wax Poetics
Jimmy Stewart. Photo by B+

The Sorcerer(s)

Jimmy Stewart and the Magic of the Gabor Szabo Quintet

published online
Originally published in Issue 12
By Dan Ubick

    I have many friends that are music collectors and aficionados, but I am eternally grateful to one in particular. My friend Tony Sherman turned me on to Dreams by Gabor Szabo on Skye Records over ten years ago. From its psychedelic black and white cover by David Stahlberg to its perfect 1968 production by Gary McFarland, Dreams has remained one of my most treasured LPs. 

    After acquiring this masterpiece, I, of course, bought everything Gabor recorded for Impulse, CTI, Skye, Blue Thumb, Buddah, Verve, etc., but found myself always coming back to certain albums: Dreams, Bacchanal (1968), The Sorcerer (1967), and More Sorcery (1967), to be exact. What was it about these few LPs that captured such a vibe? 

    Gabor was, without a doubt, incredible on almost everything he recorded before and after, but something about these sessions had a true “magical connection.” After close study of the liner notes, I realized that Gabor was not the sole guitarist on these records...there was another! A man who, from 1967 to 1969, brought out something in Gabor Szabo that was even more exotic and mystical: the counterpoint, the subtlety, the use of restraint, the soul. It was as if this man and Szabo were transcending their instruments and expressing the complexities of the human existence together through guitar strings. This man was Jimmy Stewart. 

    I met with Jimmy and his lovely wife at their home in Hollywood. He was gracious and generous, sharing his red wine and old picture books, telling amazing story after amazing story. After our interview, Jimmy handed me a guitar given to him by Howard Roberts and gave me a lesson. I was instantly humbled by his incredible playing and inspired by this man I’ve listened to so many times on record.

    Dan Ubick: How did you first meet Gabor Szabo?

    Jimmy Stewart: I first met Gabor while working as house guitarist at the Hungry I [in San Francisco] in the early ’60s. He was in town with the Chico Hamilton Group and we became friends. I had heard a couple cuts from a Hamilton recording that featured him. Interestingly enough, I was not quite sure what to make of his playing. His sound and feel was in contrast to what I was accustomed to hearing. He used a round-hole Martin [acoustic] guitar with a pickup mounted in the middle of the sound hole. We became friends, talking about music and our careers. 

    And when did you first play together?

    It was some time before we would play musically. A friend and associate of mine, Gene DiNovia, was the musical director for Lena Horne. She used Gabor, when he was available, as her guitarist, featuring him in her nightclub act. Well, Gabor was due to open at Shelley’s Manne Hole in Hollywood. Gene told Gabor that we should get together and play. I went to his hotel room in Reno, and as soon as we played three notes together, we knew that the magic was there between us. Gabor got all excited and asked if I would like to work at Shelley’s Manne Hole with a new jazz group he was putting together, although he didn’t think I’d give up my lucrative studio work and musical directing just to go on the road to play jazz. He said to me, “I can’t guarantee anything else, you know. Are you sure you want to leave those highly paid jobs?” I said, “Yes, I just want to play.” So the commitment was made. The group was very unusual for jazz. The front line consisted of the two guitars, bass, and drums. I did double on electric guitar, classical guitar, and sometimes I’d use a twelve-string for color.

    Tell me about the recording of Dreams and the atmosphere in the studio during those sessions.

    Andy Richardson was our tracking engineer—older guy with a lot of experience. To capture the magic on vinyl…it starts with the recordist! He must know what he is doing. Andy and I worked together to get that sound from my classical guitar. Gabor’s sound was always great because of a DeArmond guitar pickup made in the early ’60s. This model, number 210 for flattop guitars, gave a full, rich tone; it was equipped with six quarter-inch Alnico magnets, which were individually adjustable for maximum pick-up power. Gabor used different amps, but his favorite was a Toby Amp that he placed on a chair in back of him. Andy would place a mic on a boom and get the mic positioned at a point of eminence from the two 8-inch speakers in the Toby Cabinet. This cabinet was unusual because of its circular design. It looked like a small oil drum. 

