Sunday, August 08, 2021

High Contrast at 50

In photography, “high contrast” exhibits a full range of tones; from black to white, with dark shadows and bright highlights. In other words, the lightest colors are almost white while the darkest colors are almost black. The beautiful photo on this album’s cover is a perfect example of this: the out-of-focus flora and the Hacienda frame add texture and strong color to highlight Gabor Szabo’s haunting (or haunted?) yet inscrutable visage.

Photography aside, the album’s title is actually meant to reference the distinct contrast in musical styles of its two leaders, Gabor Szabo and the unbilled Bobby Womack. Szabo, the Hungarian jazz guitarist, was strikingly paired here with Womack, a R&B songwriter, singer and guitarist, for one of the most unique albums in either’s discography.

That the album is billed to Szabo alone isn’t surprising: Womack was hired by the label to support Szabo, its contracted artist. But given Womack’s contributions to the record, it’s odd. In May 1971, a month before the release of High Contrast, Billboard’s Ed Ochs wrote that “Blue Thumb will turn the soul spotlight on Bobby Womack, now working on an LP,” without ever mentioning Szabo.

In contrast to its parent album, however, the 45-rpm single release of “Breezin” was credited equally to both Szabo and Womack. The addition of Womack’s name is likely what landed the song, however briefly, on Billboard’s Soul chart. And when High Contrast was reissued by the British Affinity label in 1981, Bobby Womack’s name was as prominent as Gabor Szabo’s on the revised cover – but that’s probably because Womack had scored his own “comeback” hit that year with The Poet.

When I first heard High Contrast in the mid-eighties, I wasn’t particularly impressed: Womack the guitarist offers Szabo neither the ignition or engagement guitarist Jimmy Stewart provided previously nor the support and simpatico of Bob James’s keyboards later. And Womack’s brand of soul – not unlike what Isaac Hayes was doing at the time – was, to me, a peculiar match for Szabo’s brand of jazz.

”If, by the title,” wrote DownBeat’s Harvey Siders, “a two-guitar front line was the intention, then the contrast was too high. Womack is not the ideal pace-setter for Gabor and the resulting gap finds Womack’s contributions buried in the over-percussive background.” Guilty, as charged. But Womack’s contributions were far more significant than his subtle, yet seductively effective guitar playing.

Following as it does a decidedly disappointing string of Szabo records, though, High Contrast is what today would be called “high concept.” Matching an up-and-comer with a down-and-outer, however odd the coupling, wasn’t that unusual – even then. But as crazy as a Szabo-Womack pairing seems on paper, there is something about this record that works – even if it wasn’t recognized or acknowledged at the time.

Fifty years on, High Contrast is, surprisingly, among the least dated of all Gabor Szabo albums. Credit both Womack and producer Tommy LiPuma for that. What’s more, Szabo – finally freed from cranking out familiar radio hits – plays thoughtfully throughout, offering some of his finest playing on record. But the shotgun quality that birthed much of the program results in the players doing little more memorable than riffing off basic chord changes – with one notable exception.

Come On Bobby, Light My Fire

The question that looms largest over High Contrast is this: why Bobby Womack? Not only had Womack never expressed any interest in jazz – or previously (or subsequently) worked with any jazz artist (“they don’t sell a lot of records,” he once said) – Gabor Szabo had never previously assayed much curiosity or fondness for R&B or soul jazz.

There seemed to be no obvious connection between the two: neither had a musical style or approach or even a record label in common.

For Szabo, Womack may have been an appealing collaborator as the writer of “It’s All Over Now,” the Rolling Stones’ first number-one hit in the UK (also a then-recent hit for Rod Stewart). For producer Tommy LiPuma, Womack’s appeal is likely the great body of session work he did for Memphis producer Chips Moman.

For Blue Thumb co-founder Bob Krasnow, Womack scored any number of hits for Sam Cooke, Joe Tex and Wilson Pickett. And Szabo needed a hit. Szabo’s previous Blue Thumb album, the misguided misfire that was Magical Connection flopped. So, in Blue Thumb’s typically eclectic thinking, Bobby Womack was somehow deemed to be the man to deliver for Szabo.

“This was 1971 and I was hot,” wrote Womack in his autobiography Bobby Womack: Midnight Mover. “And what do people do when you’re hot? They hook you up with someone else. [T]hey paired me up with Szabo and told me to give him some of my songs. So I did.”

Given High Contrast’s strange provenance, however, one has to wonder who Womack’s “they” might be.

