Saturday, December 24, 2022

Season’s Grooving

Here is a playlist that makes my holiday season bright. Roy Budd and John Zorn might also have made the cut, but those pieces weren’t readily available online. The presence of three certain Kings is a happy coincidence that shows just how much great musicians can make of a timeless tune. Suffice to say, all of this music is festive, timeless and wonderfully satisfying:

”Carol of the Bells” – David Benoit: A favorite holiday tune that first entered my orbit on the 1963 album The Joy of Christmas by Leonard Bernstein Conducting The New York Philharmonic and The Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Benoit has a very warm and special place in Christmas music.

”My Favorite Things – Kenny Burrell: Sure, John Coltrane turned this into a jazz standard and it’s as close as he got to a holiday tune. But while I treasure what McCoy Tyner does there, guitarist Kenny Burrell is, hands down, my favorite purveyor of this Richard Evans-arranged Sound of Music classic.

”Hallelujah from The Messiah” – The Classical Jazz Quartet (Kenny Barron/Ron Carter/Stefon Harris/Lewis Nash): The all-star CJQ’s fantastic Christmas disc is rife with terrific takes on classic-oriented holiday fare. This is always a lot of fun to hear.

”Peanut Brittle Brigade (March)” – Duke Ellington: Of course. Ellington and Strayhorn’s “Nutcracker Suite” is one of the greatest pieces of jazz and Christmas ever.

”Skating” – Vince Guaraldi Trio: Of course. The pianist’s “Christmas Time is Here” has, of course, become a standard (I would like to have included John Zorn’s version here) but “Skating” is one of jazz’s greatest tunes and one that spells the magic of Christmas to me.

”Toy Parade” – Bert Kaempfert and His Orchestra: From Kaempfert’s great 1963 Christmas album that also includes “Jingo Jangle” and “Holiday for Bells.”

”The Sound of Christmas” – The Ramsey Lewis Trio: From the first of the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s first of two Christmas albums, this is one of my favorite, if little-known holiday tunes. I’m sad we lost Ramsey Lewis this year.

”We Three Kings” – The Ramsey Lewis Trio: From the Lewis Trio’s second holiday disc, rife with fun party trifles. This is one King that swings.

”Good King Winceslas” – Mannheim Steamroller: Sometimes you gotta love the eighties. This is when I do.

”Christmas Waltz” – Oscar Peterson: This was originally written for Frank Sinatra, and while it has been covered by a few jazzers, it makes sense that it unwraps itself in pianist Oscar Peterson’s nimble hands.

”We Three Kings” – Jimmy Ponder: The Pittsburgh born and bred guitarist put out all-too few albums. But one of his last was a Christmas record. This is among one of its highlights - tapping into a certain version of "My Favorite Things."

”Christmas Time” – Salsoul Orchestra: Come on, how fun is this? A little disco mixed with a little calypso (and some rather silly lyrics) make for a festive bit of holiday cheer.

”God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” – The George Shearing Quintet: Mixing this standard with another standard (Paul Desmond’s “Take Five”) was brilliant. (Shearing likewise beautifully imposed Zawinul’s “Birdland” on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”)

”We Three Kings (Of Orient Are)” – Jimmy Smith: Surprisingly, one of producer Creed Taylor’s few holiday-oriented albums, “the Boss” or “the Incredible” Smith knocks this one out of the park in a magnificently-arranged piece of holiday-ana.

”Merry Christmas, Baby” – Soulful Strings (featuring Dorothy Ashby): This comes from a Christmas album I could listen to throughout the year. Arranged and produced by the magisterial Richard Evans, “Merry Christmas, Baby” makes the holiday warm and bright.

”The Holly and the Ivy” – George Winston: This is a gorgeous piece of holiday lore that is delivered beautifully by San Francisco-based pianist George Winston. His classic December album has many other notable solo features, including the moving “Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head.” (Bob James arranges a nice version of this – as “The Ivy Variations” – on the Fourplay disc Snowbound.)

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Gabor Szabo - "Mizrab" at 50

Mizrab has a special place in my heart. I was 15 in 1978 when an older friend (hello Rhonda!) introduced me to the records of Bob James – namely BJ4 and Heads. Entranced, I scoured record stores for more of anything with Bob James’ name on it. One of the first records I found was Mizrab, by someone named Gabor Szabo, found for 99 cents in the cutout bin of a discount department store. I was stupefied by what I heard, but mesmerized all the same – particularly the original record’s first side. Mizrab went on to ignite my passion for both Gabor Szabo and CTI. It continues to remain among my favorites of Gabor Szabo’s records. What follows is what I hope is an otherwise objective overview of Gabor Szabo’s Mizrab.


After the disappointing reception of High Contrast (1971), guitarist Gabor Szabo became enshrouded by some sort of fog. Some would argue the fog rolled in even earlier. Others might say he never really ever emerged from it.