    What were you using?

    I played a Del Vechhio guitar made in Brazil and previously owned by my friend Laurindo Almeida. You can hear it on every song on the Dreams recording. How sweet and wonderful it sounds. Regarding recording my sound: The engineer could have a tough time with isolation—especially with drum leakage into my track. Producers and recording engineers have over the years placed me under umbrellas, in iso-vocal booths, hallways, bathrooms, maintenance rooms, you name it and I’ve been there. So my only link to the band would be through headphones or what we call the fold-back system. This was good and bad at the same time. I could not see Gabor usually, but I developed a way of responding through intuition, vibe, and a sixth sense! And the rest of the group could only hear me, not see me, as we were being recorded. They had to respond in a different way to me than they would in a live performance. Live performance, I had to respond to them; when recording, they had to respond to me. In this setting—only two guitars—one of us, usually it was me, had to create the harmony and countermelodies to support the main melody. I don’t think I could have been as effective had I not been trained as an orchestrator/arranger. 

    What about the rhythm section?

    Louie Kabok had a great Czechoslovakian bass and he was a master musician, playing pizzicato and arco [with the bow]. He had a bow holder that looked like a bow quiver attached to his bass. Sometimes the recording engineer would place a microphone in it or connected to it. With Jim Keltner’s drums, the way he played them you couldn’t go wrong with a standard jazz-set microphone configuration. Hal Gordon’s percussion toys—the triangle, finger cymbals, and other assorted percussion instruments—utilized one overhead microphone. Another microphone was placed in front of the conga drums. 

    “Galatea’s Guitar” on Dreams had so many qualities that pulled me in when I first heard it. From the delicate introduction, the tension built into one of the most seductive grooves ever recorded, to the mesmerizing interplay between the two guitars that begin improvising over it. What was it like recording that song in particular?

    On the recording “Galatea’s Guitar,” Louie and Gabor had worked out the first part of the song, and then we each felt our way into the song. This was one of the first times Gary [McFarland] played on a recording with us. He is playing the piano background lick. We rehearsed the song a few times and then recorded it. Most generally there would be no more than two takes. The producer and the musicians would listen, and if we got goose bumps on our arms, that was the take. Other times we would only record one take, because we all knew it had the magic. You can’t really plan these things we all seemed to instinctively do: instant composition and sense of drama. 

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    How was Dreams tracked?

    For Dreams, we tracked everything in Hollywood [Western Recording] and the session tapes were sent to New York [Gotham] for sweetening. Gary McFarland liked to work that way. East Coast players and feel added to our tracks. A week after we had recorded the basic tracks in Hollywood, I got a late-night call from Gary McFarland. He said, “Jimmy, I’m stuck! I can’t figure out what you played in the background on ‘Song of Injured Love.’ Can you please count it out for me! I’m going nuts.” Gary didn’t know this, but I used a Stravinsky musical device, changing the accented notes to create a poly-rhythmic line. Once I told him what it was, he said, “Yeah, Jimmy!” Gary and the band always had respect for each other. We actually played first to knock each other out, then we went for the audience. We wanted to take them on a trip—feel us! 

    Other tracks off the Dreams LP, such as “Half the Day Is Night,” have such a somber and introspective feeling to them. Then there are tunes like “Song of Injured Love” and “Fire Dance” that are celebratory. Nonetheless, the depth of emotion in the musicianship on this record is something you just don’t hear much in modern music. Was this LP just another session for you guys, or was it a chance to show your even broader spectrum and depth? 

    We did mostly head arrangements on these songs. Gabor would have an idea or I would have one, and we would go from there. Louie Kabok would then figure out his part. And Jim Keltner would get a spectacular rhythm pattern going and Hal Gordon would add landscaping and feel. When you perform with players on the bandstand every night, [and then] you are working in the studio, it’s like you are having a conversation with someone you know well. It was never just another session for us! Every time we played or recorded, we let the music come through us. Sure, we talked over tunes and ideas for the arrangement, but we listened to each other very intensely so that what we played was right. Not right in the sense of right or wrong, but right in the sense of what was needed for each song. 

