Thursday, June 17, 2021

Gabor Szabo Sounds Out Burt Bacharach

Recently, I was asked to consider Gabor Szabo’s covers of Burt Bacharach. Oddly, it was something I had not thought much about. I had to admit the subject seemed compelling. I learned a lot along the way.

Burt Bacharach Before the Legend

During the late fifties and early sixties, the prolific composer Burt Bacharach wrote dozens and dozens of songs for a vast array of singers. He was behind top hits for Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Marty Robbins, Petula Clark and many others.

Often partnered with lyricist Hal David (or his brother Mack), Bacharach had a special way with a tune. His changes were unusual, coupled with David’s curious turns of phrase. As a result, his music was far more complex than the average repetitive three-chord pop tune. Bacharach’s songs also required especially skilled interpreters, to breathe with the music’s emotional topography.

History was made when Bacharach discovered singer Dionne Warwick. Their first record together, “Don’t Make Me Over” in 1962, became a huge hit. For the next two decades the Bacharach-David-Warwick team racked up an astonishing number of hits, including “Alfie,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “What the World Needs Now is Love” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”

Meanwhile, Bacharach wrote for many other singers, contributed songs to a wide range of films (The Blob!) and, as early as 1962, was even composing scores for film.

Jazz Discovers Burt Bacharach

It took a little while for jazz to catch up with Burt Bacharach. One possible reason for this is that Bacharach’s music has always been considered “easy listening.” Indeed, most of the singers and instrumentalists who covered Bacharach’s songs were considered “easy listening.” Jazz snobs usually shied away from such blatantly popular fare.

But by the mid-sixties, things were changing. The rise of rock and roll, brought on by the Beatles and the British invasion, forced jazz players to appeal more to younger listeners – the ones buying the records.

Another reason may well be that the jazz players, steeped in be-bop and the big bands and coming to terms with the “new thing” avant-garde, just didn’t “get” Bacharach’s music. Like Antonio Carlos Jobim, another prolific composer of beautiful, though, complex melodies, Bacharach composed music that seemed foreign to jazz.

Bacharach himself said in a 2004 interview, “I’ve sometimes felt that my songs are restrictive for a jazz artist.” But “I was excited when [Stan] Getz did a whole album of my music,” referring to the 1968 album What the World Needs Now: Stan Getz Plays Bacharach and David.

Strangely, Bacharach’s entrée into jazz came from the song “Wives and Lovers.” A Top 20 hit for singer Jack Jones in 1963, the song was written to promote the film of the same name, though, oddly, was not a part of the film’s soundtrack, nor heard anywhere in the film.

Still, somehow, “Wives and Lovers” attracted the attention of saxophonist Red Holloway, organist Jimmy Smith, harmonica player/whistler Toots Thielemans and vocalist Billy Eckstine – all of whom recorded versions of the song in 1964. Meanwhile, the Chicago-based 3 Souls featuring Sonny Cox covered Bacharach’s “Walk on By” and “A House is Not a Home” for their 1965 album Soul Sounds.

Jazz players started welcoming Bacharach’s material in to their programs and records. Even jazz tribute albums to Bacharach began to appear by vibraphonist Cal Tjader (1968), saxophonist Sadao Watanabe (1969), flautist Chris Hinze (1971) and pianist Ellis Larkins (1973). Remarkably, there were more jazz tributes to Burt Bacharach during this period than those for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or even Jobim.

Latter-day all-Bacharach discs could also be sampled by guitarist David T. Walker (1995), pianist McCoy Tyner (1997), a John Zorn collective (1997), Bill Frisell (1999 – separately, Frisell has also recorded a few of his own versions of Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now is Love”) and pianist David Hazeltine (2007). Blue Note even put out multi-artist Bacharach-cover compilations in 1997 and 2004.

Gabor Szabo Weighs In

It’s difficult to say just how much Gabor Szabo appreciated or enjoyed Bacharach’s music.

Whether by choice or commerce, the Beatles accounted for significantly more real estate on the guitarist’s records. Szabo covered only five Bacharach numbers between 1965 and 1970, compared to the three Donovan numbers he covered during the same period.

The mix is a curious one of the unfamiliar and well-known, with more inspiration and sincerity in the earlier covers than the later ones. However subjective it may be to say, none of the songs noted here rank among their albums’ highlights.

Indeed, listeners attracted to Szabo for the fireworks of, say, “Gypsy Queen,” the lyricism of “Breezin” or the exoticism of just about any of his own originals will find little satisfaction in his Bacharach covers. And nothing here comes close to Szabo’s takes on the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or Donovan’s “Ferris Wheel” or John Sebastian’s “Magical Connection.”

With few exceptions, much of the Bacharach material Szabo covered (and, in one case, didn’t) rarely rises above “easy listening.” However, all six songs under review here were considered easy listening to begin with. There is very little that sounds much like jazz and, indeed, improvisation is either brief or absent.

Covered here: “Here I Am,” from Gary McFarland’s The In Sound (1965); “The Last to be Loved” and “Walk on By” from Gypsy ’66 (1966); “The Look of Love” from Bacchanal (1968); “Message to Michael” from Lena & Gabor (1970); and “(They Long to be) Close to You” from Magical Connection (1970).

