Record collecting is a trip with no destination, just a plethora of highly satisfying layovers. The minute you finally find that one album you’ve been coveting forever, you’re already dreaming of another distant, elusive prize. You spend a chunk of time marinating in a specific genre, niche or artist, only to be swayed by new genres and sub-genres, forever greener pastures. It’s a happy, gypsy-like existence. Taking each night’s pleasure from the discovery of the day.
But every collector has a center of gravity, an anchor buried deep in the tempest of his archive, the calm spiritual eye of the storm of his restless mind. I’m talking about that niche or style or artist that rings a bell deep inside. The music you are always trying to find when you are finding other cool things. The music you would keep if otherwise forced to sell off every album you own. They’re not necessarily the rarest or the coolest records, or even the ones you paid the most money for or play most frequently for visitors. It is simply the music you will hunt down forever, until you have everything. The music you debate buying as a second or third or fourth copy because it's in slightly better condition than the one you have, or you want to gift it to friends (who don’t have turntables)… It’s not just the reason you started collecting, it’s the reason you still do.
For me, this compulsive, completist obsession begins and ends with jazz guitartist Gabor Szabo. There are many reasons why. He was a tragic, compelling individual who died too young (46); he was a mystical, indulgent, frustrating artist whose incredible beauty was offset by demons of his own making (heroin, Scientology, Ferraris). He loved California (he lived in the L.A. hills above the Strip; recorded and toured up and down the West Coast extensively, and played with a roster full of L.A.’s premier rock, jazz and pop session musicians.)
His music is incredibly diverse and evolving, but always defined by a mythical-romantic Gypsy strain, a haunting, indelible echo of the lost past of his native Budapest. Gabor Szabo taught himself guitar at 15 and managed to flee Communist Hungary in the nick of time, settling in the U.S. in the late Fifties. He attended the Berklee School of Music, making close friendships with Sixties jazz notables Gary McFarland and Cal Tjader. He apprenticed on the East Coast, playing guitar for Chico Hamilton and then Charles Lloyd, before re-locating to the West Coast and establishing a notable solo career on Impulse through the early-mid Sixties. He was something of an anomaly at the label, and to this day his contribution is inadequately recollected at “The House that ‘Trane Built.”
In a quiet, unassuming way, he was a jazz revolutionary, and the perfect voice to carry American jazz into the rock atmosphere of the Sixties. He was one of the very first to bring contemporary rock songs of the era (what he referred to as “pop-rock”) into the jazz canon. When others were happy to trot out the 1,587th version of “My Funny Valentine,” Gabor was embracing Donovan, the Animals, Jefferson Airplane, and especially George Harrison (who had a profound effect on Gabor’s direction, if not his exemplary style). Beginning with Spellbinder in 1966 (which many rate his best album) and continuing through Simpatico (an interesting pairing with Gary McFarland), The Sorcerer, More Sorcery, the pre-psychedelic, Indian instrument-infused classic, Jazz Raga (in which Gabor’s overdubbed out-of-tune sitar playing is famously sampled by the Dust Brothers and Beck on Odelay), to Wind, Sky and Diamonds, a strange time-capsule of an album that pits Gabor’s playing side by side with an innocuous vocal harmony group called the California Dreamers; Gabor Szabo carved out a successful career and became a jazz sensation.
In the late Sixties, he left Impulse and started Skye Records with his friends McFarland and Tjader, and produced in succession three of his most compelling, vital and uncompromising albums: Bacchanal, Dreams, and Gabor Szabo 1969, before the label’s unfortunate demise. Of these, Dreams in the most unique, and the hardest to find. It is an inspired work of artistic vision and consummate, exacting technical skill, from the exquisite cover art (a monochromatic engraving of mythological themes in the style of Aubrey Beardsley or Gustave Dore) to the fine arrangements by Gary McFarland that provide a full, dreamy orchestral sweep without being intrusive or overwhelming, to the incredible lacy interplay between Gabor’s impassioned, enigmatic solos and guitartist Jimmy Stewart’s delicate, trellis-like rhythms. Dreams is an overlooked masterwork by an underappreciated master.
