Thursday, September 15, 2022

Stefano Orlando Puracchio Presents “Gábor Szabó – il jazzista dimenticato” - September 10, Budapest Hungary

In the courtyard of the Virág Benedek: Andrea Parente (left), Stefano Orlando Puracchio (center), Istvan Cobino (right)

Italian-Hungarian author and journalist Stefano Orlando Puracchio presented his new book Gábor Szabó – il jazzista dimenticato at the Virág Benedek house of culture in Budapest, Hungary, on Saturday, September 10, 2022. The bilingual event (in Hungarian and Italian) was moderated by Andrea Parente and translated by Istvan Cobino. The presentation was followed with a musical performance by the Ádám Török & Ádám Fehér Duó with special guest Károly Németh. Stefano transcribed the presentation for me in his native Italian and allowed me to translate in to English. I am pleased to provide here the English translation of this momentous event.

Andrea Parente (moderator): Hello everyone. I'm Andrea Parente. I come from Naples and I write for JAZZIT, one of the most important jazz magazines in Italy. First of all, I wanted to thank the House of Culture Virag Benedek for hosting this presentation and a dutiful thanks to the Italian Cultural Institute of Budapest, the patron of this presentation.

I wanted to kindly ask you all to turn off your mobile phones or put them in "airplane mode" because the presentation will be recorded for all those people who could not come here to attend. Like, for example, the family members of Gabor Szabo. And speaking of which, today we are here to remember a forgotten jazz musician.

The "forgotten jazz musician," as the title of the book by the author Stefano Orlando Puracchio reminds us. A truly formidable jazz musician. A jazz musician who deserves to be much better known than he is: guitarist Gabor Szabo. Thank you.

Stefano Orlando Puracchio (author): Good evening, everyone. Let's say it's evening ... Today, in theory, we should talk about my book. However, we will not talk about it. This is because an author who promotes his book is like an innkeeper who tells the patrons of a tavern that the wine is good. The innkeeper must sell the wine, so the wine will always be good. I have to sell books, so my books will always be good.

But seriously, I would like to dwell more – also to arouse your attention and curiosity – on the subtitle of the book. Why the forgotten jazz musician? I could have used any other title, such as: "the jazz musician of two worlds" or "the best Hungarian jazz musician in the world." The truth is that Gabor Szabo – I say this to Westerners, I know that the name should be read in Hungarian – was a monster.

But not a monster like those of Hollywood: Dracula, Frankenstein or similar. Or, thinking of fantasy, goblins and Kobolds. He was a monster because, inspired by the Italian definition, he was a prodigy. A very talented person in a specific domain. In our case, music. Szabo was a very talented man in the field of music who, unfortunately, the moment he became the leader of a band and found a contract with one of the most important record companies in the industry, was not treated as he deserved.

They treated him as a curiosity. Treated and described, by the managers of Impulse Records, as an “exotic” sorcerer from Eastern Europe. Let's clarify that: the curiosity seen by the Americans in Szabo had nothing curious in hindsight. Szabo combined the American jazz of the 1950s with the lessons of Bartok and Kodaly.

I know I'm simplifying but it's important to make it clear that the fusion of these two aspects has created, through Szabo, a third way. A third way that is original and meritorious. Impulse's decision to focus on curiosity and not on the real merits of Szabo caused his name to go to the top of the public's attention. Let's remember: in the 1960s, Szabo’s name was well circulated.

DownBeat magazine, the jazz bible, also talked about Szabo. However, if you focus on “the curiosity,” the attention rises. But it goes down just as quickly. It would have been better to focus on the merits but the decision of Impulse was made in this regard. Unfortunately, we cannot do anything about it. But we should try to right the wrong.

The first one to ever right the wrong was fellow Hungarian writer Károly Libisch, who is sitting in the audience and whom I thank. The second was me and the first in Italy. And, God willing, a book will also come out in English that both my colleague and I are waiting for anxiously.

The hope is that there will be a return of interest in Szabo's work. We, as authors, put all the good will of this world into it. However, even if we come together, we do not have the power to be able to make a campaign in support of the memory of this great artist.