Here I Am: While Gabor Szabo is prominent on much of Gary McFarland’s album The In Sound, he is not at all audible here. In fact, the other songs from this session (“I Concentrate on You” and “Satisfaction”) do not feature Szabo’s obvious sound. But it is worth considering even so.

“Here I Am” is likely included on McFarland’s record due to its appearance, as performed by Dionne Warwick, on the soundtrack to the Bacharach-scored film What’s New Pussycat (1965). Verve, owned by the film studio MGM at the time, often featured film themes on its albums, mostly to promote crossover appeal.

McFarland’s take on “Here I Am,” one of the only jazz covers of the song apart from Steve Kuhn’s 1968 version, is beautiful. He offers up the bah-bah-bah vocalizing he patented to great success on his previous album, Soft Samba, and greatly improves on Warwick’s soapy version.

Given that McFarland participated in four of the five Bacharach tunes Szabo covered elsewhere – also producing and arranging the all-Bacharach program Cal Tjader Sounds Out Burt Bacharach – it seemed as though he might be responsible for the guitarist covering the composer’s music. Now I’m not so sure. As a recording artist, McFarland never recorded another Bacharach song again.

His performance here, however, suggests, he could have made real hay with the Bacharach songbook.

The Last One to be Loved: First recorded by Dionne Warwick in 1964, “The Last One to be Loved” is among Bacharach’s lesser-known compositions. Indeed, Szabo’s cover here is the only known jazz version of the song. But it is a curiously beguiling song. Bacharach seemed to think so too. He produced another version for Lou Johnson (which failed to chart) and then recorded a lovely instrumental version for his own 1965 album Hit Maker!

There is an altogether strong possibility that Bacharach’s is the version Szabo – or Gary McFarland – sampled in consideration of covering the tune. The tune’s unusual melody sounds like a concerto in Bacharach’s hands, tempered by a more subtle arrangement than he offers Ms. Warwick. It is precisely the sort of thing that would appeal to Szabo and, especially, McFarland.

Casting the melody in a sort of soft samba, Szabo and McFarland avail themselves especially well here. From the chorus, Szabo launches into a melodic statement that is both lyrical and haunting. Szabo may well have been served better if instead of “Yesterday,” “The Last One to be Loved” was issued as the album’s single release: it’s unfamiliar, yet catchy and shows off Gabor’s guitaring to good, if unthreatening effect.

Question: is this listener the only one who hears the same dramatic musical device on the line “to be blessed from above” as used for the “I break down and cry” line in “Walk on By”?

Walk on By: A Top 10 hit for Dionne Warwick in 1964, “Walk on By” launched more than a few covers in jazz, including one by Roland Kirk (who seemed to have a genuine affinity for Bacharach) around the same time as Szabo’s version. The song was also later covered by George Benson (who’d recorded it earlier with Jack McDuff) and Grant Green, who played on versions of the song by Stanley Turrentine and Don Patterson.

By all accounts, it’s a well-known song. But Szabo’s cover would likely not have pleased his jazz fans. Everything about “Walk on by” (softly) screamed “easy listening” or what a later critic called Szabo: a performer of pop tunes.

On the other hand, it is an especially elegant performance. McFarland and company give this “Walk” a south-of-the-border stroll that could just as easily have been served up by the Baja Marimba Band.

In a 1967 Blindfold Test, fellow guitarist Wes Montgomery (who covered Bacharach’s “What the World Need Now is Love,” “Wives and Lovers” and “I Say a Little Prayer”) said of Szabo’s cover of “Walk on By”:

"That's…Gabor Szabo...He's got a unique style. It's different…Of course, I didn't think that particular number was too exciting. I've heard him a lot more exciting. The rhythm section didn't have enough bottom in it, and it seemed like there was drive missing. For the soloist, Gabor, I would give him three stars, or maybe 3 1/2, but I would put down two for this particular side. The tune? Yeah! Walk On By."

The Look of Love: Along with “Alfie,” “The Look of Love” is one of the most covered of Burt Bacharach’s songs in jazz, with over 200 entries in Tom Lord’s “Jazz Discography.” And there is good reason: it is one of the sexiest songs ever written – parodied to perfection in the first Austin Powers movie, which also features an appearance of the album Burt Bacharach Plays His Hits and a lovely spot for the man himself.

Another reason is that “The Look of Love” has its origins in jazz. Bacharach’s melody is inspired by the bossa nova records of Stan Getz and its first recording, in December 1966, was by none other than Getz himself (for a Bacharach tribute album that was first issued in 1968).

“The Look of Love” was written as a vehicle for Dusty Springfield as part of Bacharach’s soundtrack to the James Bond spoof Casino Royale. Ms. Springfield’s breathy performance of the tune mimics those Getz bossa nova records with Astrud Gilberto and features a tenor solo that matches Getz’s distinctive style (British saxophonist Teddy Springer is on the 45 version while Teddy Wilson plays sax on the soundtrack version).