In some ways, Dreams is the moonlight equivalent of Miles Davis’ aloof, sun-drenched Sketches of Spain (minus the trumpet). Dreams is dreamy, in a crystalline, spider-web way, full complexity and finely etched illusions. But it is also very warm and captures distinctly what Gabor himself termed, in a Down Beat Magazine “blindfold test” from 1975, an “emotional message,” that is simultaneously personal, passionate, and otherworldly.
The record begins with a Szabo original, “Galatea’s Guitar,” an album standout that immediately sets an erotic tone with a percussive crack, followed by a hissing guitar line that is either the first fluttering gaze of the sleeping snake or the ready en garde of the charmer. In fact, it is the dance of both snake and charmer, locked in a smoldering, willful battle of sound, movement and glance. The sultry groove builds slowly, steadily to its climax, with cymbals suddenly crashing, guitars going haywire, organ vamping like a foot stomping a blaze, and the snake revealed to be the Kundalini Serpent, flying on wings beyond the physical realm into the spiritual chaos. It all ends abruptly, with a last repetition of the melody fading out, the musical equivalent of a lit cigarette and a well-earned first drag.
“Half the Day is Night” is an achingly beautiful ballad, written by McFarland, which serves as a perfect example of the magical connection between Gabor and accompanist Jimmy Stewart. Stewart lays down the setting, the room, the burning candles, the dusk outside the windows, while Gabor is the pure melancholy feeling of the lonely soul inside, pouring out his heart to the moon, until dawn comes bringing a repetition of the opening all over again.
The album winds on in an uninterrupted spell, a waking dream that weaves a tapestry varied, but of a piece, broken only by the distinct up tempo Hungarian folk flavorings at the end “The Fortune Teller” (Javol!). But Dreams ends on a dazzling high point: a cover of the Donovan song, “Ferris Wheel,” that brings us back to earth and takes us on a new journey altogether. I’ve never heard Donovan’s original, and I don’t ever want to. This is the only version for me, with the quintet setting up the mechanism, the recurring melody like a gear patiently turning in an old-fashioned, eternal machine, as Gabor’s solo guitar lines rise up and down in a circle of wisdom, grabbing at the stars, falling, then reaching over to pluck a flower from the grass below. It becomes a melodic mantra, one that seems to have begun before this album was recorded and will go on forever in the world and in your soul once you’ve committed it. I first heard “Ferris Wheel” on the day I held my sister’s hand as she delivered her third child. Two years to the day after we sat together in a hospital room watching our father die. This song was in my heart then, before I’d heard it. And it stays in my heart now, and for all times to come.
That is the beauty of Gabor. He has an ability to reach beyond musical structures and compositions and melodies and formats to touch something ancient, timeless and essential. It's the vibration to which our collective souls are tuned. He reached it, moved in time and harmony with it, and the pain of that deep beauty probably killed him. But he’s left his clues for us, the gift of a life’s effort. It’s criminal that so little of his work has been re-released for mass consumption, but that's part of the meaning of it. You have to make your own effort, not a big one really, to go out and seek his teaching. The message is there in the music, but not always is the music. Even late in his career, when he was putting it down for the money (and the heroin habit), surrounding himself with cheesy disco environments (Bunny Sigler) and over the top production (Bob James) his solos seem to operate on a separate plane, a mercurial whisper of truth practically lost in a artificial, commercial soundscapes. May that whisper continue to be heard.
On a final note, my own "magical connection" to Gabor Szabo began in one of those seemingly random ways in which destiny always arrives. A week before my dad was diagnosed with cancer I "accidentally" downloaded three Szabo tracks while looking for someone else's music. I'd never heard of him. I put those tracks on my Ipod and listened to them nonstop on my flight back to Tennessee. They provided the theme to a scary and uncertain future. I went to my hometown record store, Chad's, to find his stuff on vinyl and bought two of his records on the spot. (You can find them; they're around.) Nearly five years later, I'm still looking... Wanna know which tracks were on my Ipod? (Hint-- click above.)
GABOR SZABO DREAMS, 1968, Skye Recording Co., Ltd.