“Gabor was a real sweetheart of a guy,” Womack continued, “a Hungarian who’d been around since the 1960s playing jazz. Had his own little sextets and quintets, but he was fucked on heroin. Lots of talent but mad on smack.” Womack himself was mad on coke, so drugs gave Womack at least one thing in common with Szabo.

When Blue Thumb selected Bobby Womack for this project, only a handful of the singer’s singles had cracked Billboard’s Top 100. However, even those releases lingered at the lower end of the spectrum, making Womack an especially odd consideration for enhancing Szabo’s commercialization.

Ironically, though, for such a prolific songwriter, Womack’s earliest solo successes were soulful covers of other people’s songs, like “Fly Me to the Moon” and “California Dreamin.” As Szabo had become known by then for covering pop songs, perhaps the covers angle was the magical connection Blue Thumb envisioned with Womack. Oddly, though, no such covers were ultimately a part of High Contrast.

Strange as it seems, the coupling of Szabo with Womack may not be all that unusual after all. Indeed, Szabo was later paired with Philadelphia soul man Bunny Sigler for the ups and downs of Nightflight (1976). And between 1968 and 1972, R&B composer and arranger Monk Higgins scored several notable albums for Gene Harris and the Three Sounds. Higgins waxed soul-jazz albums with Blue Mitchell, Stanley Turrentine and guitarist Freddie Robinson during this period as well.

Both Womack and Higgins, interestingly enough, did records for the Minit label in the late sixties, working with some of the same players and writers. But if the producers had elected Higgins instead of Womack, High Contrast may or may not have been a more of a commercial success (my guess is no). But a Higgins album would surely be a far less memorable or elegant musical statement than the one Womack crafted with Szabo.

Coming Back to High Contrast

In 1971, Gabor Szabo found himself flush with cash – due to Santana’s hit cover of Szabo’s “Gypsy Queen” – more cash than he’d ever had. But heroin had taken over much of his life. He performed erratically, sometimes falling asleep on stage, and was, by this time, unable to keep a proper band together for any length of time.

Szabo’s records of late leaned heavily toward apathetic covers of pop tunes, betraying much of the fire and brimstone promise of his early releases. Worse, Szabo hadn’t had anything near a hit or listener/critic favorite since The Sorcerer (1967) and nothing as artistically satisfying as Dreams since 1968.

Blue Thumb, a struggling independent that had recently received an influx of its own from Gulf & Western’s Famous Music group (which eventually bought the label in 1972), realized that Gabor Szabo needed more structure and guidance and was probably not the best architect of his own records. This is why Blue Thumb brought in someone else; in this case, Bobby Womack.

The recording of High Contrast began over several sessions in late October 1970. These sessions yielded Womack’s “Just a Little Communication” and “If You Don’t Want My Love,” along with Szabo’s “Amazon” and “Fingers” (with Wolfgang Melz) and an unreleased jam called “J-K Jive” (likely named for drummer Jim Keltner, on the last of five albums he recorded with Szabo). Womack almost immediately lost interest – or inspiration – and completely checked out, though there was hardly enough material for a whole album.

“I had taken a big advance from Blue Thumb,” wrote Womack, “so they called a lot, trying to catch me. They wanted to know when I had some songs for Gabor. Tomorrow, I told them. They would try the next day and I told them the same thing.

”Then Gabor would ask. I told him what I told LiPuma, said I’d be ready for the studio the next week.

”Finally, I got a call. There were to be no more excuses. They wanted me in the studio right away. I said ‘Fine, I was just about to call you. I got all the material.’ I didn’t have one song.”

Szabo and Womack reconvened in the studio in February 1971 and the rest of the album was recorded. (Notably, during this break between sessions, High Contrast engineer Bruce Botnick recorded and co-produced The Doors's L.A. Woman.) The remaining sessions (with Phil Upchurch’s electric bass added to the group) yielded Szabo’s “Azure Blue,” the unissued and curiously-titled “Junk” (slang for heroin), Womack’s “I Remember When” and, finally, the eleventh-hour revelation, “Breezin.”

The Breezin’ High

”Breezin” so memorably commences High Contrast that it deserves a discussion all its own. The song was among the last tunes recorded, but it struck everyone as the album’s signature moment. ”’Breezin’ was the thing that caught the eye real fast,” wrote Womack. “Everyone thought it would be a classic. I laughed. I had just made it up.”

Womack’s “just made it up” claim is probably not as apocryphal as it sounds. Szabo himself was known to make stuff up in the studio and call it all a song; in fact, he did it three times for this particular album (“Amazon,” “Azure Blue” and “Fingers”). This capacity for melodic invention, however, is one trait, or talent, that Womack surely shared with Szabo.