When Szabo’s group got together to plan this album, guitarist Jimmy Stewart suggested an album of cover tunes in the quintet’s cohesive and distinctive style. Stewart proposed tunes he wanted to do. Szabo proposed tunes he wanted to do. “We all wanted to record ‘The Look of Love’,” enthused Stewart.

Szabo and company offer a “Look” that starts in much the same bossa nova groove as Dusty Springfield’s version. But once Szabo begins weaving his spell, the mood transforms into more of a raga. At least until Stewart’s solo works in a flash of flamenco. It says much about how the song arouses the players’ passions. But the song’s last 30 seconds make for an unusual way to round-out an otherwise perfect song for this quintet in general and this guitarist in particular. (The individual who proposed this review to me considers Szabo’s “The Look of Love” “astonishing.”)

“The Look of Love” was also recorded by fellow Hungarian guitarist Atilla Zoller in 1970 and Earl Klugh in 1984.

Message to Michael: This song began life as “Message to Martha” in a 1962 recording by Jerry Butler. Bacharach tried to revive the song as “Kentucky Bluebird” for Lou Johnson in 1964, but the song still didn’t hit. It was Dionne Warwick, after failing to persuade Sasha Distel to perform the song in Paris, who decided to record the song herself.

Both Bacharach and the song’s lyricist, Hal David, were against Warwick singing “a man’s song.” David supplied the only alternative Warwick could use, Michael, a name he apparently hated. Warwick took it as a suggestion and a hit was born. It’s fair to say that both men must have regretted not giving Ms. Warwick her due. She made this song what it is.

I consider “Message to Michael” not only one of the finest of all of Bacharach’s melodies but also one of the few I can listen to anyone do. My first experience with “Michael” was on Earl Klugh’s 1980 magisterial version (arranged by David Matthews) on Dream Come True, the best song on an otherwise very good album. (Interestingly, “Michael” was also recorded by Les McCann in 1966, with a group including vibist Lynn Blessing, who was shortly hereafter to join Szabo’s band.)

As lovely as Lena & Gabor’s take is on “Michael,” this version marginalizes the guitarist to little more than an afterthought. The combination of Richard Tee’s organ and the Howard Roberts Chorale with the trademark drawl of Ms. Horne’s vocal give the song the unique quality of a spiritual.

But whether that was sheer luck or Gary McFarland’s design (he’d arranged a very easy version of “Michael” the year before for Cal Tjader), it’s difficult to understand why Szabo’s role was reduced to little more than a rhythm guitarist. Such is the case for much of Lena & Gabor: it is a happier Horne listen than a Szabo one. Ms. Horne, though, is simply wonderful.

(They Long to be) Close to You: First recorded as a single by Richard Chamberlain in 1963 (in a style that riffs on Percy Faith’s hit “A Summer Place”), “They Long to be Close to You” ended up forfeiting hit status to the record’s flip side, “Blue Guitar.” Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield recorded covers of the song. But it wasn’t until 1970 when “(They Long to be) Close to You” became the breakout hit for the brother-sister duo, the Carpenters.

Curiously, the Carpenters’ version of the song had not yet cracked Billboard’s Hot 100 when Szabo recorded it. The song broke in at number 56 the week after Szabo’s June 15 recording, hitting number one in July.

This suggests that it was likely producer Tommy LiPuma who brought the tune to the session. Before he co-founded the Blue Thumb label with Bob Krasnow in 1969, LiPuma served as staff producer for Herb Alpert’s A&M Records, where he produced hit records for the Sandpipers, Chris Montez and Claudine Longet, among others. Bacharach offered Alpert “They Long to be Close to You” after the trumpeter’s success with “This Guy’s in Love with You.” But the trumpeter was unhappy with his recording of “Close to You” and proposed it to his new signees, the Carpenters. It’s highly likely that Alpert discussed this with LiPuma and easy to imagine LiPuma considered “Close to You” ideally suited to Gabor Szabo, his new signee.

Indeed, Szabo has always had a way with a ballad. But here he seems hemmed in by the song’s all-too-easy earworm of a melody. It’s only toward the end of the song (on Karen’s “Whahahahahah” part) that he flirts a little with improvisation – the minimal way Herb Alpert might. But it’s not very imaginative.

Szabo’s group does well by the guitarist, particularly when Lynn Blessing’s vibes mimic the guitar (recalling the easy-listening jazz style of the George Shearing Quintet). And Nick DeCaro, who often worked with Tommy LiPuma at A&M, adds subtle strings washes in one of the first instances of Szabo backed by strings.

“Close to You” likely pleased few of Gabor Szabo’s fans – for all of the above reasons. The guitarist’s version of the song was the album’s sole single release and it never came close to charting. For his part, Tommy Lipuma returned to “Close to You” years later when he produced McCoy Tyner’s version on the Bacharach tribute album, What the World Needs Now: The Music of Burt Bacharach.

While Gabor Szabo never again covered any of Burt Bacharach songs, his choice (?) of pop covers thereafter stayed pretty much in the mellow zone – with covers of songs by Carole King, Seals & Croft and Phoebe Snow.

Again, these weren’t among their albums’ highlights but they represent a curious shift for the firebrand guitarist who once declared “jazz is dead.” If so, covers like these helped kill it.

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