and Albert Mangelsdorff among others. He also worked with a Boston theater troupe, the Actors Company, on Charles Street. It is unclear if he provided musical accompaniment or actually tried his hand at acting. That’s a mystery to solve another day.

In 1960 Szabo returned to Los Angeles, where he scuffled for a time before joining drummer Chico Hamilton in 1962. Chico’s band was enormously influential in the early 1960s, and some consider it a west coast analog to Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Szabo was with Hamilton on and off for three years. Then Gabor worked with Gary McFarland, and then with his Hamilton bandmate, Charles Lloyd. He formed his own group in late 1966.

Bob Thiele and Impulse Records

Enter Bob Thiele, one of the top record producers in jazz and the Man to See at Impulse Records. Thiele was well aware of the changes sweeping over the music scene in the mid 1960s. No one was working harder to build a bridge between jazz and rock, and in Gabor Szabo, he found an ideal crossover artist. Szabo, with his impeccable jazz credentials, cheerfully admitted he liked pop and rock tunes, and he liked to play them.

Szabo listened to everything, and worked it all into his repertoire. There was the music of his native Hungary with its echos of gypsy jazz. He heard rock, and Spanish guitar, and Brazilian sambas. He immersed himself fully in the Indian music then making inroads in the west. To all of it he brought his prodigious guitar technique, a relentless attack built on precisely crafted single-note lines.

Szabo recorded a pair of albums for Impulse in 1966, Gypsy ’66 and Spellbinder. The former was a revelation. Impulse Records historian Ashley Kahn, in The House That Trane Built, identified Gypsy ’66 (AS-9105) as “the label’s first title to lean heavily on rock or pop material of the day, featuring two covers each of tunes by the Beatles and Burt Bacharach.”

Spellbinder (AS-9123) continued the pattern. There were jazz standards like “Witchcraft” and “My Foolish Heart,” but also the pop ballad “It Was a Very Good Year,” and Sonny & Cher’s rocker “Bang, Bang.” Szabo also contributed “Gypsy,” a tune later championed by Carlos Santana.

Recording The Sorcerer

Szabo arrived at the Workshop in April 1967 with neither piano nor horns. With him was a second guitarist, Jimmy Stewart, classically trained. The bassist was Louis Kabok, a friend from Budapest days. Marty Morrell was on drums, and Hal Gordon on percussion.

Photo of the entry to the Jazz Workshop Apr 14, 1967.
April 14, 1967. Photo courtesy Fred Taylor and possibly taken by Lee Tanner.

Among the tracks laid down over two nights of recording were Sonny Bono’s “The Beat Goes on,” Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love,” and the Szabo originals “Space” and “Mizrab,” inspired by the musics of Hungary and India. The resulting album, The Sorcerer (AS-9146), came out in August. In 1968 Impulse released more of the Jazz Workshop material on More Sorcery (AS-9167), which included “People” from the Broadway stage, and the flamenco-influenced “Los Matadoros.” Clearly, everything current in music was fair game for Gabor Szabo in 1967.

The reviewers liked The Sorcerer—except for one track. Jazz & Pop reviewed it in May 1968, with John Szwed liking the jazz tunes—“Music of considerable grace and freedom”—but not the rock. Of “The Beat Goes on,” Szwed wrote “I can’t imagine the Boston Pops playing this tune with less understanding.” Harvey Siders gave the album four stars in Down Beat (April 18, 1968). The Szabo/Stewart interplay on “What Is This Thing” received special praise. And “Beat?” Siders dismissed it as “uninspired rock hammering.”

But back to the Jazz Workshop. Szabo’s band proved so popular, it played a return engagement five months later. A reviewer from Boston After Dark closed his piece by saying this: “Szabo swings, but gracefully, without pretension. His music is what’s happening now… See him, listen to him, forget his ostensible billing as a jazz guitarist. He makes beautiful sounds. He makes music.”

On to The Sorcerer, all of which is on YouTube, including “The Beat Goes on,” critical panning aside. Here’s that guitar conversation between Gabor Szabo and Jimmy Stewart.

And here is the Indian-influenced “Space,” with some rock-inspired guitar effects.

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