Italian journalist and author Stefano Orlando Puracchio’s latest book, Gábor Szabó – il jazzista dimenticato (The Forgotten Jazzman), is a remarkable survey of the life and art of the legendary Hungarian jazz guitarist. The Italian-language book was published on February 26, 2002 – the fortieth anniversary of Szabó’s death – by the prestigious Demian Edizioni, which had Puracchio interviewed on the occasion of the book’s release. The interview, as translated by me and approved by the author, offers much as to what makes the book a valuable addition to Gábor Szabó’s story...
Last year an essay on Domenico Bini, now you move on to a legend of guitar like Gábor. Are you a schizoid figure or is there a linearity to all of this?
You found me out! King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" is me! Seriously, there is a kind of linearity. Bini, at first, could be seen by people just like a "strange" YouTube phenomenon. However, he is a more complex figure. Not a professional entertainer, not professional musician, not a true phenomenon. My aim with him was to show people he is more like a raw (actually, very raw) diamond instead of a simple and easy YouTuber, like anybody else. Regarding Szabó, on the other hand, I went back to an old Klingon proverb (alien warriors of Star Trek). There is a saying - quoted in the saga [Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Ed.] - which says: "In the long run, the ones who can really understand a Klingon are Klingons." I firmly believe that only a person who has a deep connection with Hungary is able to explain to "strangers" figures such as Szabó. The fact of being Italian-Hungarian helped me a lot to "translate" Szabó for an Italian audience. Honestly, I was afraid of the amenities that a person alien to the Magyar culture could have written. So, for both Bini and Szabó, I wanted to arrive there first so as not to discover later what would have caused me very severe heartburn. And some colorful cursing.
This work of yours is the first Italian book on Szabó. How do you explain the historical absence of local interest in him?
It is not the absence of interest from potential readers, but from that of publishers. There is little risk and a tendency to maximize profits. With proposals of safe-playing editorials. Which causes a noticeable flattening of the cultural curve. We curl up on ourselves like this. For heaven's sake, there are still some indomitable "enlightened" publishing houses. But, in general, we work "of entrenchment" and not attack. A shame. Many, perhaps too many, have forgotten about that old ad that said, "If you don't play, you don't win". Leaving the game gambling and returning to music, Frank Zappa said: "Without deviating (from norm) progress is not possible." This is definitely an editorial release which deviates from the norm. It could not be otherwise, as far as I am concerned, since with "progress" and "progressive" I have a long love story in progress. And, in any case, although [Szabó] "deviated" from safe commercial logic, there is a good preliminary confirmation.
More generally, why is [Szabó] a forgotten jazz player?
Szabó was forgotten, despite having reached the mainstream, for two reasons. The first is that he failed to have an active and constant fanbase, which has perpetuated his memory. On the other hand, it is known as the artists were lucky to have loyal fans, they managed to "live" even when they materially disappeared. Then there are other, more specific reasons that I talk about in the text. Let's say Szabó was a sometimes-divisive figure. Despite himself. He has admirers but, at the same time, even detractors. And here we go back to the point before: if you don't have a base of loyal fans, willing to fight for you, the detractors win. Wrongly, since Szabó was a good artist, but they win. With the book I try to rebalance things a little, without hiding the critical issues.
He is also a key figure in understanding the Hungarian music of the Twentieth century. Although he is attributable to the jazz universe, how much of his roots are there in the music he wrote?
Gábor Szabó is a jazz player but is, at the same time, a direct "musical son" of Bartók and Kodály. The essence of Szabó is in his "Hungarianness." The Hungarian guitarist deeply loved jazz music. Perhaps, more than many American jazzmen. However, over the course of his career, he had to come down to pacts between his "Hungarian" soul and his love for jazz. And, for us, luckily, he did it in the best way. Blending the two aspects. In the majority of cases, the merger was excellent. For the rest he was a man too. Do not all a man's outings can be expected to be perfect. And, also Szabó, made his mistakes. Some too daring fusion is present in his discography.
Speaking of mergers. Szabó skillfully re-read many artists, from the Beatles to Burt Bacharach. In what context do you think he expressed himself best as interpreter?
Personally, I love the many reinterpretations Szabó recorded. And we must point out how, as to the Beatles, artistically speaking, Szabó had known it all along. However, the appearance of the "jazz cover" is, for many, one of the critical points of Szabó. If not really THE critical issue. Many fans (musicians and listeners alike) of jazz - which I define jokingly as "the stinkers" - never forgave the Hungarian guitarist for making jazz elaborations of the pop songs he did.