Only a half-decade before, the Hungarian emigree was being hailed as the next “new thing,” the bridge to make jazz relevant once again. By the mid-sixties, jazz was losing much of the audience it once had. Young people were wooed by pop culture and the emergence of rock while older jazz listeners didn’t want any of that infecting the music. Szabo offered the promise of mixing the old with the new with such arresting albums as Spellbinder and Jazz Raga (both 1966).

Following a slew of crossover records that neither crossed over nor wowed his early jazz fans, Szabo seemed rudderless. He spent the rest of 1971 and most of 1972 well outside of the public eye and ear – and certainly out of American record stores. The guitarist continued to play West Coast clubs and recorded the album Small World during an August holiday in Sweden, an album that was released only in that country.

During this time, Szabo had befriended Carlos Santana and the two discussed forming a band. But nothing ever came of it. Meanwhile, the guitarist briefly reunited with reedman Charles Lloyd – who himself had recently become aligned with the Beach Boys – to record several songs on Lloyd’s semi-jazz comeback album, Waves.

Then in December 1972, after wrapping up a two-week stay at Concerts by the Sea in Redondo Beach, California, Gabor Szabo headed East to record the first of his three albums for Creed Taylor’s CTI Records. At this point, CTI had solidified its hold on seventies jazz crossover, with a myriad of artistically and commercially successful albums by such notable jazz artists as Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, George Benson, Hubert Laws, Johnny Hammond and Grover Washington, Jr.

CTI had perfected what Gabor Szabo had attempted for at least the last few years. While it seemed inevitable that this label was meant for this artist, it’s not entirely clear how the two came together. At the time, it was unusual for the East Coast CTI to record a West Coast artist.

But Szabo was certainly looking for a new home (in a 1975 DownBeat Blindfold Test, Szabo called Creed Taylor his “present landlord”) and Taylor and CTI knew how to design and build what Szabo wanted to achieve.


Gabor Szabo ventured to Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studios to record Mizrab in December 1972, at about the same time both Charles Lloyd’s very West Coast Waves (with Szabo) and Deodato’s decidedly East Coast Prelude (and CTI’s biggest-ever hit) were released.

The album was likely recorded one week after Taylor cut Sunflower, the CTI debut of Modern Jazz Quartet vibraphonist Milt Jackson. In typical CTI fashion, Taylor paired his star soloist with an all-star cast of supporting musicians. Here, Szabo sits in the starry company of bassist Ron Carter, drummer Billy Cobham (on “Mizrab” and “It’s Going to Take Some Time”) and percussionist Ralph MacDonald – all of whom appear on Sunflower as well.

Also on board here are CTI All Stars Jack DeJohnette and the album’s primary architect, Bob James.

In many ways, Mizrab is a reunion that sees Gabor Szabo collaborating with some of his earliest musical comrades. Creed Taylor had worked with Szabo only once before, on Gary McFarland’s terrific The In Sound (1965). Engineer Rudy Van Gelder had also recorded many of Szabo’s Chico Hamilton’s Impulse records as well as the guitarist’s first three solo records.

The most notable reunion here, though, is the one between Szabo and Bob James. Both the guitarist and the pianist had attended what was then called the Berklee School of Music (now the Berklee College of Music) at the same time, even previously recording together: on Arif Mardin’s “The Long Wait” from the 1959 album Jazz in the Classroom – Volume II (an album that also features Toshiko Akiyoshi, Nick Brignola and Joe Zawinul).

James and Szabo have an immediate chemistry here that rivals the earlier compatibility the guitarist shared with fellow guitarist Jimmy Stewart (Stewart recorded with Szabo between 1967 and 1969, but the two frequently gigged together through the remainder of Szabo’s life). Indeed, Bob James may well have been the reason Szabo was attracted or enticed to CTI in the first place.

“[Gabor] really liked working with Bob James,” brother John Szabo told me recently. “Bob James had the same kind of fluid, melodic sense of music that Gabor had. They both worked well together.” It is evident almost right from the very beginning of Mizrab and through Szabo’s next two CTI releases, particularly on the Bob James-arranged and produced Macho - especially remarkable as the pianist and composer’s very first production.

Ron Carter, like Gabor Szabo, got his start in Chico Hamilton’s band (Carter’s stay with Chico slightly preceded Szabo’s) but the two were bandmates in Charles Lloyd’s 1965 quartet, along with drummer Tony Williams. Carter and Hamilton, of course, factored significantly on Szabo’s 1966 breakout album Spellbinder. Carter is especially significant to the success of both “Mizrab” and “Thirteen” here.

CTI All Star Jack DeJohnette’s presence is of note here as he rose to prominence in the quartet Charles Lloyd formed after Szabo left the group. The Lloyd quartet with DeJohnette often performed Szabo’s “Lady Gabor,” a.k.a. “Gypsy ’66,” which seems oddly absent here.