The hope, therefore, is that the institutions – especially the Hungarian ones, since Szabo was Hungarian – will take this issue more seriously. Also, because, speaking out of line, Szabo represents a cultural asset that could be exploited a lot in terms of advertising and promotion of the country.

I will end with a provocation. Although in reality it is not a provocation. If the Americans manage to build a museum for someone like Buffalo Bill, I do not see why in Hungary you cannot focus on an artist like Szabo. He has provided concrete and proven results.

Before moving on to any questions from the public, I would like to remember a fellow journalist of mine who passed away earlier this summer and who also collaborated on my book, Manuela Romitelli. In the last few months her health had worsened but she really wanted to be able to see at least the video of the concert of Adam and the other musicians. So, I think it's nice to remember it like that. Thank you.

Andrea Parente (l), Stefano Orlando Puracchio (c), Istvan Cobino (r)

AP: [To the audience] If you have any questions, please ask now.

Istvan Cobino (translator): If you will allow me, while the audience thinks about its questions, I would like to say a few words on behalf of the Italian Cultural Institute because the director asked me. [The interpreter speaks in Hungarian, describing the current activities of the Italian Cultural Institute in Budapest, including a further thanks to the Virag Benedek House of Culture]. And, in the meantime, if you have thought about the questions, please...

Audience member 1: A question that should never be asked to composers and performers: "What is the most beautiful record you have made?" But I can put it to a writer who has listened several times, knowing all the work performed by our great guitarist. In your opinion, what is the most representative record, the one that makes the Hungarian soul stand out the most without contamination?

SOP: Coincidentally, I expected such a question from the audience. [Laughs] And, therefore, I prepared myself. [More laughter] I prepared myself because I have here... [Stefano takes from a small table the cover of Dreams and the shows it to the public] ... I have prepared for you a nice advertisement. In my opinion, the album from which you have to start is this. Which is Dreams.

Then, subsequently, I would recommend all the albums released by Skye Records. This is a convenient choice, I admit. But it is also true that the period in which Szabo had more "tranquility" was the period in which he worked for Skye.

Of course, none from the Impulse period. The Skye period was a very interesting period in terms of quality. In addition, with Skye, he released many albums in a very short space of time. Dreams, for sure. Then, everyone goes where they want.

Audience member 2: I have a question about the subtitle, "forgotten." Starting with Chick Corea and many other artists, they cite Szabo as an ideal model or someone from whom they have learned so much. Why was he forgotten?

SOP: Thank you for your question. Because this question is relevant. The problem will be to look for a way to synthesize the answer. An artist who managed to enter the prestigious Berklee school as a self-taught musician... and we know that Berklee has an admission rate of 30%... these are today's data, before they were even more severe ... an artist who was called by Chico Hamilton, one of the greatest jazz drummers there has ever been... a guitarist who was, practically, the mentor of Carlos Santana... and precisely a guitarist who has collaborated with people of merit, as you mentioned, Chick Corea ... with the living legend Ron Carter, one of the best double bass players and bassists.

One would think, after all these things here, that he is the most well-known person in the universe. However, here we are talking about a guitarist who, despite all these things is not known by the general public. The reasons are many. And I'm pickling one: Szabo is accused by many jazz musicians of having made covers of then-recent pop songs. This is one of the problems.

However, in my opinion, the main problem is that he was described by Impulse as an “exotic sorcerer from the East.” … During the writing of the book, I contacted one of the most important Italian jazz musicians to ask him for a comment on Szabo. And he said, "I don't want to express myself on this little character."

This is because he never heard Szabo on a deeper level. And he really thought he was this “sorcerer of the East!” It was enough for me to say "Berklee" to make him change his mind. The same problem always remains: I can say it, Libisch can say it, the people who are writing the book in English can say it, Doug Payne can say it... we are few. We must try to make "more mass". I hope I have been exhaustive.

AP: If Stefano will allow me, I would like to add two small considerations on this subject. Over time, the jazz world has experienced a bit of superficiality. Both with regard to people and with regard to events. Szabo had two peculiarities. The first, as Stefano said, is he was self-taught. The second was his guitar amplification system. For jazz musicians, these two aspects were seen as "bad." And this has caused incorrect information to be created around this "monstrous" jazz musician.

