Friday, May 11, 2018

Hermann Szobel - 1976 - Szobel

Hermann Szobel 

01. Mr. Softee 6:45
02. The Szuite 12:30
03. Between 7 & 11 5:08
04. Transcendental Floss 6:08
05. New York City, 6 AM 6:45

Recorded and remixed at Record Plant Studios, New York City, October 1975

Drums – Bob Goldman
Electric Bass – Michael Visceglia
Piano – Hermann Szobel
Tenor Saxophone, Flute, Clarinet – Vadim Vyadro
Vibraphone, Marimba, Percussion – David Samuels

In 1975, at New York’s Hit Factory recording studio, Roberta Flack is in the midst of recording her fifth album, Feel Like Makin’ Love, when a young man bursts into the room. He announces to all within earshot that he is the greatest pianist ever and that they should listen to him play right then and there. Amused by the kid’s chutzpah, they agree and let him loose on a piano.

Much to their surprise, this young player has the goods to back up his chatter. He boasts an esoteric technique that combines the minimalist intensity of Keith Jarrett with Frank Zappa’s flights of melodic fancy. He might not be the greatest, but he’s as good as they come. They, amazingly, offer to help get his career underway.

Three years later, with one record under his belt, and another in the works, that same young man – in a fit of pique or mental instability – walks away from it all and is never heard from again.

It’s a story that sounds almost too good and way too dramatic to be true, the product of some arch Charlie Kaufman-esque screenwriter looking to make a movie about the temperamental and potentially unhinged qualities of the creative mind. Yet, this is what actually happened to Hermann Szobel, a uniquely talented jazz-fusion pianist and composer from Austria who released his sole LP Szobel on Arista in 1976 before falling off the radar almost entirely.

“In retrospect, I feel like it was kind of amazing,” says Michael Visceglia, a bassist who performed with Szobel after his arrival in New York, and is featured on Szobel.  “This 17-year-old coming over from Austria on his own with this immense amount of brazenness and self-confidence. Then he became part of musical mythology.”

That last thought overstates it a bit because it’s not as if the world is clamoring for details about the whereabouts of Szobel, and by that same token, his album isn’t necessarily in high demand, despite it being remastered and released on CD in 2012 by erstwhile prog rock label Laser’s Edge.

“It’s not selling great,” says Ken Golden, the man behind Laser’s Edge. “It’s not an unmitigated disaster, but it’s not doing great. I really thought people would pick up on the story of this young virtuoso who made this incredible album and just imploded.”

It’s a wonder that more people aren’t chattering about this album, especially among the folks that crave a taste of the obscure and unheralded. Granted, that is how I found out about it initially: I snagged a download of the LP from the blog associated with experimental label Root Strata and was instantly smitten.

The five songs on the album felt like Szobel had been absorbing the histories of classical and jazz into his central nervous system and every genre and style was fighting to be heard via his fleet fingers.

The punnily titled “The Szuite” is a prime example of this. A 12-and-a-half minute track that sounds like it was stitched together from a variety of different takes; it has the logic of a dream. The first two minutes alone start off with a furious run of notes that gives way to quick “News of the World” theme song-like intrusions before landing softly on a stately four-note bass run by Visceglia colored with David Samuels’ watery vibraphone work and Szobel’s fluttering melodics. By the time the track fades out 10 minutes later, the band has veered into twitchy post-bop, Steve Reich/Philip Glass-style overtures, and the fury of a Hot Rats outtake.

Like that track, nothing on Szobel sounds like the product of an orderly mind. I say that fully aware that I am likely reading into the music after having heard what happened to its creator. But how else to make sense of a song like “Mr. Softee”, which begins like the soundtrack to an exhausted soldier trudging off the battlefield before some crazed editor cuts in a small chunk of a Merrie Melodies cartoon.

Apparently, though, no one could put a finger on Szobel’s potential mental instability. Or if they did, they were unwilling to talk about it. Because the small detail that looms large in this story is that this young virtuoso was the nephew of powerful concert promoter Bill Graham.

Graham’s influence was surely the reason Szobel was able to simply walk into the Hit Factory in ’75 and announce his greatness to the world. And it’s certainly how he was able to find his way to a label like Arista, which at the time was carrying superstars like Barry Manilow and Tony Orlando and Dawn on its roster.

“I was present at a couple of meetings at Arista where Bill introduced Hermann,” remembers Visceglia. “He opened to door to people like Clive Davis. Hermann insisted that he wanted to get a real push, to get the muscle of the label behind him. He was so willful about all of this.”

That stubbornness was likely seen at the time to be the product of Szobel’s youth (keep in mind, he was only 17 or 18 when all of this was going on), but the histrionics that he would apparently fly into at the slightest provocation – “like a little kid, ‘hold my breath until I turn blue’ screaming rage,” according to Visceglia – likely belied a deeper mental unrest.

