High Contrast Under a Lamp Post

The street’s always busy and I maneuvered it at smart pace, fumbling with my zippo. I hadn’t fixed the thing because it always needed fixing. Somewhere in one pocket or another, there was a Bic waiting for a time like this, laughing.

I stood at the corner, near the slowing entrance of a bar, and frisked myself – at first with gentle patting and, by the time I found it, an almost feverish desperation. Procuring and subsequently igniting my lighter isn’t usually a difficult task but I had braced four LPs between my right under-arm and my ribcage and neither were being team players. I held the end of my Bic between my thumb and index finger and lazily swung it to my other hand. My LPs resentfully slid down the right half of my torso. I lingered there, siphoning lumens off the street lamp and retrieving the newest additions to a sadly extensive collection as they melted into the street.

Having finally picked up Arthur…and the Decline and Fall of the British Empire left me jonesin’. The Kinks’ masterpiece had eluded me, appearing briefly and always out of reach. At long last, I acquired it at Permanent Records – derailing an excursion for bedroom decor. By the time I listened to it I belonged to anticipation. Each of its magnificent sides caused my speakers to glisten in stereo.

Twirling it over my Hi-Fi was supposed to be a revelation.  An investigation of the crisp, gritty leads that compete with the baritone Ray Davies conjures for the album. Instead, it was a re-reading. I’d heard the album so many times before, I knew what I was looking to hear. The consequence of my massive, irrelevant digital collection. Really, I fucked myself. I missed the experience, the phenomenological thrill, of listening to a record I hadn’t heard. There was an unsatisfied urge amassing pressure like Mauna Loa threatening to crack my sternum. I left my beer unattended, tied the laces of my shoes, and made my way to the record shop.

I was looking for a proper Gabor Szabo studio LP. I managed to accumulate three records before I found my way to his section. As the closing warning rang shrilly from the vocal chords of a thin voiced clerk, I deliberated. Making my way to the register, I interrupted an elderly woman reciting the top 10 things to do in Cleveland to the relief of a bookseller being depleted of her patience.

On my way home, in the dim yellow of the street light I was casting a shadow on a door man and recovering my payload as it glided gently to the sidewalk.  Szabo’s High Contrast floated down my leg and landed reared-up, with a feather like and nearly silent thwap. Keeping my back straight while drawing from my cigarette I bent my knees and reached for the stack of records. High Contrast at the center of my attention. Standing in the sickly aura of the block modernity neglected, I noticed the most interesting name on the credits wasn’t ‘The Shadow’ on tambourine. It was Bobby Womack on rhythm guitar.

In the subtle repose of the flickering electric lantern above, I realized the album could have been credited to Szabo or Womack. Three of the album’s seven tracks were penned by Szabo, the other four by Womack. My palm made a tight fist around my discs while I offered the lamp post a dispassionate farewell and stepped down the block back toward my tower overlooking the seething decadence of Downtown Los Angeles.

Entering my apartment, one block and six flights later, I hastily passed through the hallway gunning for my bedroom. There, I gleefully wrecked my collection, like Heinrich Schliemann, looking for two albums in specific. Compilations of Gabor Szabo. The last was released in 1970. The copy of High Contrast I held was released in 1971. Ah-ha! Whatever direction Szabo had taken after his run of 60’s LPs, the first steps were embroidered against the thin, heavy, wax cylinder.

What had Szabo and Womack cooked up? Gabor Szabo’s cerebral and delicately abstract solos seemed naturally at odds with Bobby Womack’s gritty, intensely southern grooves.

Lifting the dust cover, I placed High Contrast methodically on my turntable and cleaned it before setting the needle loose. And there it was, first the rhythm section driving through the speaker cones, then “Holy shit” falling from my lips as they clamped down to surround a burning stick of Maui Waui. Smooth, groovy, confidently swinging, the album begins firmly drenched in funk. I should have smelled it through the sleeve.

The opener, ‘Breezin”, would become a huge hit for jazz guitarist George Benson five years later in 1976. On this original recording it feels fresh and inventive. More than picking up Womack’s repertoire, Benson surely intended to capture as many aspects of Szabo’s arrangement as possible – if not note for note. Assumptions aside, he certainly employed Szabo’s producer Tommy LiPuma ( ‘The Shadow’) for the sessions. Benson’s hit wasn’t necessarily at the vanguard of smooth jazz, but it heralded the arrival of a pack of neon flamingos without editors. Genres mutate, evolve, coalesce, and diverge often ending some distance from where they began. Even keeping that in consideration, it may not be correct to point to this initial version as the cornerstone of smooth jazz, as some have done.

Side one continues with Szabo’s contributions; layers of percussion creating a rhythmic sweet spot for Szabo’s lyrical solos to take hold. His past albums had been pedestals for his arrangement and chord-melody interpretations of contemporary hits, but Szabo, Womack, and LiPuma were up to something else with High Contrast. Womack and Szabo’s guitar interplay is fascinating, but even in the most basic vamps Bobby Womack brings a cool sophistication. Licks between fills create contrapuntal melodies complementing the solos. As the side revolves toward its end, what has appeared is a surprisingly cohesive statement. A state-of-the-art of Third-Stream.

The reefer burned slowly between my lips. The translucent white paper transformed a slight pale yellow, capped by a growing dark ring, before dissipating completely. My excitement for the album growing at a correlated rate. Reaching for the dust cover sent two of my bookshelf speakers tumbling, like proverbial dice. Frustrated, I replaced them to the shelf, setting back atop them a small, red, stone Buddha who has become my listening companion. He pressed play on the second side, written entirely by Bobby Womack.

A simple, undulating riff greeted by a smack of affirmation from the snare introduces side two. The kit heavily accentuating the beat as Szabo and Womack find ground in between. Each of ‘Just a Little Communication”s eight minutes slither through the speakers, as if preparing your attention for the sybaritic melody of the subsequent track ‘If You Don’t Want My Love’. High Contrast‘s second side careens through tracks that Womack would later revisit and reconstruct for his career defining soundtrack to Across 110th Street. Szabo seems equally at home soloing over such concrete and funky song structures as he does on his more open compositions. Bobby Womack, presumably assured on his own compositions, transcends simple rhythm playing throughout the side, turning your attention away from Szabo’s solos toward Womack’s own satisfying, intellectual riffs.

High Contrast is an immediately gratifying album. Its contours marked by a sophisticated, and far from inevitable, synthesis of jazz, rock, and R&B that Gabor Szabo best embodies. What makes the album standout among the very best of his work, however, are the contributions from Bobby Womack and the brief introduction of deep funk — if not explicitly in sound, certainly in approach.  High Contrast is the nexus of two wonderful artists, two expansive careers, and one of many touchstones of modern production.

Resting for a moment as the second side came to an end, I reached in my nightstand to retrieve a small, metal box. Taking from it a wick and a flint, I sat on the corner of my bed and fixed my zippo.

 

 

 

 

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