SOP: Incorrect information that, at times, was culpable, sometimes malicious. But let's not delve into it, otherwise this becomes a wrestling match and no longer a cultural event.

AP: On the contrary, we invite the public to deepen the story. Through this book and through the individual research of the jazz musician Gabor Szabo.

Audience member 3: What prompted the author to structure the book in the way he then decided to structure it? What are the motivations?

SOP: This is another question that will practically prevent Adam and the musicians from playing... [Laughter] Here too: extreme journalistic synthesis. A book that speaks in Hungarian for an Italian audience needs to think "as an Italian" and not "as a Hungarian."

So, you reset your cultural background and ask yourself: "But what does an average Italian from Hungary know?" Obviously, he knows: Unicum [a Hungarian herbal liqueur] to drink. Gulyás [Goulash] to eat. Pálinka: entertainment and liquid courage. And so on.

So, in the first thirty pages, I had to tell the Hungarian story from 1936 to 1956. Also, because in Italy, we in high school stop at the end of the Second World War. We don't study the Cold War at school. Imagine if an average Italian can know what the second post-war period meant in Hungary, what 1956 could mean but, even, the post 1918, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

I would have liked to do without it. Unfortunately, it is all information that goes to create the cultural background of a Hungarian in general and of Szabo in particular. If you do not know what it means for a Hungarian to have gone through certain historical events you cannot understand why, then, Szabo managed to arrive in the United States, to burn the stages and to sign a contract as a leader with one of the best American jazz record companies.

Here too, to answer, I had to do some flips but I hope I was able to answer the question properly. I would have to say that now is the time for the music.

[Presentation of the band as the three on stage leave to make room for the musicians.]

Performing live: Károly Németh (l), Ádám Fehér and Ádám Török (r)

Gábor Szabó, A Tribute (With Ádám Török & Ádám Fehér Duó – Special Guest Károly Németh):

Ádám Török – flute, percussion
Ádám Fehér – guitar
Károly Németh – electric piano

1. Mizrab (Gábor Szabó)
2. Sombrero Sam (Charles Lloyd)
3. Evening in the Country (from Bartók)

Monday, September 12, 2022

Ramsey Lewis – R.I.P.

Jazz pianist, three-time Grammy winner, and NEA Jazz Master Ramsey Lewis, who successfully crossed over from the Jazz charts to the Pop charts, most notably with his smash hit “The In Crowd,” died peacefully at his home in Chicago on the morning of September 12. He was 87.

Lewis debuted his famed trio with bassist Eldee Young (1936-2007) and drummer Redd Holt (b. 1932) on the 1956 album Ramsey Lewis and His Gentlemen of Jazz, on the Chess label. Three years later, Lewis was invited to perform with the trio at Birdland in New York. Their three-week gig led to performances at the Newport Jazz Festival and the Village Vanguard, and recordings with Max Roach, Clark Terry, and Sonny Stitt.

Lewis broke through in a big way in 1965 with the trend-setting early crossover smash, “The In Crowd.” The elegantly funky, Grammy-winning song (written by Dobie Gray) was followed by two more chart-toppers, “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water.” After Young and Holt left to form their own group, Lewis continued in the trio format with bassist Cleveland Eaton (1939-2020) and future Earth, Wind & Fire eminence Maurice White (1941-2016) on drums. He subsequently experimented on electronic keyboards in more expansive settings. A further hit, Sun Goddess (1974) – with much of Earth, Wind & Fire – later ensued.

My first exposure to Ramsey Lewis came at age 18 with the pianist’s wonderful 1980 Columbia album Routes. The record is a sheer joy. Four decades on, I still feel the same way. The album splits production duties among New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint (who I only knew at the time as the man behind “Lady Marmalade”) and Earth, Wind and Fire co-founder Larry Dunn – a significance I didn’t know anything about at the time. The result makes me happy every time I hear it.

