Although largely ignored today except by astute guitar students, the late Gabor Szabo left behind a large body of work that is still very much misunderstood. A descendent of Hungarian gypsies, Szabo's guitar style was very much in line in with his heritage, full of dark and mysterious textures that were the antithesis of the modern jazz guitar sound of the '50s and '60s. His first recordings with drummer Chico Hamilton announced a new voice that would slowly take shape over the years as Szabo would lead his own series of albums for the Impulse label and then later for Creed Taylor's CTI imprimatur.
Much of Gabor's output remains elusive these days, some of it only available on pricey Japanese imports. Following his iconoclastic Impulse debut, Gypsy '66 and a reunion with Chico Hamilton entitled Spellbinder, Szabo released an album that hinted at the Middle Eastern twang that seemed to be part and parcel of the guitarist's own style. Jazz Raga, as the liner notes tell the story, was supposed to feature Szabo's touring unit at the time, but for some inexplicable reasons his crew failed to show at the studio. In the end, drummer Bernard Purdie and bassists Johnny Gregg and Bob Bushnell showed up to save the date and the results are nothing short of intoxicating.
As a discographer of Szabo's work, writer Douglas Payne has called Jazz Raga 'a brilliant, much-derided record featuring Szabo's distinctive guitar and his overdubbed, out-of-tune sitar playing.' He goes on to add, 'Too easily dismissed, the record contains some of Szabo's very best guitar work: enchanting single-line runs mixed with jangled chords, repetitive riffs/drones and memorable, melodic solos.' Concurring with Payne's summation, this writer has also found the record to be particularly rewarding, despite some occasional lapses that can give the record a dated quality, specifically the cover of the Rolling Stones' 'Paint it Black' and the psychedelic vocals on 'Walking On Nails.'
While some have made too much of the sitar's use on this record, the overall effect is a hypnotic one that is really not much different from Szabo's usual approach. Among the many highlights are such Gabor originals as 'Mizrab' and 'Sophisticated Wheels, ' as well as Gary McFarland's 'Raga Doll.' Throughout, Purdie proves to be a particularly resourceful drummer, adapting to this unusual format with ease, and both bassist also contribute to the overall success of this endeavor.
Although the past few months have brought import reissues of Szabo's CTI gems such as Mizrab, Rambler, and Macho, his Impulse catalog has largely remained untapped here in the US. A potent reminder of Szabo's pan-ethnic approach and charm, Jazz Raga deserves another chance to bend today's ears with its mystical allure.