Drummer Billy Cobham, who appears on this record’s “Mizrab” and “It’s Going to Take Some Time,” also had a peculiar, if elliptical, connection to Szabo, too, that would not become clear until the following year.

Cobham, like DeJohnette, a veteran of Miles Davis’ band and many-a CTI record, was a co-founding member of John McLaughlin’s then-popular Mahavishnu Orchestra. Upon the dissolution of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Carlos Santana – whose band, Santana, had also broken up by then – had chosen to hook up with Mahavishnu’s John McLaughlin over forming a two-guitar group with Szabo.

(Several of the original Santana members went on to join the Bay Area’s Latin rock-funk band Azteca, which Szabo’s group opened for during much of 1972.)


Mizrab’s first side – containing the album’s only originals, “Mizrab” and “Thirteen” – remains among the strongest work in the entirety of Gabor Szabo’s all-too brief discography. Here, Szabo – who discreetly overdubs himself on a second guitar – helms a quintet featuring James (on Fender Rhodes on the former and piano on the latter), Carter, drummers Cobham (“Mizrab”) and DeJohnette (“Thirteen”) and percussionist Ralph MacDonald.

Few of Szabo’s studio recordings capture Szabo this exquisitely and in such distinguished company. One could quibble, however, with the aural signature Rudy Van Gelder had developed for CTI by this point. The muffled piano and drums seem to mute or tamp down those player’s glorious contributions here.

No one could say, however, that Van Gelder’s CTI sound design did not favor or benefit the star soloist, no matter who it was. Szabo had always been spotlighted by expert recordists who knew how to bottle the energy and enigma of this superbly unique guitarist. But rarely has Szabo sounded this warm, relaxed or as intoxicating.

Another benefactor of Van Gelder’s CTI recordings is surely bassist Ron Carter. His command of his instrument is front and center in nearly all of his many CTI recordings. Regardless of what arranger or soloist was at the helm, Taylor and Van Gelder (and their recordings) always seemed to regard Carter as the captain of the ship. Carter is as much in charge of this session as Szabo and James.

Indeed, it is Carter who launches Mizrab with a captivating solo on the first minute or so of Szabo’s signature title song.

Szabo first recorded “Mizrab” on the controversial cult favorite Jazz Raga (1966), which featured the guitarist overdubbing himself on sitar. The song’s title was suggested by fellow guitarist Larry Coryell, who was supposed to play on the Impulse date but didn’t, and is named for the pick that is used to play the sitar. Although Szabo never touched the sitar again, the song kept its title as well as a revered place in the guitarist’s repertoire.

Szabo would combine the melody of “Mizrab” with the guitar introduction conceived for “Flowers and Love,” one of three songs Szabo contributed to Steve Allen’s Songs for Gentle People (1967). This is the version of “Mizrab” that the guitarist began including in his sets and popularized on The Sorcerer (1967) and revived on the first of his two Swedish albums, Small World (1972).

Considerable thought and effort have been put into this presentation of “Mizrab.” Structured much like one of CTI’s jazz takes of a classical piece, “Mizrab” is set-up like a three-act play. Seemingly more through-composed than the average Szabo tune – no doubt the result of James and Carter’s thoughtful participation – “Mizrab” also leads to some genuinely engaging interplay.

Although Szabo, James and Cobham solo – all, beautifully – it is Ron Carter who provides the hypnotic counterpoint throughout to Szabo’s entrancing melody. All told, it’s an amazing performance that yields one of Szabo’s finest and most memorable-ever pieces.

“Thirteen," on the other hand, is more of a two-part invention, a sort of jazz sonata. The first two minutes of this haunting piece are a gorgeous rondo for Szabo’s guitar and Carter’s bass. This sets up the remainder of the song’s sad, almost “Caravan”-like piece of dramatic exotica.

Those first few moments of “Thirteen” are actually based on a traditional Hungarian folk song called A csitári hegyek alatt. Translated as "Under the Mountains of Csitár," it is a song of lost love set in the lovely and magisterial region of northern Hungary and southern Slovakia.

A csitári hegyek alatt, a well-known love song in Hungary, was popularized in the twentieth century by Zoltán Kodály, notably as part of his 1932 song play Székelyfonó. Szabo, who likely learned this song as a child, invests in it an impassioned affection that moves beautifully with Carter’s ever-so subtle counterpoint.

The two weave a spell of impassioned melancholia that invites James and a signature DeJohnette into another plane of exquisite desolation (MacDonald wisely sits this one out). The post-Csitár part of “Thirteen” is, as many Szabo studio originals are, likely the result of an on-the-spot invention – workshopped a bit, I would guess, given the song’s cohesion and the musicians’ stately contributions.

