Thursday, September 21, 2023

Gabor Szabo – “Rambler” at 50


Early in his career, guitarist Gabor Szabo (1936-82) had the incredibly good fortune to be signed to Impulse Records, one of the most significant American jazz labels of the sixties. That came about mainly because of the successful contributions the guitarist made to Chico Hamilton’s critically and commercially successful records on the label in the early sixties – and producer Bob Thiele’s early championing of the guitarist.

The records waxed by Szabo on his own for Impulse, recorded between 1965 and 1967, were significant and remain among his best-known and some of the most important recordings of the guitarist’s ever-so brief career.

By the next decade, though, Szabo again found himself at one of that era’s most important – and successful – jazz labels: producer Creed Taylor’s legendary CTI Records. (It is worth remembering that Impulse was also the brainchild of Creed Taylor, although the producer was long gone at Impulse by the time Szabo came along.)

CTI made stars of arranger/keyboardists [Eumir] Deodato and Bob James, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonists Grover Washington, Jr., Stanley Turrentine and Hank Crawford, guitarist George Benson and singer Esther Phillips. Creed Taylor’s label even helped revive the careers of such jazz greats as vibraphonist Milt Jackson, trumpeter Chet Baker and, notably, guitarist Jim Hall and saxophonist Paul Desmond.

But, somehow, Gabor Szabo fell between the cracks at CTI. The guitarist recorded a mere three albums for the label between 1972 and 1975 and made a notable guest appearance on saxophonist Paul Desmond’s superb CTI outing Skylark.

While Szabo’s CTI albums boast first-rate productions, high-class musicianship and some of the guitarist’s best studio work of the period, none made much of a dent in the musical psyche at the time, nor added anything of much significance to the guitarist’s legacy.

Oddly, the second of these, Rambler (1974), probably had the least impact of all.


When Gabor Szabo arrived at CTI in the early seventies, the label was faring particularly well. There was every reason to believe producer Creed Taylor could reignite the spark that made the guitarist’s magical touch so alluring earlier in his career.

It’s no secret that Gabor Szabo was floundering at this point in his career. After a brief run of unsuccessful records on the Blue Thumb label, the guitarist seemed to be struggling to find his place in a jazz world that CTI seemingly perfected.

His first album for the label, Mizrab, is a prototypical “CTI album,” with long, original groovers and CTI’s top-tier in-house talent. The first side of that record – featuring the songs “Mizrab” and “Thirteen” – also remains among Szabo’s best-ever recordings. Unfortunately, the album failed to make the waves it deserved.

For his CTI sequel, Gabor Szabo made a much more personal statement (recording with his own band at the time) but one that ironically feels much more anonymous. That is largely because Szabo turns the album over to his bass player, Wolfgang Melz, who wrote five of the album’s six songs.

The overall effect is that Gabor Szabo sounds like a guest on his own album. Rambler was recorded in September 1973, while the West Coast-dwelling Szabo was in the Big Apple for an appearance at Carnegie Hall. The album doesn’t specify dates (indicating overdubs and possible retakes, were necessary), but it is easy enough to guess that the bulk of the recording was done during the last week of the month.

Szabo’s quartet played Carnegie Hall on Friday, September 21, 1973, headlining a “Three Guitars” program that also featured John Fahey and Laurindo Almedia: “three guitarists who don’t appear very often in New York.” As John Rockwell reported in the New York Times: “Szabo, who closed the program, came from Hungary and played with such jazzmen as Chico Hamilton and Charles Lloyd. Friday he was using an electric guitar and working with an accomplished trio behind him. If the music they produced was a bit too smooth and derivative at times, at others it managed to work up to a good bit of virtuosity and excitement.” (September 24, 1973)

Szabo also performed at Montclair High School in Montclair, New Jersey, on Friday, September 28 and Saturday, September 29, indicating that the bulk of this album was recorded between these two concert dates.


Remarkably, producer Creed Taylor allowed Gabor Szabo to record with the band he brought from California for the Carnegie Hall performance: keyboardist Mike Wofford, drummer Bob Morin and electric bassist and composer Wolfgang Melz. CTI’s in-house arranger Bob James – who, at this writing, just issued his latest CD, Jazz Hands - is credited with “musical supervision” and overdubs several keyboards of his own (an uncredited percussionist, probably Ralph MacDonald, is evident throughout as well).

Even more remarkably, Taylor allowed Szabo to hand off the album’s compositional duties to Melz. I have often wondered whether this was an act of defiance on Szabo’s part, similar to Miles Davis refusing to let Warner Bros. profit off the publication of his music. But Szabo retained the publishing rights of his own compositions on other CTI albums. Szabo was therefore either unprepared or unmotivated to provide originals for Rambler.