They accuse Szabó of chasing the "sirens" of popularity. To have, essentially, "flirted too much" with commercial music. Without waiting for a hit song “to decant” properly. Opinions, however not shareable, they are always worthy of attention and respect. But ... and here is a but as big as a house ... you can't point the finger at Szabó with this story and then ignore the fundamental contribution that Szabó has brought to jazz. Or, in a nutshell, the lessons of Bartók and Kodály. Why, if you stick him for the (alleged) demerits and you don't talk about his merits, you're not doing a clean thing. We must not praise Szabó too much. But don’t unload tons of mud on the history of pop either. He must be judged for what he really was. Perhaps Szabó is not worthy to sit at the table of the jazz greats. The table of Coltrane, Davis, Peterson, Mulligan and others, so to speak. But he's certainly present at that banquet. Maybe, sitting at a side table. At the head of the table.
America welcomed him, trained him, launched him. According to you, was Gabor purely American or did he retain something of Eastern Europe in his way of being and playing?
I dare say that the United States welcomed and launched him. Szabó's musical formation, though, once he arrived in the United States, was already at a high level. If not, the prestigious Berklee school would have never admitted him. Also, I want to mention the fact that when Szabó followed the "American model," the style of American guitarists, it was not particularly appreciated. For better or worse, returning to what we initially talked about, the key to his success was his "Hungarianness".
Good, because we know he was a virtuoso and talented guitarist. Bad, because the marketing campaign they launched him on as a soloist / leader, that of being "a magician," "a guitar sorcerer" or something "exotic," due to his unconventional style (read: non-American), eventually backfired. He endorsed it because he believed it was useful to do so. To settle down and ensure a decent living for his family. But it was, perhaps, his biggest mistake. I suspect he was seen by many only as a "curiosity," and not representing the cultured musician he was and remains.
The Breezin’ "case." What differences are there in your opinion between the pioneering version of '71 and the triumphal George Benson one?
The difference is only one: Szabó's version - although flawless and played with the legal author of the song - was not successful. Benson’s cover, however, was very successful. In the book I take apart the "fake news" about this song. Some on the internet say that Szabó was envious of the success of Benson. In reality this is not the case. So much so that the two played the song together, following its success.
Inevitable to mention Gypsy Queen. Do you believe the Carlos Santana cover has done well by its author or has it clouded it?
Gypsy Queen was a godsend for Szabó. The copyright allowed him to raise a lot of money. It might seem like a "bad" thing to see it from the point of view of profit. However, I do remember one thing that, at times, escapes many. The artists do not live on air. Gypsy Queen permitted Szabó to settle down and think more calmly about his art. Of course, it didn't make him rich. And the copyrights were not enough to have any sort of "weight" with the record companies. Now, regardless of the economic discourse, Gypsy Queen is a good piece. Not the best Szabó had to offer but it is a good piece. Santana, who was heavily influenced by Szabó's style, decided to make the song "his own.” Which, merged with Black Magic Woman by Peter Green, made rock-music history.
You have involved many professionals on different sides. What is the thread that connects their writings?
The wise men I involved in the project wore no blinders and they have judged and observed Szabó's work without preconceptions. Needless to say, they are all people I respect professionally and personally.
You are half Hungarian. What did it mean for you to confront such a giant?
It represented having to fight for months with the typical accents of the Magyar language. A nightmare. In fact, some accents will have escaped me and I apologize. Returning to the original question, if any oversight occured on my part, I don’t dare imagine what could have happened to others. Ah, yeah ... nothing. Knowing that, generally, the authors who spoke of Gábor Szabó wrote his name without accents. That is, as it is also reported on the discs. Pity that his real name was Gábor Szabó. Indeed, Szabó Gábor! In Hungary, it starts traditionally first the surname and then the name.
Accentuations aside, I would like to focus on the fact that, inevitably, to help Italian readers understand how, where and when the cultural background of Szabó was formed, I was forced to write a sort of Bignami [named for a series of Italian booklets similar to the CliffsNotes student study guides Americans use – Ed.] type of Hungarian history from 1936 (the birth of the guitarist) to 1956 (when Szabó repaired to the United States). I would have liked to do without it.
However, as Hungarian history is little known and complex, it was necessary to show those who know little or nothing about Hungary, the environment in which Szabó was born and lived for his first twenty years of life. Sure, I, too, could ride the wave of the exotic sorcerer that came from one distant land. But I wouldn't have done an artist's memory justice, a talent that deserves to be remembered.