Szabo likely developed the “melody,” such as it is (roughly from 02:14 to about 02:56), in the studio, while James, Carter and DeJohnette took their cues from him. Szabo’s guitar doubling and James’ terrific foregrounds and backgrounds are especially notable here. The dramatic flourish that concludes each of the song’s four sections where Szabo solos – it disappears once James solos – recalls previous notable Szabo mile markers in “Lady Gabor” and “A Thousand Times."

The song fades after about nine minutes. But while that is hardly unusual or remarkable, there is a sense that “Thirteen” could – and maybe did (or should have) – gone on much longer to accomplish even more.

(The introductions of both “Mizrab” and “Thirteen” are notably characteristic of the “parlando-rubato” style of Hungarian folk music, known for its rhythmical freedom and highly ornamental dynamics. Szabo employed this technique infrequently on his studio records, but his live sets abounded in such style – and often quite a bit more extensively than is heard here.)


The remainder of the disc results in a more familiar CTI set list and a program – with one particularly notable exception – more typical of a Szabo record of the period. What’s not typical for a Szabo record is the addition of a 23-piece orchestra (including CTI All Star Hubert Laws), arranged and conducted by Bob James.

While few of Szabo’s albums dabbled in such sweetening – there is the tasteful minimalism of Dreams (1968) and the occasional bombast of Faces (1977) – the guitarist could ask for no better “sugar man” than James…although it would have been fascinating to hear what Don Sebesky would have done with this guitarist after such great work with Wes Montgomery and George Benson.

The two pop songs featured here come straight out of the then hugely popular and profitable “soft rock” genre and both are best remembered as songs that mark the “Summer of ‘72.” It’s not clear whose idea these tunes were, but they both perfectly coincide with Szabo’s West Coast residency.

First up is Carole King’s “It’s Going to Take Some Time,” by the writer of CTI All Star Johnny Hammond’s tremendous hit cover of “It’s Too Late.” This take of this “Time” is derived, however, from the Top 20 hit version of the song recorded by The Carpenters, also the source of Szabo’s earlier cover of “(They Long to Be) Close to You.”

”It’s Going to Take Some Time” benefits much by Ron Carter, Hubert Laws, Billy Cobham, Ralph MacDonald and a brief, pre-“Angela” Bob James solo on Fender Rhodes. Szabo seems invested in the piece as well. This earworm, though, never really works its way out of the apple to make much of a case for itself as anything more than pleasant. The song was issued as the album’s promotional single. But not enough radio stations picked it up to warrant a full release.

Likewise, “Summer Breeze,” the Top Ten title track of soft-rock duo Seals & Crofts’ breakout album – which features, among its many studio musicians, former Szabo drummer Jim Keltner – is, like the original, pretty, hummable and smooth as silk, but little more. Szabo, however, excels in bringing out the appealing folk, exotic and even jazz elements present in the tune (as well as other Seals and Crofts hits of the period), making the guitarist a better match for this AM-radio hit than one might have ever expected.

The real surprise here, though, is ”Concerto,” or “Concerto #2,” as the title is listed on Mizrab’s sleeve (the former) and label (the latter).

The piece is derived from the “Andante” movement of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1957 piece “Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102.” While it is arguably the composer’s most popular piece, Shostakovich (1906-75) was also an outright and lifelong supporter of the Communist party (also arguably, apparently) – the same Communists that invaded Hungary in 1956, forcing Szabo, his family and friends to flee and thousands of others to die.

This “Concerto” features an orchestral melody statement – with Ron Carter on Arco Bass – that yields to Szabo’s bewitching solo, nimbly supported by James on Ring Modulated Rhodes, Carter and, most notably, DeJohnette’s transfixing rhythms. James offers up a subsequently bright, though discordantly mournful solo on Fender Rhodes.

Whatever misgivings Szabo may have had about Shostakovich are not at all evident in this “Concerto”: he delivers beautifully – albeit all-too briefly – on what I think is an overly-orchestrated piece. But others may disagree.

“My personal favorite track,” says producer and CTI expert Arnaldo DeSouteiro, “is James' elegant adaptation of the second movement of Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2.” DeSouteiro, who personally selected and supervised the first CD release of Mizrab in 2000, cites his favorite classical recording of the piece by the London-based Brazilian pianist Cristina Ortiz for EMI's Angel label. The Piano Concerto No. 2, written for Shostakovich’s son Dmitiri, has also been recorded by Leonard Bernstein, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Shostakovich himself.


Mizrab was released in April 1973, at the same time as Eric Gale’s Kudu debut, Forecast, recorded several weeks later and also arranged by Bob James, and Milt Jackson’s aforementioned Sunflower. The album found moderate success, despite none of the jazz press giving it much of any notice: Mizrab is one of the few American Szabo records DownBeat did not review.