That “Breezin” opens the album – gently propelled by Upchurch’s winsome bass – and not something more up-tempo like “Fingers” or “Communication,” speaks to the spell the song cast over its makers. It casts a spell over the rest of the album as well. “Breezin” is bewilderingly beautiful and captures the appeal of a breeze in both senses of the word, much the way Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” so beautifully expresses sailing in its iteration.

The song was a natural choice for single release, but it only reached no. 43 on Billboard’s Soul chart in October 1971. The song’s startling lack of success suggests that much of Gabor Szabo’s early fan base had wholly abandoned him, likely displeased with the guitarist’s relentless reliance on pop covers. And while the success of “Gypsy Queen” had earned Szabo lots of money, it didn’t profit him much in the way of new listeners.

Carlos Santana, the man who made “Gypsy Queen” a hit, however, was himself immediately enchanted by “Breezin.” So enamored of the song was he that he wove several threads of it into the fabric of “Song of the Wind” (get it?), from his band’s fourth album, the largely instrumental Caravanserai (1972). (“Breezin” later rounded out a medley Santana included on Sacred Fire: Live in South America [1993].)

Several years later, when producer Tommy LiPuma was putting together guitarist George Benson’s first Warner Bros. album, “Breezin” struck him as a good fit for this particular guitarist. By this time, rhythm guitarist Phil Upchurch, who played bass on the original, was then part of Benson’s band – a magical connection to be sure.

For “Breezin,” Upchurch got right back on bass. This time out, though, he transformed Szabo’s legato Latinate into more of a soulful strut, thus providing the song’s now well-known rhythmic signature. The apparently reluctant Bobby Womack was invited back to provide rhythm guitar, but his “out-of-tune” part wound up being overdubbed by Upchurch in the end. Benson himself delivers a truly memorable performance, aided nicely by Claus Ogerman’s pitch-perfect sweetening.

The song gave Benson’s multi-million selling album its title and wound up as the record’s second hit single, landing at an amazing (for an instrumental) no. 63 on Billboard’s Top 100 in November 1976. (Benson’s “Breezin” was later sampled by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince for “Time to Chill” [1988] while Szabo’s “Breezin” was sampled by 2Pac for “Only Fear of Death” [1997].)

By this point, Gabor Szabo was signed to Mercury, where he was pushing his latest single, the dreadful “Keep Smilin,” Szabo’s first non-promotional 45 release since “Breezin,” five years before. Benson’s success with “Breezin” prompted the nonplussed Szabo to reintroduce “his song” back into his repertoire – to the grateful approval of his audiences.

Indeed, the Hungarian guitarist began claiming credit or co-credit for this latest “hit” in his book of tunes. There wasn’t much harm in co-opting the song’s conception, but it was entirely without legal merit – something Szabo probably knew just as well. While it is certainly possible that Szabo contributed more to the song than is known, “Breezin” will always be Womack’s and Womack’s alone.

Szabo performed “Breezin” with Benson in May 1977 as part of a Benson-oriented “guitar bash” at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sadly, the two guitarists – who, ironically, were both signed to CTI Records at the same time a few years earlier – never worked together again: Benson soared (for a few more years) while Szabo continued his freefall.

Szabo’s Womack

Hardly anything that follows “Breezin” is as striking as High Contrast’s opening track. Szabo and his confederates play well on a fairly consistent program and producer Tommy LiPuma captures a beautifully crisp sound. But the distinct lack of melodies throughout subverts everyone’s best – or, at best, middling – efforts.

Szabo contributes two originals and a striking piece co-credited to Wolfgang Melz, the most he’d gifted one of his own albums with since Jazz Raga in 1966. Sadly, though, little here is as memorable as the earlier album.

The moody bolero “Amazon” adheres to what Billy Preston sang the following year: “I’ve got a song, I ain’t got no melody.” Szabo goes round in circles here, reflecting – as beautifully as ever – over a set of chord changes that could have easily been laid down for any number of minor-key pop songs. The missing melody, however, renders the otherwise appealing “Amazon” as more of a concept than a journey.

The gripping “Fingers” is, on the other hand, among the album’s highlights. Here, and on “Breezin,” Szabo – who is heard here and elsewhere discreetly overdubbing himself – is inspired to some of his strongest playing on the record.

While obviously just a jam tune, “Fingers” has a solid groove, driven by the astonishing fleet fingers of electric bassist Wolfgang Melz. Indeed, the far-too under-appreciated Melz, not Womack, offers Szabo much of the instrumental “contrast” in the album’s title; something that would not become apparent until Szabo’s underrated Rambler several years later.