    The Bacchanal LP was the precursor to Dreams, having been recorded six months earlier. Tracks like “Divided City” and the title track, “Bacchanal,” are so deep, much like the material on Dreams. The late ’60s were such a fertile time in music for you guys and for most musicians, and of course a changing time socially. Where was your mind at in 1968?

    It has always been in the same place…music! We started this project [Bacchanal] with having a meeting over some great Hungarian food. Gary had come out from New York and was staying at Gabor’s house. I said to Gabor and Gary, “Why don’t we record an album of cover songs and shape them in our style? Later we all turned in a list of our favorite songs. Songs that were popular at that time. My choices were “The Theme from the Valley of the Dolls” [Andre Previn] and “Some Velvet Morning” [Lee Hazelwood]. Gabor loved “Love is Blue” and “Sunshine Superman.” We all wanted to record “The Look of Love.” “Bacchanal” and “The Divided City” were made up in the studio and titled later. Andy Richardson came up with a great production trick for my guitar sound on “The Divided City.” He created a delayed echo sound using the 2-inch recording machine. 

    In the liner notes on Bacchanal, I was paid one of the highest compliments of my career. [“Jim Stewart is to Szabo what Paul Desmond was to Dave Brubeck, a musical sophisticate with a virtuoso’s sensitivity to the instrument he plays. His classical guitar never competes with Szabo’s but relates directly to the needs of the music. On “Bacchanal” and “Divided City,” the voice of his guitar stands out pure and clear as water from a mountain stream.”]

    Even though Gabor was the leader on these records, it was such a group effort. What was it like going into a session or a live date with the Gabor Szabo Quintet?

    There’s something beautiful in giving to your creativity, because you don’t expect an outcome. You don’t expect applause: “Was it great?” You’re just doing it for the sheer pleasure of it. And out of that you realize that you really are not doing it. You’ve stepped aside of yourself, and now possibly all the masters of music…are helping you. I can’t explain it, but you can’t walk out, when you have a great performance or you’re playing in a situation with great players, and say that you are the man, you’ve got it going on. That’s impossible, because it’s the environment. It is a common dream. And when you all hit that “prayer,” when you all hit that dream, it’s unbelievable. Because it happens, and you can’t explain it. You don’t even want to explain it.

    Now I understand, looking back at some of the great leaders in jazz—Miles Davis would be one—some of his recordings, he never told those players what he was going to play. He took them into the studio and they did it. They just made up tunes there. He didn’t want them preconceiving it or trying to make it right. So through this process, I think, comes the humbleness of your art. When you reach that point, it gives you a glow in your heart that no one can take away. Because it’s the real thing that you’re going for. Part of this humbleness is knowing that you can’t do it exactly the same again. So sometimes twenty-four takes is the worst thing that you can do. 

    What was it like working with Hungarian musicians?

    Working with two Hungarian musicians was quite an experience. To best explain their personalities, it’s best to explain it this way: If you were walking with one of them, especially Gabor, and you were going through a revolving door, somehow he would wind up in front of you on the other side and you wouldn’t know how he got there. They had that mystery about themselves. 

    What I think made this music period unusual, this stack of recordings [points to my collection], was that it was a fusion of the Gypsy musical tradition and the American musical tradition. Myself, coming more from jazz and blues, trained in that way, and Louie and Gabor, coming from a Hungarian...from Gypsy music, and great classical music. There’s no doubt about it; Hungarians are incredible. And then you mix up that element with the, what I would call “the gateway to the East and the West.” Like Hungary and Czechoslovakia are neither East nor West. It’s almost like that’s where the archetypal clichés rub, and out comes these unusual people. They truly are unusual musically, and they’re unusual in many ways. If you think of some of the great cinematographers and great orchestrators, you have to look at these people. They have something mystical. It’s already in them; it’s born in them. And that’s the case here. 