“Szabo shows how beautiful the electric guitar can be on this program of familiar pop tunes and two unknowns,” wrote Billboard. “This is a strong attempt which succeeds in showcasing a jazz musician in a popular setting, thus allowing him to cross into the realm of mass appeal music. A lush, full sounding orchestra provides a very rewarding backstopping for Szabo's well-known lyrical style.”

“The music is good,” writes Gabor Szabo biographer Károly Libisch about Mizrab in his book Feketére Festve, “but there are factors that make us restrain our enthusiasm. Such is the unimaginative solo of James in ‘Mizrab’ and Cobham’s stylistic playing, or the time-filling nonsense of ‘Summer Breeze.’ On the other hand, we can hear the purest, most profound rendition of the folk song, ‘A Csitári-hegyek alat’ (‘Thirteen’) that I know. In the Shostakovich movement, the symphonic dance music, bossa nova, mainstream and third-stream style parts resulted in an atmospheric, good mix. In the end, this album is one that – despite its faults – we can easily like.” [Translation mine.]

Not entirely convinced of Mizrab’s success, Stefano Orlando Puracchio wrote in his book, Gábor Szabó – Il jazzista dimenticato (The Forgotten Jazzman), “I would feel, in this case, to opt for a purchase of the individual songs on an online platform, avoiding buying the whole album.” [Translation mine.] In Puracchio’s view, Szabo played his “best cards” with “Mizrab” and “Thirteen.”

Mizrab’s cover is also notably unique in the CTI canon as well. It is one of the few CTI covers to feature an artist portrait: only Kathy McCord, Hubert Laws, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Astrud Gilberto, and Jackie and Roy’s CTI albums had sported such covers. It is also the first CTI cover not shot by photographers Pete Turner or Price Givens.

The Szabo album cover was shot by Alen MacWeeney, the photographer who had produced the Kudu cover portraits of Johnny Hammond, Esther Phillips and Hank Crawford and would go on to do the 1973 CTI covers for Deodato 2 and Stanley Turrentine’s Don’t Mess with Mister T. among others.

Here, MacWeeney showcases Szabo evocatively among the neon artworks of Rudi Stern (1936-2006) at the artist’s studio and gallery, Let There Be Neon, which had recently opened at 451 West Broadway in New York City (it has since relocated to 38 White Street).

Bathed in neon, Szabo exudes both a warmth and energy that feels as traditional and contemporary as his music. In a September 1972 interview with the New York Times, Stern said he viewed neon signs as a “20th-century folk art form” – as apt a description and illustration of Szabo’s musical performances as well.

The 83-year-old MacWeeney told me recently he could not recall how the Szabo shoot at Let There Be Neon came to be. But MacWeeney’s Szabo image on the cover of Mizrab stands out as one of the most striking covers in all of the guitarist’s discography. Like More Sorcery (1968), Gabor Szabo 1969, and especially High Contrast (1971), the Mizrab cover image captures Szabo’s handsome face and his all-too haunted eyes.

Bathed in neon light, as he is here, reveals a visage that requires more than the usual thousand words that a picture is said to paint. Szabo’s enigma is as evident on this cover as it is on the music contained within.


Szabo would revisit Mizrab’s “Thirteen” upon his return to Hungary during September 1974 in a studio performance taped for Hungarian television. While the song – buoyed there by the legendary Hungarian bassist Aladár Pege - was not part of the final broadcast, the complete performance was issued as Gabor Szabo In Budapest, released on CD in 2008 and on LP in 2010.

Predictably, little of Mizrab’s remaining content stayed long in Gabor Szabo’s repertoire. The one exception, of course, is the album’s title track. “Mizrab” would later prominently feature in various iterations, under the title of “Rising,” in the unreleased Szabo documentary of the same name. Rising, Larry Bock’s thirty-minute student film from 1974, also showed the Mizrab cover and aired snippets of the album’s recording of “Thirteen.”

While “Gypsy Queen” and “Breezin” may be better-known Gabor Szabo covers, it is the exceptional “Mizrab” that is Szabo’s most frequently covered piece. Among those who have covered the song are Lee Ritenour and Oscar Castro Neves (1974), Sansara Music Band (as “Gabor’s Elephant Dance” – 1976), Mike Thole (c. mid 70s), Henry Kaiser/Steve Komock/Harvey Mandel/Freddie Roulette (1994), Dan Sperber and Luke Casey (2003), the Argentinian trio 3Topos (2010 – the song is still in the group’s repertoire) and, most notably, Lee Ritenour (on CD in 2002 and, separately, on DVD in 2004).