Szabo strolls along nicely, propelled forward by Melz and the percussionists (listen specifically to what Jim Keltner is doing here), when suddenly out of nowhere Mark Levine’s piano thunders through. Levine, who appears nowhere else on the record, offers up one hell of a fiery montuno that makes one wish Szabo had recorded with pianists more often.

The brooding “Azure Blue,” like the earlier “Divided City” and “Somewhere I Belong,” is one of those mesmerizing sketches that Szabo could reel off in his sleep. Like its predecessors, “Azure Blue” – likely a reference to painting, Szabo’s first love – seems like the start of something great that never comes: it’s over just as soon as it gets going.

The song’s alluring mystery is aided generously by Rene Hall’s elegant strings. Hall, a guitarist himself, and Womack had worked together as far back as their Sam Cooke days. He would go on to provide orchestrations for several more Womack albums and, most memorably, Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On (1973).

Here, Szabo’s painterly strings cut steely blue swaths over the white crest of Hall’s gently breaking waves: an aural canvas that’s more miniature than the masterpiece it could have been.

Womack’s Szabo

The remainder of High Contrast is given over to Womack’s “songs.” “(Just a Little) Communication” is a heady slice of R&B deeply rooted in the Memphis soul-stew tradition. Womack’s guitar sets the groove, while Szabo riffs over Womack’s sinewy lines. The melody itself is little more than a riff – it plays like a horn chart – but Szabo knows how to make it cook. The chant-like lick and Szabo’s talent for sparking off such lines make it reasonable to think they could have had a hit with an edited version of this.

Womack’s solo version of “Communication,” which gave his 1971 album its name, sounds like an altogether different song. Even though the lyric kicks off with the words “Just a little communication,” Womack bathes this message anthem in a hot Sly Stone-funk groove (anticipating the Temptations’ later hit “Shakey Ground”) that cooks with more determination than the Szabo version.

“If You Don’t Want My Love” is the album’s closest thing to a cover tune. Womack would flesh it out with lyrics, a choir and Tippy Armstrong’s acidic guitar for the version included on his Communication album. (Womack re-recorded the song to even better effect for the Across 110th Street [1972] soundtrack.) The simple, almost sing-song melody gets a lush Latin lull in Szabo’s hands, with surprising Wes-like octaves. The soloing, on the other hand, is pure Szabo: rife with pet licks that riff harmoniously over Melz’s ever-nimble bass and Flaco’s animated congas.

The album’s concluding “I Remember When” is something of a jolt – for both Szabo and Womack. Hearing it for the first time now, one might assume it’s a slice of Bill Frisell’s signature Americana. This surprisingly fully formed, though melancholic melody seemed to engage both guitarists to a degree unmatched on nearly all the rest of the record.

Womack had always been interested in country music, waxing BW Goes C&W five years after High Contrast - surprisingly without this tune or any other Womack original. Szabo had never before expressed any interest in this sort of style himself, but unleashes his creativity in the jazzier improvisational section, which also features some of Womack’s most daring rhythm accompaniment on the entire record.

Interestingly, after wrapping up High Contrast, Womack went on to play guitar on Sly and the Family Stone’s landmark album There’s a Riot Goin’ On. He would also accompany Janis Joplin on his song “Trust Me,” covered by the singer on her posthumously-released album Pearl - whose iconic cover was photographed and designed by Barry Feinstein and Tom Wilkes, the very same team behind the High Contrast cover.

Womack’s own Communication, released four months after High Contrast, became his break-out hit, reaching no. 83 on the Billboard 200 in early 1972. The album’s single, “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha,” was a no. 2 Soul single and reached no. 27 on the Top 100.

The Blue Finger

High Contrast was released in June 1971 to modest, almost perfunctory, fanfare.

Record World said with more than a little irony that the “[a]lbum has all the simmer of previous Szabo, but now has a new electricity” while Cashbox put it more directly: “The accent is pretty much on gently rocking jazz, but as with most Szabo disks, there is strong MOR appeal here.” DownBeat’s Harvey Siders concurred: “the end result has precious little jazz, but generous servings of Latin and soft rock.”

Listeners ignored it altogether. The album never charted and sales probably didn’t even recoup what they paid Bobby Womack for his contributions. Blue Thumb, which had captured Szabo live in early 1972 for an abbreviated album that wasn’t issued for another two years, had pretty much abandoned him too.

