Gabor Szabo - guitar; Jimmy Stewart - guitar; Louis Kabok - bass; Hal Gordon - congas; Bill Goodwin - drums
Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo emerged as one of the more original voices of the '60s, alternately drawing on the Hungarian folk music of his youth and the psychedelic music of the day. His adventurous open tunings, pull-offs, exotic scalar runs, and drone tones were tailor made for creative interpretations of tunes by the Beatles, Byrds, Doors, and other '60s pop stars. By the time he appeared at the 1967 Newport Jazz Festival, Szabo was riding high on the success of a string of scintillating Impulse! Releases—1965's Gypsy '66, 1966's Spellbinder, 1967's Jazz Raga, and The Sorcerer. His Saturday afternoon performance with his working quintet of second guitarist Jimmy Stewart, bassist Louis Kabok, drummer Bill Goodwin, and percussionist Hal Gordon was one of the real surprises of the festival.
Szabo made an immediate impression on the crowd at Freebody Park with a lightning fast linear excursion on his unaccompanied intro to "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise," the delicate Romberg-Hammerstein tune from the 1928 operetta The New Moon, which later became an oft-recorded jazz stanard. The daring six-stringer engages in a fleet-fingered breakdown with percussionist Gordon at just under the one-minute mark before the full band comes in swinging hard. Second guitarist Stewart later goes toe-to-toe with Szabo as the rhythm section drops out, and sparks ensue.
Johnny Mandel's alluring waltz-time ballad "Emily" (from the 1964 film The Americanization of Emily) is handled as a gentle bossa nova by the quartet. Stewart switches to nylon string acoustic guitar, and Szabo flies over the changes while drummer Goodwin supplies subtle rim shots to fuel the proceedings. "Mizrab," from Szabo's album Jazz Raga, is an adventurous 13-minute excursion marked by shimmering open string drones, ringing finger cymbals, and creative, controlled use of feedback by the innovative guitarist. The piece kicks into high gear at the 2:30 mark with the drummer Goodwin and percussionist Gordon energizing the proceedings. Szabo's flies up and down the fretboard, machine gun-picking his way through this uptempo groover while maintaining the mesmerizing drone factor. His haunting and unprecedented use of sustain and feedback here pre-dates the use of E-bow and other effects by almost 30 years. Drummer Goodwin (later a longtime member of the Phil Woods Quartet and Quintet) stretches out on a lengthy solo here, jamming alongside percussionist Gordon, who counters with some heated conga work. They come out of that highly charged percussive jam with a meditative extrapolation by the two guitars. Szabo uses whistling feedback tones and otherworldly overtones on this experimental raga section before returning to the energized Middle Eastern theme.
Stewart, a busy studio guitarist on the West Coast during the '50s and '60s, showcases his accomplished chord melody playing in a brief, unaccompanied acoustic guitar rendition of Johnny Mandel's "Shadow of Your Smile" (from the 1965 movie The Sandpiper). Szabo, on electric guitar, then joins with bassist Kabok on a stirring duet rendition of "My Foolish Heart" that is full of shimmering arpeggios and open string chord voicings that ring out in surprising fashion. The full band eventually enters, freeing up Szabo to explore the delicate, introspective theme with impunity. His cadenza at the 5-minute mark is astonishing and leads into a full band reading of "The Theme," a kind of droning blues number full of provocative open-string chord voicings and charged with plenty of sparks from Stewart and Szabo's spirited call-and-response. The piece eventually morphs into an earthy, energized boogaloo, bringing Szabo's Newport set to a raucous close.
Born in Budapest, Hungary, on March 8, 1936, Szabo began playing guitar at age 14. Largely self-taught, he worked at dinner clubs and participated in covert jam sessions before escaping from his country at age 20 on the eve of the Communist uprising. He made his way to America, initially settling with his family in California, then later attended Berklee College in Boston from 1958 to 1960. In 1961, he joined Chico Hamilton's innovative quintet, replacing Dennis Budimer on guitar. That Hamilton group also featured Charles Lloyd on tenor sax, George Bohanon on trombone, and Albert Stinson on bass. Szabo left Hamilton's group in 1965 to join Gary McFarland's quintet, and the following year he initiated a solo run, debuting with Gypsy '66 and following up with Spellbinder and two stunning outings in 1967, Jazz Raga and The Sorcerer.
He continued to tour and record through the 1970s and died from liver and kidney disease on February 26, 1982. (Milkowski)