Samples from Mizrab aren’t that many or very well-known either but include Szabo’s opening notes in ”Thirteen,” sampled by Mind Space for “Life is Foul (Day Version)” (1996); a snippet of Szabo’s solo in “Concerto #2,” briefly sampled by Yeshua da poED (1998) for the interesting “The Head Bop”; and James’ opening strings in “Summer Breeze,” sampled by Flips (7Life) for “E.S. – Everyday Struggle.”

Mizrab has thus far only been issued on CD in Japan: first in 2000, as part of Arnaldo DeSouteiro’s "CTI 24-Bit Remastering Best Selection” series; next in 2006 as part of the “CTI Timeless Collection 40” series; and most recently in 2016 as part of the “CTI Supreme Collection 2” series.

Fifty years on, Mizrab fares pretty well for the most part. Both “Thirteen” (all nine-plus minutes) and this particular recording of “Mizrab” are ageless and remain keystones among Szabo’s very best compositions and most durable recordings. The album’s popular fare, on the other hand, is pleasant enough but hasn’t dated nearly as well – although “Summer Breeze” is hardly the worst pop song Szabo ever covered (it might have made a good single, too).

Had this album’s “Concerto” been conceived and delivered more like fellow guitarist Jim Hall’s later CTI “Concierto” (the Don Sebesky-arranged “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Joaquin Rodrigo), it, too, might have fared better.

Mizrab pianist and arranger Bob James would launch his own solo career very shortly after this record’s release and quickly found an immense popularity that endures to this day.

James went on to become one of the architects of “smooth jazz” and a co-founder of Fourplay, one of the genre’s most successful groups. At this writing, the 82-year-old James is still actively and joyfully touring and recording. And like Mizrab, James’ latest disc, Feel Like Making Live!, also features, among his own notable originals, two pop hits from 1972.

Today, James is likely the biggest draw for listeners of Mizrab, just as it was for me back in 1978. But that doesn’t make Mizrab, as one Amazon commentator alleged, a “Bob James album with Special Guest Gabor Szabo.” Mizrab is very much Gabor Szabo’s show. The album’s first two tracks make that perfectly clear – even to any Bob James fan.

Here, James is a tremendous musical foil and an especially well-aligned asset to Szabo – certainly as a player, if not always as an arranger – offering the guitarist intuitive counterpoint and complimentary conversation (as well as a powerful piano solo on “Thirteen”). Throughout, James the player defers, often quite beautifully, to Szabo the leader.

On the other hand, the Amazon poster’s assertion that this is not as much Szabo’s date as James’ hints at the altogether unrecognized level of musical chemistry and communication at the heart of Mizrab. Even for a studio set with all-star players, these guys know how to do what’s necessary to coalesce…and cook. And Ron Carter surely deserves a significant amount of the credit for that here, too.

Falling somewhere between the artistic aspirations of Dreams (1968) and the pure jazz delight of the still resounding Spellbinder (1966), Mizrab is – warts and all – one of Gabor Szabo’s most enjoyable and enduring musical statements. Kudos to the always canny producer Creed Taylor for knowing how to make his star soloist shine their brightest: he knows how to make crossover compel.

Mizrab is that rare Gabor Szabo record that does exactly what the guitarist professed in 1978 to be his mission: “The artist’s duty is to reflect the times, to react to them, and to communicate it to the people.” Mizrab allows Gabor Szabo, four decades after his untimely death, to keep communicating.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Heritage Orchestra – Jules Buckley – Ghost-Note: The Breaks

I really didn’t catch much new music in 2022. What I did hear was usually more interesting for a listen or two rather than memorable for more than a day or so. Maybe I was too busy catching up. But, in fairness, I’m always late to any party: usually, parties break up before I even show up.

One disc that did catch my attention in a big way this year was neither released in 2022 nor even issued in the United States. But it’s an arresting bit of funk jazz that deserves far more attention than it has, to my knowledge, received thus far or at all.

The disc’s cover alone is disorienting: Break dancers. What? A flip of the disc reveals this disc wasn’t issued in 1984 as it appears – reminiscent of record covers for the Beat Street and Breakin’ soundtracks or the Fuse One release Ice. The Breaks was issued nearly four decades later in 2021.

Glancing over to the label that issued this disc, we don’t find any traditional pop or jazz-label logo. The Breaks was released by the esteemed Decca label, one of Universal Music’s classical (or classical crossover) imprints. What is going on here?

One listen to The Breaks shatters all expectations: here is a disc of seventies-era “break beats” that were frequently – in some cases, often – sampled in eighties and nineties hip hop. The dazzling array of tunes – which digs in to more than a dozen full-length tunes – taps into soundtrack funk, soul, R&B, disco, pop - even a little rock (but surprisingly little jazz).

British composer and arranger Jules Buckley (b. 1980), surely one of the best young arrangers on the scene these days, has nearly no name recognition on this side of the Atlantic. No doubt this is why this disc never found its way over here. But why the conspiracy to keep this guy a secret?