    Moving back a year: The Jazz Workshop. Boston, April 14–15, 1967. What are your most vivid memories of these nights recording what would become The Sorcerer and, subsequently, More Sorcery?

    Rice Hamel, recording engineer. I had worked with Rice at the Hungry I in San Francisco. He did a lot of the remote recordings around San Francisco, and I was surprised to see him in Boston. For the recording of The Sorcerer, in April of 1967, Rice used an audio truck parked outside and ran the cables down into the basement, taping them to the floor so no one would trip. On the tune “Space,” he was getting levels on me. But it sounded so good they kept the tape running and just like always the group started to create a tune. On the spot, magical music. 

    Jimmy Stewart and Gabor Szabo at Newport, 1968. Archival photo courtesy of Jimmy Stewart.
    Jimmy Stewart and Gabor Szabo at Newport, 1968. Archival photo courtesy of Jimmy Stewart.

    Was this “magical music” you and Gabor had together ever reached again with anyone else?

    For me in my musical lifetime there are only a few players who I could truly create great magic with. I think it’s because of our similar backgrounds in what we listened to. Bartók was so influential, but it really gets down to musical soul. It goes beyond the five senses. You have to be multi-sensitive to communicate at this level. You have to have musical courage. What I mean by that, your instrumental technique must be world class. Your ability to respond has to be instantaneous to the mood. And you must have a sense of drama. Next, you have to trust the musical souls that you are engaging with total trust! And this leads you finally to humbleness without even noticing.

    In the liner notes for The Sorcerer, Nat Hentoff writes, “The question of style has been expanded into a question of receptivity to an explosion of influences.” From Sonny & Cher, Donovan, and the Beatles to Jobim, Cole Porter, Bob Merrill, and originals by Gabor and yourself (like the spectacular “Lou-ise”), the group embraced all styles of music and made them completely original, with each of your own rich backgrounds laying the foundation. You guys were definitely open. In 1967, where was Jimmy Stewart pulling musical inspiration? 

    I’m a music freak! I listen to all styles of music. Because of my immense interest in composition, arranging, orchestration, teaching, the recording process, producing records, writing songs, and even writing music books, I have always been learning. If I can’t be creative every day, I get lost in my mind. 

    Jimmy, you were telling me earlier that there were some recordings made with yourself and Gabor that never saw a release.

    Okay, the first one was recorded live at Shelly Manne’s Manne Hole. That was circa 1970 and recorded by the great recordist Wally Heider, who I believe recorded us at Monterey Jazz Festival for More Sorcery, as well. The record company wanted us to have Pete and Conte Condoli record live at Shelley’s with us. Quite interesting—two trumpets and the Quintet. It was wild, so we recorded it. It was nice. I listened to the tapes in Wally’s little control room. It sounded great but couldn’t be released, probably, for legal reasons, “direction,” or whatever. 

    I believe there was another you were telling me about that was going to be a solo LP for Gary McFarland, Signs of the Zodiac.

    Yes, it was a recording we did in New York at Gotham Studios for Creed Taylor. It was myself, Louie Kabok, and Gabor. We were put together with some New York players, the Hot Players. Jeremy Steig, [pianist] Warren Burnhardt, and Bernard Purdie. I think we also had Chuck Rainey—he’d play Fender bass and Louie would play upright. These were all guys that Gary put together, Gary played vibes. The funniest thing happened on that session: I asked Gary, who was sick, if I remember correctly, if I could see the music. He looked at me and said, “I haven’t written the music yet.” He hasn’t written a note and we’re about to do a session for Creed Taylor! I mean, oh my God. So we get into the studio and Gary makes up the parts and teaches them to us orally. Same thing happened on a session I did with Ray Charles. Outside of the quintet, this was the first time I experienced this kind of spontaneity at a high level. And it really worked. So we finished recording, took pictures, and it never came out. It was a real good recording. The stories don’t end there. One more…

    Oh my God, another one?