Born in Germany in 1938, Wolfgang Melz came to the U.S. in the early sixties – playing, of all things, the banjo. Almost immediately, Melz was playing Dixieland with Teddy Buckner and flat-out country music with Buck Owens. He discovered electric bass almost by accident and became obsessed with it. The self-taught Melz had neither previously played upright bass nor ever tried to play it throughout the remainder of his career. But he distinguished himself on the electric instrument almost immediately.

Melz got his professional start playing bass with jazz singer Anita O’Day and in the pop-rock group The Association. He quickly thereafter became a studio musician. Notably, of the few records he’s waxed, where he is actually named, most are all in the company of his studio friends.

Shortly thereafter, Melz met Szabo through keyboardist Richard Thompson, who was part of The Association when Melz was part of that group. Melz and Szabo hit it off right away (Melz has always quipped that Szabo said they were “born in the same hometown, Europe!”) and the bassist joined Szabo’s group – as did Thompson and vibraphonist Lynn Blessing (on whose sole solo album, Sunset Painter, Melz appeared).

Melz – known as “Wolfie” to friends and family – had previously written “Country Illusion” for Szabo’s 1970 album Magical Connection and would appear on the guitarist’s High Contrast (1971 – where he collaborated on that album’s dazzling “Fingers”) as well as Charles Lloyd’s terrifically underrated Waves (1972 – also with Szabo). The bassist appeared with Szabo (mainly on West Coast dates) for the next few years before retiring to Houston, Texas, where he still resides today.


”Rambler” had been in Szabo’s repertoire for several years by this point. The song, known then as “The Rambler,” was first recorded by Szabo in June 1970 as part of the Magical Connection sessions, but remains unreleased to this day. The song – more riff than melody, really – is an appealing bit of rock-funk that could have easily found favor in the Allman Brothers or even Three Dog Night.

Here, in the first thirty seconds, the guitarist and the bassist spar beautifully. Their communion casts a spell that emboldens the song and launches Szabo into one of his most compelling solos on the record. It’s easy to hear what appealed to the guitarist in this rock-ish groove: he’s clearly having fun here. But not everyone was as captivated by the charm of this piece as I am:

"Rambler," wrote critic Leonard Feather of a 1974 live performance of the tune, “[is] of no particular interest harmonically or structurally. Szabo, who at times has a tendency to extract an almost banjo-like tone from his guitar, didn't seem able to work up much concern for what he was doing—understandably, since the material itself [is] worthy only of a second-rate rock group.”

“Rambler” was also covered by then-San Francisco-based drummer Dick McGarvin for a 1974 album called Peaceful. McGarvin, a veteran of Paul Revere and the Raiders, a disc jockey and – probably – the actor who appeared in such films as Mommie Dearest (1981) and Diehard 2, recorded his take on “Rambler” several months before Szabo’s version came out, likely indicating he either heard the Szabo group perform it (in San Francisco) – or possibly performed it himself with Szabo.

The ballad “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye” is tailor-made for Szabo and his romantic sensibilities. While it is certainly molded in the “soft rock” of the day, there is a distinct hint here of European classicism, not dissimilar to the guitarist’s own later ballad “Time.” This “Goodbye” is sort of like a broken waltz.

Here, as on several occasions on Mizrab, Szabo subtly overdubs himself on guitar. Bob James offers a lovely piano solo that suggests a touch of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” that propels Szabo into his own powerful, though plaintive, statement.

The breezy ”New Love” has the West Coast pop flavor of America or Seals & Crofts and, with half a century’s hindsight, sounds like a prototypical variation of smooth jazz. James offers another piano solo before the rhythm section (bolstered by Morin) kicks up the pace for the guitarist’s terrific solo flight. Szabo biographer Károly Libisch calls “New Love” a “beautifully crafted, inspired, delicate piece.”

“Reinhardt,” another of Melz’s rock-like vamps – this time, in distinctly Krautrock mode – is named not for Belgian jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt but rather the bassist’s son. (Melz, who has a brother named Reinhardt, also has a grandson with this name).

I don’t find this to be a particularly compelling or engaging tune, but, again, the rhythm section is all in and works up a head of steam to inspire Szabo toward some of his more interesting work here. But James is somehow allowed to overplay his hand on “Reinhardt,” adding odd synthesizer washes, unusual organ doodles and a mélange of distractions over a rather uninspired electric piano solo.

Almost exactly one year later, Szabo would include “Reinhardt” in the program of music he performed with Hungarian musicians for Hungary’s first-ever TV program devoted to jazz music: Jazzpódium 74: Szabó Gábor (USA) Müsora. While “Reinhardt” was not broadcast at the time, the performance was recorded and included on the 2008 LP/CD release Gabor Szabo In Budapest.

The delightful ”Help Me Build a Lifetime” is one of the album’s hidden gems. For some reason, this catchy little number never had much prominence inside – or outside – of Szabo’s orbit. “Lifetime” harks back to those wonderfully zippy tunes like “Cheetah,” “Sophisticated Wheels” or “Comin’ Back” that Szabo could whip out in his sleep. Indeed, Szabo (who overdubs himself again) delivers a fiery solo here that recalls those glorious early days. Melz himself offers up yet another tasty solo.