My next notable experience with Mr. Lewis was the title track to his 1983 album Les Fleurs. I had no idea then that this ethereal Charles Stepney (1931-76) composition (originally, and correctly, “Les Fleur”) originated on a 1968 album the composer arranged for Lewis. But it was this one song that I so appreciated hearing Ramsey Lewis perform live at Hartwood Acres, here in Pittsburgh shortly thereafter.

Later, I picked up on the first non-trio Ramsey Lewis album, the positively brilliant Wade in the Water. This one album has lifted me out of more than one funk. There are so many amazing performances here – “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “Message to Michael” and the title track all spring immediately to mind – the world seemed to be Lewis’s for the taking.

Wade in the Water is the album that also introduced me to the brilliance of arranger Richard Evans (1932-2014), who would shortly launch his own exceptional and exceptionally under-rated Soulful Strings.

Eventually I would discover the terrific Goin’ Latin (1967), Up Pops Ramsey Lewis (1967), Maiden Voyage (1968), the absolutely seminal Sun Goddess (1972) – and so many others.

Ramsey Lewis took paths I didn’t always follow, like his recordings on GRP and Narada or his all-star smooth-jazz super-group Urban Knights – as well as reunions with his original trio, gospel recordings – even one or two returns to amplification. But this is a musician who stayed true to the joy, the soul and the love of music throughout an amazing seven decades of performing, recording and podcasting.

Critics have said that all the jazz labels had their “soul jazz” piano trios – as though to disparage the commercial viability of such things (and even if that sort of thing ever existed): Blue Note had The Three Sounds, they said, Prestige had Bobby Timmons (and Red Garland) and Atlantic had Junior Mance. But Ramsey Lewis set the mold and stood the test of time…well beyond many of his peers, imitators and forced-to-be sellouts.

The music Ramsey Lewis left behind continues to engage, entertain and inspire. We haven’t even talked here about his marvelous Beatles covers, which also apparently accounts for a forthcoming new recording of its own.

With great sadness, I send all the love that Ramsey Lewis put out in to the world back to his family, friends and musical associates.

Friday, September 09, 2022

Out Now: Gabor Szabo - "Live in Cleveland"

Ebalunga has just put out Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo’s tremendous Live in Cleveland - for the first time on LP and CD. The wonderfully eclectic specialty label has previously issued the guitarist’s 1968 albums Bacchanal and Dreams in equally pristine vinyl and beautifully-packaged CD formats – as well as high-quality downloads for those, unlike me, who enjoy music that way.

Here, Ebalunga shines a light on the concert Szabo with this live date superbly captured for radio broadcast at Cleveland’s famed Agora Ballroom.

Recorded some 46 summers ago in August 1976 – still memorable as the season of George Benson’s monster hit album Breezin’ (whose title track originated with Szabo) and several months after Szabo’s own Mercury debut Nightflight (whose title track is heard here) was released – this concert catches the guitarist at his very best with his own quartet in the intimate setting where he always excelled – in front of an audience.

Surprisingly, Szabo’s performance here is one of the very few that have surfaced or survived from this 1976 concert series, presented by the Japanese audio and video manufacturer Sansui Electronics and dubbed the “New World of Jazz.” Other performers captured for the series are said to have included Ben Sidran, Pat Martino, Hubert Laws’ then up-and-coming brother Ronnie, and David Sanborn.

But it is one of several Szabo concert recordings known to exist from the seventies, like Live in Cleveland, all well worth savoring. (Personal shout out to the owners of Szabo’s 1976 Vancouver set and the 1979 Montreux performance with guitarist Joe Beck to get this music out.)

Again, Ebalunga has remarkably showcased Gabor Szabo in a yet another fine package, with newly-commissioned cover art and design by Anton Bodanov and liner notes by yours truly.

The disc has been lovingly mastered by Jessica Thompson, renowned for her work on many live recordings and for restoring and remastering Erroll Garner’s iconic and Grammy-nominated The Complete Concert by the Sea (2015). While the Szabo performance was captured on equipment that was then state of the art, Thompson’s sublime mastering brings the guitarist right into the room with the listener.