    Los Angeles. Jim Keltner, Ray Brown, [percussionist] Flaco, Tommy LiPuma, Al Schmidt, Gabor Szabo. Gabor didn’t have a set group at this time, so he put this together. So it’s all going down beautifully, Tommy LiPuma is so excited. So we’re looking at them in the control room and we start to play. Al Schmidt is there and he starts the tape recorders, and he’s smiling and all that. And Ray Brown’s going full, Gabor and I are looking at each other, and we’re just playing some magic stuff, burning it...cooking! The engineers have their eyes closed, and Ray Brown has his eyes closed. I’m thinking, if Ray Brown has his eyes closed, this is some damn good stuff. So we finish and we walk back into the control room, and we say to them, “Gosh, can we hear that back?” And Tommy LiPuma says to us, “Hear what back?” We said, “Didn’t you catch that take? He said, “No, we were listening to the playback of that other song!” We’re thinking, “Oh gosh. We could never do this again!” And we didn’t. We decided that was fate. 

    We also did music for a Roman Polanski movie [Repulsion, 1964]. Roman Polanski was very good friends with Gabor. 

    The recordings you did on Impulse and Skye had the advantage of great producers with even better ears [Bob Thiele and Gary McFarland]. What was your impression of working with these two men, and how did either of their production sensibilities rub off on you?

    Being a good end-user listener. Having a sense of knowing what the audience wants to hear from your artist. Each man in this case had his strong points. Gary’s strong point was from an arranger’s point of view. He could sing or write a part out for you. Bob’s strong point was his great ears and passionate love for music, especially jazz. He knew what he wanted to hear. If you put both these elements together in one person you get Quincy Jones! 

    Quincy’s legacy is definitely hard to top.

    Let me give you an example of some of the decisions a producer must make. When I first joined Gabor, the group consisted of Albert Stinson on bass and Jim Keltner on drums, along with myself on jazz electric guitar and only a few tunes where I use the classical guitar. The great jazz critic Leonard Feather flipped. Our review in the L.A. Times was glowing. He loved the dialogue between the two electric guitars. We were playing third-stream jazz. Fast tempos, 4/4, bebop. No piano, just the two guitars, naked and in the open. The linear lines we played created the harmonies. “What Is This Thing Called Love” from The Sorcerer is a great example. In the first melody statement it’s not one guitar playing, it’s the two of us. Then after the conga drums solo, I come in with a twelve-string guitar solo, then Gabor joins me with a counterpoint line and it’s magic at the end. Two musical minds as one. None of this was worked out. 

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    So what happened?

    I’ve never told this story before, but this is [what] came down. After we played the melody on “What Is This Thing Called Love,” I played the first solo, then Gabor played his solo with the conga. At the editing session, Bob Thiele had told me, “We need to make a tape edit to accommodate the timing problem. The only way I can solve the problem is to cut your solo in the beginning after the melody statement, but we’ll keep your twelve-string guitar solo at the end.” In those days, you could only have so much time on the vinyl. This kind of situation builds character. I said, “Yes. Edit!” They cut the tape and my work ended up on the editing room floor. We did later on get a chance to capture the sound and feel of the two jazz electric guitars that Leonard Feather loved on vinyl. But I got the jinx again. 

    Didn’t you tell me there was some mis-titling of a couple tracks on The Sorcerer?

    The liner notes identifying the songs on More Sorcery somehow [did] get mistitled. In the fourth column of the liner notes, “Comin’ Home” is really the tune “Spellbinder,” and “Spellbinder” is the tune “Comin’ Home.” Frank Kofsky, in his liner notes for the properly titled tune, did say of me: “For his part, Jim Stewart begins his solo with a quote of a famous ascending melodic phrase from the horn of John Coltrane, before going into Wes Montgomery octaves.” He got it right! 