Robert Lamm’s pretty “All is Well” is an odd addition to the program. This little-known piece originated on the band Chicago’s 1972 album Chicago V. Lamm had already written such well-known Chicago hits as “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” “Twenty-Five or Six to Four” and “Saturday in the Park” (also on Chicago V). “All is Well” was not even released as a single by the group. One wonders whose idea it was to cover it here.

Szabo’s presence is almost perfunctory at this point. “All is Well” is seemingly more of a showcase for James’s piano – which has the strangely muffled resilience engineer Rudy Van Gelder accorded to all acoustic pianos he recorded for CTI during this period. The song’s outro offers its most compelling case, wherein the quartet is allowed to riff off the melody while the guitarist and bassist dance around each other’s lovely figures. A little more of this would have been magical.


Rambler, to these ears, is a satisfying, well-rounded program. But while the guitarist is in fine fettle throughout, the album is, however, only a middling success: neither the best he could do nor the worst he actually did.

One misses Szabo’s compositional contributions, yet Melz’s tunes – not to mention his adept work on bass – fit Szabo like a glove. And the guitarist’s enthusiasm for the program can hardly be questioned.

In some ways, Rambler, like High Contrast (1971) before it and certainly Faces (1976) later, is something of a transitional record: the result of a one-time maverick looking for a way to fit in to changing times and changing tastes. He was hardly alone there.

Szabo was off to California shortly thereafter for a scheduled appearance starting on Tuesday, October 2 at Howard Rumsey’s Concerts by the Sea in Redondo Beach. He’d be back on the East Coast in late November for sessions with saxophonist Paul Desmond that resulted in the marvelous album Skylark (more on that later).

Szabo’s second CTI album was released in March 1974, at the same time as vibraphonist Milt Jackson’s second CTI album, Goodbye. After much digging, I have been unable to determine whether the Szabo record ever charted or how much it might have sold.

”Szabo has abandoned his feedback sound,” wrote Billboard of Rambler, “and now concentrates on blending pure, beautiful tones within the constantly moving rhythmic feel of this quintet. There is a haunting, melodic quality to his playing, whether it's on the single note lines or when strumming several strings al the same time. Bassist Wolfgang Metz is a superb accompanist, duet partner with Szabo on guitar, laying down strong, rich notes.” (April 27, 1974)

DownBeat was far less charitable. In a two-and-a-half-star review (oddly peppered with typos), critic Jon Balleras griped, “The problem is partially with programming. Too many of these tunes fall into the same lightweight rock groove; while their melodies are listenable, they’re far from memorable….Melz’s bass work, though, is worth listening for…In short, this is pleasant music; you can probably dance to it, but I don’t recommend it for serious listening.” (July 18, 1974)

Surprisingly, there were no singles issued from the album, although at least one tune, “Help Me Build a Lifetime,” had a reasonable shot at radio airplay. “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye” might have had a chance as well.

The Japanese label P.J.L. (Polystar Jazz Library) label licensed Rambler, among about a dozen other CTI titles including Szabo’s Macho, from King Records for a CD issue in 2002. Sony Records, which owns the bulk of the CTI catalog outside of Japan, has since included Rambler on most streaming services…so, it should be easy to hear the album in whatever media format you prefer.

About the Cover: The striking photograph on the cover of Rambler was shot in 1973 by Pete Turner inside the Hyatt Regency hotel in Houston, Texas. Opening the previous year, the hotel is famed as Houston’s tallest and prominently features a revolving restaurant called the “Spindletop.” The hotel was also the site for a scene in the 1976 film Logan’s Run.

“In this period,” noted photographer Pete Turner in his landmark book The Color of Jazz (2006), “when anything went for these covers, those atrium hotels were just coming in. It was a big visual turn-on for me. Up to that point, nobody photographed hotel lobbies. The lighted paths are actually elevator shafts. I tilted the camera and that’s what gives it a directional excitement. I used daylight colors to give it that warm effect.”

In a nice bit of kismet, it’s worth noting that Rambler bassist Wolfgang Melz himself ended up relocating to Houston, while Rambler keyboardist Mike Wofford was born in Texas…but miles away, in the lovely town of San Antonio, where I spent a brief sojourn myself.

While a hotel seems to be an ideal way to represent a rambler's plight - or - flight, Pete Turner's terrifically-stylized photograph beautifully suggests an architectural web. It begs the question: Who is the rambler, the spider or the fly?

1 comment:

Shuggiemac said...

Thank you DP for this insightful article. Listening to Rambler now (never heard of it one before). Your mention of CTI prompts the 'sound' and it conjures Deodato to my minimally-trained ears. '73 was such a great year for music in general and jazz in particular: Weather Report; Mahavishnu; Miles et al on my Thorens at the time. No wonder minor gems like this slipped through the cracks.
Thanks again for the nudge.