Szabo’s by-now apparent lack of drive and direction doomed High Contrast. Heroin had robbed him of his early ambition and the prodigious promise he once displayed. While High Contrast nevertheless contains plenty of evidence that Szabo’s brand of guitaring was still remarkably high, fewer and fewer wanted to hear him in the settings he continued to put himself in.

After several years-worth of unremarkable albums and steadily declining sales, the guitarist suddenly decided he was bored with his music. “It didn’t excite me like it used to,” Szabo told Dennis Hunt in a 1972 interview for the San Francisco Examiner. “I felt that it was time for a change.”

While in the San Francisco area for his appearance at the Concord Jazz Festival, Szabo found himself as house guest of Carlos Santana. “I lived there for about two weeks,” Szabo said. “I knew then that I wanted to play that music. I got a great feeling with them, but when I tried playing the same music with my own group, I just got an imitation feeling.”

Szabo apparently “fired” his band of “laggards” and hired more “rock-oriented” musicians, including guitarist Tom Bryant, keyboardist Tom Coster, bassist Doug Rauch and drummer Ken “Spider” Rice. “I can teach my new group my old material,” claimed Szabo, “but I couldn’t teach rock to my old group.”

This group, however – not unlike Szabo’s new-found devotion to rock – was very short-lived. Coster and Rauch soon left to join Santana, both making their first appearance on the band’s aforementioned Caravanserai. Bryant and Rice didn’t stick around either.

Gabor Szabo went on to record a very good record in Sweden that year, but few record buyers outside of that country knew anything about it at the time. The guitarist waxed the notable Mizrab for CTI later in the year, but it would not appear in stores until nearly two years after the release of High Contrast.

The Low Spark of High Contrast

Three decades later, the All Music Guide to Jazz book (2002, Backbeat Books) published my (apparent) five-star review of High Contrast, where I rightly called the record an “unusually successful pairing of Gabor Szabo with R&B legend Bobby Womack.” I also said of the overly-starred album that “Szabo digs deep into a soulful groove, inspired by Womack’s silky-smooth originals.”

High Contrast isn’t so much a study in contrasts, but a document of some of Gabor Szabo’s finest playing on record. With nary a nod to jazz warhorses or hits of the day, High Contrast shines the light on the guitarist doing what he always did best: playing his ass off.

Bobby Womack deserves credit for providing the canvas that gave Szabo the unfettered free reign to express himself so beautifully. Even if the bulk of High Contrast is lacking in strong melodies, Szabo’s abundant gift for musical storytelling more than makes up for that deficit.

If Womack’s only contribution to the album were its genuine soulfulness – the real contrast of the album’s title – it is a welcome and much-needed injection into Szabo’s by-then robotic adherence to covers of, let’s face it, too-white pop tunes.

Here, Szabo and Womack lock into a groove that the Hungarian guitarist hadn’t experienced since his 1967-68 quartet with Jimmy Stewart and Louis Kabok. But even then, Szabo hadn’t sounded this fun or funky since Jazz Raga, which was propelled if not jettisoned by drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie.

But Bobby Womack’s most notable – and justly celebrated – contribution to High Contrast is, of course, “Breezin.” Even if Gabor Szabo was unjustly robbed of a hit with the song, he did originate it and, in his hands, it remains among his greatest recorded performances.

After George Benson turned “Breezin” into a hit in 1976, the song became something of low-key jazz standard – especially for guitarists. “Breezin” was later covered by Hank Crawford and Calvin Newborne (1980), Alfonzo Blackwell (1996), again by Hank Crawford (1996 – with Benson’s Breezin’ bassist Stanley Banks), Szabo friend and associate Jimmy Stewart (issued in 1997, but likely recorded in 1982 at a Szabo tribute concert), Doc Powell (2003), Bradley Leighton (2005), George Benson with Al Jarreau (2006 – with new lyrics written by Jarreau), Melvin Sparks (2010) and guitarists Joscho Stephan and Bireli Lagrene (2015).

High Contrast was finally issued on CD in March 2003, unfortunately without any extras or the sessions’ previously unissued tracks (Higher Plane also reissued the album on LP and CD in 2013). AllMusic eventually replaced my review with a fine and thoughtful write-up by Thom Jurek, who called High Contrast “a truly wonderful early exercise in highly polished, funky jazz.” While this record is hardly what Jurek deemed as Szabo’s “very best work,” it is something to be cherished and a record that can please listeners of any facet of Gabor Szabo’s recording career.

1 comment:

Kirkatron said...

Just caught up with your most recent posts Doug. So pleased to see you are blogging on here again.
Best wishes,
Pete Downs