Buckley has conducted the BBC Orchestra, Metropole Orkest and, as on this disc, his own Heritage Orchestra (co-founded with Chris Wheeler). He has also worked with UNKLE, José James, Anoushka Shankar and arranged and conducted the magnificent and Grammy Award-winning Snarky Puppy album Sylva (2015). (My assessment of Buckley as an arranger and collaborator comes from watching and listening to commentary of the DVD of Sylva).

In his native UK, Buckley is known for his work with DJ Pete Tong, Jonathan Jeremiah and Paul Weller (of The Jam and The Style Council).

My hope is that more American musicians discover the wealth of talent in Mr. Buckley. To me, he descends from the great arrangers Nelson Riddle, Percy Faith, James Last and Don Sebesky, all of whom perfectly marry the pop of their day with other genres (jazz, mostly) that crossover to reach listeners of the other – whichever “other” there is.

Additionally, like Duke Ellington, Gary McFarland or even Philip Glass, Buckley weds music to dance in a way that suggests his music is far more dynamic than merely one-dimensional.

The Breaks is based on the show Buckley and Wheeler staged at Royal Albert Hall on September 6, 2019, as part of the BBC Proms (the annual eight-week summer concert and event series staged in and around London). The show featured Buckley conducting the Heritage Orchestra with dancers and singer Vula Malinga and “UK turntable royalty” Mr. Switch (who both appear here).

One thing that distinguishes The Breaks from, say, those funky Percy Faith and Henry Mancini albums from the seventies (namely, Disco Party by the former and The Cop Show Themes by the latter) is its devotion to the groove. For that key ingredient Buckley enlists the brilliant drum duo Ghost-Note, with Nate Werth and Robert “Sput” Searight – both former members of Snarky Puppy – and both on Sylva. They keep this engine humming throughout.

The Breaks is fantastically engaging from beginning to end. Jules Buckley explores 15 break beats – 14 of those in full – with as much dedication to the melody as to the groove. And that one mash-up at the end is a collage of break beats that could have been longer and included even more. Here’s hoping there’s more of The Breaks to come. This is jazz funk at its finest.

What follows is a song-by-song breakdown of the disc, just scratching (he said knowingly) the surface of the wealth of music contained in The Breaks:

1. Apache: Jerry Lordan’s “Apache” goes back to the 1960 hit by Cliff Richard’s backing band, The Shadows. Buckley’s version, however, grooves to the 1973 break-beat classic waxed by the studio group the Incredible Bongo Band, from the first of its two albums, Bongo Rock. The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” has been sampled hundreds of times but its first samplers are the Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache” (1981) and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (1981).

2. It’s Just Begun: This 1970 single by the Jimmy Castor Bunch, which riffs on Kool and the Gang’s “Give it Up” (1969), has a strong Sly and the Family Stone vibe. The oft-sampled song, which gave the Jimmy Castor Bunch’s 1972 RCA album its name (and a different version of the tune), was first sampled by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five for “She’s Fresh” in 1982. Tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington dials in a solo from L.A. during the height of the pandemic lockdown.

3. Hot Wheels – The Chase: The studio group Badder Than Evil – which included noted film composer Angelo Badalamenti (1937-2022), writing here as Al Elias…get it? – contributed this song to the Blaxploitation film soundtrack Gordon’s War (1973). It has a very similar groove to Lou Donaldson’s “Sassy Soul Strut,” also from 1973 – and it screams total funk circa 1973. The song was first sampled in 1987 for “Spy in the House of Love (Streetsahead Mix)” by Was (Not Was), a group featuring Don Was, the current president of Blue Note Records (the label that issued the aforementioned Lou Donaldson track). It’s gone on to greater fame from there.

4. Space Funk: The Cincinnati-based Manzel issued a couple singles in the late 70s, including “Space Funk,” their 1977 debut. This little-known gem hasn’t previously received much attention, at least not as much as the drum intro to their “Midnight Theme,” the b-side to the group’s 1979 single “Sugar Dreams.” So, kudos to Jules Buckley for his cover here. The best-known sample of “Space Funk” can be heard on Erik B. & Rakim’s 1988 “No Competition”

5. Think (About It): This 1972 Lyn Collins hit was written, produced and arranged by James Brown and contains a whopping five wildly popular breaks. It’s been sampled literally thousands of times by such hip-hop greats as Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock (“It Takes Two,” which is how I first heard it), Grandmaster Flash, Kool Moe Dee, Public Enemy, Kid n Play, Snoop Dogg and Kanye West.