This is truly one for the guitarist’s fans. Live in Cleveland is arguably more representative of where Gabor Szabo was musically than his records at the time were. Plus, it’s a real joy to hear Gabor in his element.

Saturday, September 03, 2022

Rediscovery: Joe Beck – “Watch the Time”

”Beck is power music which threatens as much throbbing vengeance as Zep or The Who. In fact, Joe, who used to work in the studio with Frank Sinatra and Burt Bacharach, is still hungry enough to sound like a Jimmy Page reborn…”

So says Perry Meisel of the Village Voice on the promotional sticker originally affixed to Joe Beck’s album Watch the Time. But any one expecting something like the name drops there will be disappointed by what’s here. Chances are, though, hardly anyone noticed anyway.

This schizophrenic record came out in March 1977 after a pair of hit albums Joe Beck arranged for Esther Phillips and in between two especially disparate albums the guitarist waxed with fellow guitarist Larry Coryell. In that year, Beck also produced and arranged music for Frank Sinatra and Gloria Gaynor. That’s a crazy catalog of recordings in and of itself.

Taken together, this group of recordings – none of which is especially memorable – reflects the way the music industry was struggling to find meaning and relevance at the time. It also paints yet another murky portrait of a particularly talented musician and composer who couldn’t figure out how or where he belonged in any of it. While most were looking for a hit, Joe Beck seemed in search of a fit.

In broad terms, Watch the Time comes off as a pop-rock and fusion hybrid. The pop seems informed by the prog-turning-pop of Kansas, Styx, Journey and, umm, Pablo Cruise (remember them?). The fusion seems to come out of period Santana and Return to Forever. If this band of influences suggests something potentially compelling, Joe Beck doesn’t find a way to harness it to good effect.

Throughout, Beck assays the multiple facets of his brand of guitaring. But it’s only on the all-too brief “Dr. Lee” where Beck’s once-familiar Hendrix-isms rise to the fore. Otherwise, Beck’s guitar competes with rock vocalist Tom Flynn, who sounds a lot like labelmate Rainbow’s Graham Bonnet, leaving Beck to sound like a session player on his own album.

Produced by rock producer Jack Richardson (The Guess Who, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger’s 1976 hit “Night Moves” and, surprisingly, the Brecker Brothers’ 1977 album Don’t Stop the Music), Watch the Time seems calculated for crossover success. But it’s hard to hear exactly what Joe Beck was crossing over to.

Unfortunately, there’s little if any consistency among the radio-friendly numbers here. There’s the blue-eyed soul of Bobby Scott’s “Happy Shoes,” the album’s first of two singles. Beck seemingly pulled the song from an obscure 1966 Gloria Lynne album, which Scott partially produced and arranged (Beck would later cover Scott’s better-known “A Taste of Honey” on 1991’s The Journey).

Then there’s the power pop of the anthemic “Stand Up and Be Somebody” (the album’s second single and the first of two Michael Brecker appearances here on “saxaphone” [sic]) and “Now’s the Time,” which is anything but the Charlie Parker standard. Then there’s the funky “L.O.V.E.” and the disco-rock of “Watch the Time,” neither of which is particularly dance-worthy yet both are surprisingly earworm-y.

Beck’s guitar wanders in and out, often much like the guitar on Rupert Holmes’ “The Pina Colada Song,” as though called to provide scenic or sonic backgrounds.

The album’s highlights are surely those fleeting moments when Beck (finally) puts himself up front. Chief among these is Beck’s bluesy “Ain’t it Good to Be Back Home.” Here, he seems to deliver a one-two punch of Carlos Santana trading fours with Jimi Hendrix. For my money, “Ain’t it Good” is Beck’s single best composition. It’s certainly one that he played with more frequency than any other.

Beck would later re-record the tune as “NYC” for his 1984 disc Friends, on which Michael Brecker takes the lead. Apparently, Beck first waxed the tune as “Ain’t it Good” – with David Sanborn in the lead – in 1975: it was added as an extra to the 1987 domestic CD reissue of Beck & Sanborn.