    Not a bad concession prize! Now, from 1967 to 1969, the group was pretty prolific (releasing four albums and two subsequent greatest-hits compilations). What was the catalyst in your parting company with the Gabor Szabo Quintet? 

    During my time with Gabor, the demands for my services as a musical director grew. I was in high demand. The great Broadway star Chita Rivera wanted me to arrange the music for her new nightclub act. The showbiz contacts would be extraordinary. This later led me to Lainie Kazan and back to Andy Williams. The best hotels and food, plus the private airplanes and first-class accommodations, could not be overlooked. It was hard to say goodbye to Gabor and his quality in jazz. I had come full circle. He met me while I was a musical director and I left him to continue this cherished work of orchestral conducting and arranging. We remained close friends. He even came up to Caesar’s Palace Show Room in Las Vegas to watch me work with Andy Williams. Before his death, he had asked me to go to Europe to perform with him. I said yes, and I would say yes today if he could ask me. 

    Did you know something was wrong with Gabor?

    I didn’t know he was ill. We were talking about the old magic and all of that. I was hoping that when I left that he would call me for some more records. There were a couple of other reunions, like the ones at McCabe’s Guitar Shop. There was Louie and Gabor and I. We just knocked them out. Absolutely knocked the crowd out. Always the magic was there when we played. Whether it was Louie, Gabor, and myself or just me and Gabor. It was always there, you couldn’t take it away or destroy it. 

    So before Gabor died, he called me; we hung out for a couple of nights. We would meet at Donte’s, and he was talking about the tour, which I said I would do. And I could say that again, that no matter what my work schedule, that I would have done that. Because that would have led me, he would have taken me into the Hungarian culture, a culture that is so rich with music. He would have taken me to the Hungarian Conservatory of Music, where Bartók studied. But it didn’t happen, and he was the type of man that had a lot of pride. He wasn’t going to tell me, he just wanted to be close [to home]. He was crazy, off the wall, he would never take you into his personal life. He always had a lot of pride. I know that one of the covers for an album he did for Blue Thumb [Magical Connection], he just hated that cover. They had put something in that that they shouldn’t have put [i.e., the party scene on the inside cover], and he hated that. As a matter of fact, he took a knife and tried to scrape that off his copy. I saw it. Just like Wes [Montgomery] hated the cigarettes on his LP. That’s marketing, I guess. 

    Speaking of reunions, the 1977 LP, Faces, was stylistically what one would expect from a record produced by Crusaders member Wayne Henderson. But the standout track for me was your guitar duet, “Estaté.” What was that reunion session like for you, Jimmy?

    It was great! At that same time I was recording my own album for the Catalyst Label titled Fire Flower. I had no problem with the transition between the two projects. When Gabor and I played together, each time was like a journey that created a new and deeper bond. Each time was different. Complete self-responsibility and complete surrender to the music. It came through on “Estaté.” Great performance from the two of us. We played though it once or twice; I had written out the chord changes for myself, so I knew what I would do. Of all the songs on that album, that was one that got the airplay, because Gabor just played some beautiful stuff. He could make it sound somewhat like a piano, but differently than Johnny Smith or Tal Farlow. He did it in another way. He’d use a little of the plucking, he’d use the open strings a lot. It was just his imagination. We worked well together because I knew his sense of drama, I knew when to take him up and when to let him down. I knew when the payoff was coming. It was just natural. He inspired me and I inspired him.

    Primarily a guitarist, Dan Ubick spent years in Los Angeles’s own live-DJ ensemble, the Breakestra, traveling the world to promote the band’s Live Mix Part 2, as well as contributing to Macy Gray’s On How Life Is, and Madlib’s Blue Note LP, Shades of Blue. A Leo who loves avocados and long walks in the California mountains, Dan produced and played on Connie Price & the Keystones’s debut full-length LP, Wildflowers.

    For more info, visit Jimmy’s website: www.thecompletemusician.com