6. Forty Days: This little beauty is new to me. Originally known as “Fourty Days” (and also co-credited to trombonist Ray Jackson), a tune hidden on trumpeter Billy Brooks’s sole solo record, Windows of the Mind (1974) on Ray Charles’s Crossover label (Charles also co-produced). “Fourty Days” was first sampled by A Tribe Called Quest for “Luck of Lucien” (1990) and was also sampled by, among others, Greyboy for “Funk on the Brain” (1993). Buckley’s silky yet slinky “Forty Days” features a lyrically gorgeous flugelhorn solo by Gavin Broom.

7. Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose: James Brown’s 1969 hit has been sampled dozens of times by such hip-hop artists as Jazzy Jay, Full Force, 2 Live Crew, N.W.A., Miles Davis (!), Gang Starr and Afrika Bambaataa with JB himself for “Unity” (1984).

8. More Bounce to the Ounce: The Dayton-area phenom Zapp’s 1979 debut single was the inspiration behind the Tom Tom Club’s 1981 hit “Genius of Love,” itself a sampled favorite. (Chris Frantz of the Tom Tom Club said that “Bounce” was “the jumping off point for us, because we loved the groove of that song, and the tempo.”) The synth-heavy talk-box vocal “Bounce” was sampled early on for George Clinton’s “Loopzilla” (1982) and has been sampled hundreds of times by, among others, the Notorious B.I.G., EPMD, LL Cool J, Ice Cube and Eminem.

9. Get on the Good Foot: James Brown’s 1972 hit is more groove than song, with Brown preaching the gospel of good funk, qué pasa people. “Good Foot” was tailor-made for sampling and indeed hundreds have sampled it, including 2 Live Crew, Big Daddy Kane, Ice Cube and even James Brown himself for “I’m Real” with Full Force in 1988. Buckley’s arrangement allows trombonist Alistar White to funk out his best Fred Wesley (who did not solo on the original studio take of the song).

10. Ashley’s Roachclip: Another great break that’s new to me, “Ashley’s Roachclip” factors on the DC-based Soul Searchers’ 1974 album Salt of the Earth. The song, first sampled by Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five for “Step Off” in 1984, turned out to be such a massively popular break that the UK-based Soul Brother Records issued “Ashley’s Roachclip” on a 45 backed by the group’s - later known as Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers – disco-y “Blow Your Whistle,” sampled by Public Enemy for “Who Stole the Soul” in 1990.

11. Dance to the Drummer’s Beat: A very happy discovery for me here, “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat” comes from the Miami-based drummer Herman Kelly. Originally featured on Herman Kelly & Life’s album Percussion Explosion, “Dance” likely didn’t become a national hit because it was neither featured on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack nor issued by the Miami-based TK label, home of K.C. and the Sunshine Band. That didn’t stop clever hip-hop artists from finding this song: two early samplers include “Dopeman” by N.W.A. and “Beats to the Rhyme” by Run-DMC, both 1987.

12. Rated X: Before their 1979 breakout hit album Ladies’ Night New Jersey’s Kool and the Gang was one of the finest and most consistently terrific funk bands - ever. From their 1972 master jam Good Times, “Rated X” was sampled twice by both Queen Latifah (“Dance for Me” and “Queen of Royal Badness” – both 1989) and Ice Cube (“Turn Off the Radio” and “The Product” – both 1990).

13. The Mexican: One of the more unusual breaks featured here is “The Mexican,” a 1972 track from the British Prog Rock band (!) Babe Ruth’s debut album, First Base. “The Mexican” likely became a popular break due to its clever “sampling” – or quotation – of Ennio Morricone’s iconic theme to the film “For a Few Dollars More.” In any event, “The Mexican” was first sampled by Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force for the legendary “Planet Rock” (1982) and, later, by the Jungle Brothers for “On the Run” (1988) and “The Mexican” by GZA with Tom Morello (2015), among others.

14. Theme from S.W.A.T.: Barry DeVorzon’s theme to the 1975-76 ABC-TV show was made popular by the studio group Rhythm Heritage (led by Michael Omartian and Steve Barri) for their 1976 album Disco-fied. One of a number of great TV theme songs from the seventies – notably including Patrick Williams’s “Streets of San Francisco” and “Starsky and Hutch” by Tom Scott (who also factors in Rhythm Heritage) – “S.W.A.T.” was sampled by LL Cool J for “I’m Bad” (1987), Public Enemy for “Nighttrain” (1991) and a few dozen others.

15. X Breaks: This far-too brief compilation of Jules Buckley’s favored breaks cleverly champions the opening salvos of Bob James’ “Shamboozie” (1982), The Mohawks’ wildly-sampled “The Champ” (1968), Bob James’ beloved 1975 cover of Paul Simon’s “Take Me to the Mardi Gras,” the Sugarhill Gang’s 1980 hit “8th Wonder,” the 1968 James Brown-produced Marla Whitney single “Unwind Yourself,” and the aforementioned Soul Searchers’ 1972 single “We the People.” In all of two minutes and eleven seconds, too. Wow!