”Polaris” is an astute fusion burner that may well showcase Beck’s best performance on the album. The song crosses early Mahavishnu Orchestra with later Return to Forever and yields engaging performances from both Beck and Brecker, who solos on an electric sax that sounds as though it’s filtered through a guitar synthesizer.

Finally, “Dr. Lee” is a funky rocker that gets closer to what this listener wanted to hear from Watch the Time. But it comes at the very end – and at an even three minutes, its duration is shorter than any of the album’s pop tunes. There are echoes here of Max Middleton’s ode to Led Zeppelin, “Led Boots,” heard on Jeff Beck’s 1976 classic Wired (1976), seemingly one-upping Beck by taking these boots to eleven. But then it ends before Beck can take it to more interesting places.

(Curiously, the cover images of Joe Beck on Watch the Time seem to look an awful lot like Jeff Beck as pictured on Wired. Coincidence?)

Watch the Time “(l)acks personality,” wrote the AOR radio tip-sheet Walrus! at the time. “Joe Beck, fine studio player, has yet to decide who he is musically. R&B and blues based rock & roll and various jazz ideas are simply to [sic] broad a gap to be housed on one album, even when the tracks are good enough individually.” Indeed.

After Watch the Time, Joe Beck paired with Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo in a dynamic quartet that was captured live at Montreux in 1979 – a recording that has, sadly, yet to be released.

Beck also waxed duo discs with Hungarian guitarist Attila Zoller and American bassist Red Mitchell – both of whom, like Szabo, were ex-pats at the time. Joe Beck was not a literal ex-pat as those three were, but certainly a musical one, then only occasionally returning to the jazz home he wouldn’t find a place in till years later.

He would go on to work in the lucrative world of commercial jingles, where he wrote and recorded for such brands as Panasonic, Chevy, Durkee and Lysol. This gave him the freedom to more or less discover himself by gigging around New York City with others or on his own.

Joe Beck wouldn’t release an album under his own name again until 1984’s Friends (DMP), which reunited him with Michael Brecker, keyboardist Don Grolnick and drummer Steve Gadd (who played on the CTI Joe Farrell albums that featured Joe Beck). Beck waxed a string of discs for DMP that found a focus, consistency and even an energy that finally hit its stride with Beck’s 1991 disc The Journey.

Beck landed another fine disc with Finger Painting in 1995 and recorded a series of sublime trio outings for the Japanese Venus label and, later, Whaling City Sound, which issued his final recordings, including a marvelous duo album with fellow guitarist John Abercrombie.

Watch the Time is a time capsule marking an especially strange period in jazz. That’s hardly the fault of Joe Beck. Rock had lost much of whatever edge it gave to the fusion movement in the early seventies. Much of what was then called “jazz” was increasingly fusing with the rising popularity of disco – which Beck exploited himself in his 1975 Esther Phillips hit “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes.”

Despite coming out in the shadow of George Benson’s phenomenally popular 1976 hit Breezin’ - which Beck nods a bit toward on “Stand Up and Be Somebody” – Watch the Time is hardly alone, splashing about in the deep end of what passed for jazz in 1977.

Tellingly, nothing fellow former CTI hit-makers Freddie Hubbard, Joe Farrell, Johnny Hammond or Deodato put out in 1977 matched the success, savvy or mere interest of their earlier work on CTI – putting Beck in storied and, likely, equally baffled company. (Notable exceptions to that 1977 rule are Stanley Turrentine’s Nightwings and Chet Baker’s You Can’t Go Home Again - both, to these ears, superb studio records.)

Perhaps the only memorable – or easily recalled – “jazz” that came out of 1977 is Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good,” which hit number 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in June of that year. Mangione’s breezy confection also laid the ground for the onslaught of what later came to be known as “smooth jazz” – a road travelled far less successfully by Beck himself in his earlier Beck.

Little wonder, then, that Watch the Time fell through the cracks. The disc, despite its brief pleasures, bides its time as much as mistook the times. But Watch the Time is a record that successfully shows all the directions a guitarist who could hold his own in rock, pop, jazz and fusion could take. One could merely wish he zeroed in on just one or two such directions here.