Born: March 8, 1936 | Died: February 26, 1982 Primary Instrument: Guitar
An innovative musician who combined the folk music of his native Hungary with his passion for jazz, Gabor Szabo began his study of the guitar at the age of 14. Following a single free lesson that came as a gift with his first instrument, he then began to teach himself to play by emulating the American jazz performers he heard on the radio. Some work with various bands in the Budapest area gradually developed, but in 1956 Szabo was forced to take refuge in Austria by the Communist takeover of Hungary.
Eventually settling in California, Szabo struggled to establish himself as a musician; for a time he worked as a janitor and used his earnings to attend the Berklee School of Music in Boston between 1958 and 1960. Reaching the end of his money, Szabo returned to California and again sought to break into the music field, working in property management to support his family. In 1961, the long-sought opportunity arrived in the form of an invitation to join The Chico Hamilton Quintet. After a somewhat tenuous beginning (Szabo was actually fired by Hamilton and then re-hired later in the year), the guitarist quickly began to establish himself with jazz audiences through his strikingly unique approach to his instrument. It was during this period that Szabo first performed with Lena Horne - an association that would later evolve into a collaborative record and an appearance on Horne's television special in 1970.
By 1965 Szabo had moved on from Hamilton's group, working for a time with The Gary McFarland Quintet and in a quartet fronted by his Hamilton bandmate Charles Lloyd before initiating his solo career in 1966 with the release of “Spellbinder.” A track from this album, “Gypsy Queen,” would later be adapted into the successful single “Black Magic Woman” by the band Santana. In ’66 he also recorded “Jazz Raga,” where he experiments with the sitar, doing some interesting covers. This was an early world fusion excursion.The following year, he formed his own quintet, with whom he recorded a series of albums for the Skye label during the remainder of the decade.
. Concurrent with the growing popularity of rock, Szabo began to integrate the use of feedback into his playing, as well as intergrating aspects of Indian music. Following the dissolution of his quintet, Szabo assembled a sextet; the new band concentrated on a more commercially-accesible style of music and began an active West Coast performing schedule. Numerous collaborative projects also materialized throughout the 1970s - including “High Contrast,” a critically-acclaimed album with Bobby Womack. Another recording “Mizrab,” (1972) revealed the success of his jazz, pop, Gypsy, Indian and Asian fusions.
Towards the end of the 70s, Szabo had begun to travel back to his homeland, instigating a renewed interest in his Hungarian heritage. Upon his return to the United States, Szabo sought to merge elements of both his acoustic and electric styles with a return to his musical roots. This awareness led to his eventual recording of Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody,” on the record “Macho,” in 1975. His other sessions for the ‘70’s were “Nightflight,” (1976) “Faces,” (1977) “Belsta River,” (1978)
The guitarist's final recording, “Femme Fatale,” done in collaboration with Chick Corea followed in 1979. A brief resurgence of musical activity was managed at the start of the 80s, but in 1981 Szabo returned again to Hungary. The following year he died of liver and kidney failure in a Budapest hospital.
Guitarist Jimmy Stewart, who befriended and accompanied Gabor on many occasions, discusses the basis of the “Gabor Szabo Sound.”
Gabor Szabo's sound was extremely unusual. That, coupled with his Hungarian field, made him one of the premier guitarists during the mid 60s and early 70s. Part of that sound came from his hands. The other part of the sound came from the type of instruments that he used. One of his favorite instruments was the Martin D-45. Another guitar Gabor liked to play was a Martin D-285. Gabor Szabo used a pickup made by DeArmond, placing it in the center of the round hole and adjusting it so he could have an excellent balance between the bass strings and the treble strings. So the round pickup in the center of the round hole on the Martin D-45 was the real basic sound for Gabor Szabo.
Source: James Nadal