[11 July 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Any way you look at it, Gabor Szabo’s 1967 record, Jazz Raga, is an important record. It’s an important jazz record, it’s an important guitar record, and it’s an important rock record. What’s up for debate is whether or not it’s the first jazz-fusion record. Chronologically, you could make the argument—it did come out a few years before Miles Davis recorded Bitches Brew and before Davis players like Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock dove head-first into the rock-jazz hybrid—but how much Szabo is fusing elements on Jazz Raga is definitely up for discussion.
The album was his third solo record and does mark, if not a shift in his sound, then a realization of the promise his first two records showed. His debut, Gypsy ‘66 had many interesting takes on pop songs, while follow-up Spellbinder featured a few more original compositions and Szabo’s tangled guitar playing opened up while he continued to show his love for pop music. Jazz Raga, though, is Szabo’s true coming out party. The compositions themselves range from spacey, untethered soundscapes to simpler pop structures to rock elements. Much of it takes on a bluesy shuffle and, particularly early on, there’s an affecting mood to this record. Szabo opens “Walking On Nails” with a cascade of notes that drops you into the rainy-day murk of buzzing sitar, brushing percussion, and lilting guitar. It’s a controlled start, but leads into the looser feel of “Mizrab”, where Szabo gets to stretch out for the first time on the record.
That song is the album’s first showcase of Szabo’s distinctive playing style. He rattles off notes and runs up and down the neck of the guitar in a way that feels almost wholly unplanned. He’s an instinctive player, and he manages to snap off notes with an energetic fervor, and yet it never feels out of control. These first two songs also make clear Szabo’s intention to incorporate sitar into the album, which is perhaps where some hear the album’s real fusion. Szabo attempts to mesh elements of east—both from the U.S. and his native Hungary—and western elements all throughout the record.
But this marriage is so smooth, it’s hard to see it as a fusion when it could just be Szabo’s natural sound. Jazz Raga, as disparate as its influences may be, lacks the crashing edge, the harsh battling of sounds that came in so many jazz-fusion records later. Szabo, on the other hand, is smooth and dynamic here, even when his playing is at its most untethered. His sitar playing—he plays all of it on the record, despite being a self-proclaimed novice—achieves a wholly different feel than his guitar playing, and the effect is that of two players working together, weaving their distinct perspectives into one fever-dream whole.
The best examples of Szabo’s sound on this record are also the must uncontrolled. The way he pulls away from the tight rhythm section on “Krishna”, or the way his guitar acts as another percussion instrument on “Sophisticated Wheels”, or the way his take on “Paint it Black” moves from faithful rendition to stretched-out jam all show different sides of Szabo. They’re all in the same vein, with R&B rhythms melding with psychedelic atmosphere and jazz improvisation. But he never treads the same ground twice on this record, and the ground he treads on Jazz Raga isn’t ground he ever treaded again in the same way afterward.
Actually, that fact might be what keeps this album from being his out-and-out classic. It’s a vital piece because it shows him really beginning to bust out as a performer, and there’s a good deal more personality here than on earlier records. But there are moments where he’s still too close to pop structures, and their limited space keeps his playing reigned in. The tight set of songs serves him well mostly, but you might find yourself wishing he broke out a little more, the way he would later in his career on the haunting Dreams or the excellent live recordings from The Sorcerer. Of course, without Jazz Raga, he would have never gotten to those places, and a lot of other musicians—Beck, Santana, even spacier acts like Six Organs of Admittance—might not have found some of their sound if Szabo hadn’t been around earlier to shed light on it for them. Whether it’s a fusion of unusual elements, or just a realization of Szabo’s ingrained sound, Jazz Raga is a vital document for jazz music. But, more importantly, it’s a mesmerizing album to listen to.