Unfortunately, all we can do is speculate at this point because, again, Szobel is nowhere to be found. Or at least he doesn’t want to be found. The only details available were a comment to a MySpace fan page (scrubbed in the wake of the site’s redesign) from a woman who claimed to have spent time with Szobel in San Francisco, and a missing persons report filed by Hermann’s mother in 2002.

The report can still be found online and it offers not only a picture of the adult Szobel (looking intense, shaggy, and a little unhealthy) but a small window into his world. She lost contact with him in 2001 when he was in Los Angeles where he had been surviving on a monthly allowance from his mom. But my favorite details lie under “Other Information”: “A loner. Likes dogs. Uses drugs (hashish).”

Viscgelia last saw Szobel in 1976, when the bassist stormed out of initial sessions for what was to be Szobel‘s follow up. But after he heard of Hermann’s disappearing act, he attempted to track his former musical partner down whenever he made his way to Europe.

“I could never do it, though,” Visceglia says. “It’s receded with time. The only thing I’ve seen is the picture that his mother sent into INTERPOL. He really looked kind of mad and lost. One hopes that he might get wind of all this, if he’s still alive. And it would be miraculous if he had together enough to perform again. But to this day, it remains this cult story that people have found sporadically and helped him remain influential. That’s as much as I know right now.”

Let's assume this lost jazz-fusion masterpiece would have never seen the light of the day if Vienna-born Hermann Szobel weren't the nephew of concert promoter Bill Graham. That stipulated, the album is a mind-bending scorcher by any standard: a deliriously virtuosic collection of zig-zagging Zappa-esque melodies and moody emotional plunges performed by an obscure quintet temporarily channeling the authority of Weather Report. Its 18-year-old pianist-bandleader, however, didn't stick around to record a follow-up. Likely suffering from mental illness, Szobel disappeared from the music world; his mother filed a missing-person report for him in 2002, noting that he enjoyed dogs and hashish. In 2015, however, Szobel reappeared in the documentary Looking for Jesus, for which he allowed director Katarzyna Kozyra to record (but not film) him on the street in Jerusalem, where he lived as an apparently homeless artist.

Art Lande, Paul McCandless, David Samuels - 1981 - Skylight

Art Lande, Paul McCandless, David Samuels 

01. Skylight 8:12
02. Dance Of The Silver Skeezix 6:33
03. Duck In A Colorful Blanket (For Here) 1:32
04. Chillum 5:17
05. Moist Windows / Lawn Party 8:05
06. Ente (To Go) 2:04
07. Willow 9:08

Paul McCandless soprano saxophone, English horn, oboe, bass clarinet, wood flute
Art Lande piano, percussion
David Samuels vibraharp, marimba, percussion

Recorded May, 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg

As one of the finest mallet players of his generation, Dave Samuels has treaded a wide and multifarious path. From Double Image (his gorgeous project with David Friedman) to the exciting territories of his work with the Caribbean Jazz Project (some of the best Latin jazz around), not to mention his fruitful years with Spyro Gyra, Samuels brings a signature delicacy to his playing that is comforting and domestic. His first two intersections with ECM, Dawn and Gallery, are both sadly out of print but make a flowing trilogy of sorts with 1981’s Skylight, which thankfully is still available and marks his last appearance on the label. Joined by one-and-onlys Art Lande and Paul McCandless, Samuels shows us his compositional brilliance in the airy title cut. Not to be outdone, Lande and McCandless offer two tunes apiece. Lande’s territories are more contradictory in their energies, at once twilit and dripping with morning dew, and undeniably engaging. The reed work of McCandless is awesome in its quiet power, particularly in his “Willow,” which closes the album in unified pleasure. Two improvisations round out this overlooked effort. The loamy tales of a bass clarinet thread every monochromatic turn of “Duck In A Colourful Blanket (For Here),” while the interludinal “Ente (To Go)” stands as one of the most effective pieces to employ a thumb piano I’ve heard in a long time.

While the album’s title may refer to an architectural feature, here one encounters its meteorological meaning (“the diffuse light from the sky, scattered by air molecules, as distinguished from the direct radiation from the sun”) in full. With a blend of joy and sorrow that is imaginative but never gaudy, this singular trio session shows us that, even in a darkening day there is music to be discovered.

Headband - 1982 - Fette Brühe

Fette Brühe

01. Headlines (5:00)
02. Lindwurm (3:33)
03. Fast Life (4:50)
04. La Danse Du Kangaroo (5:37)
05. Crazy Horse (9:55)
06. Dampfwalzer (6:20)
07. Türkis (5:21)

Recorded April 1982, Calren Studio, Hugstetten

Cläusel Quitschau / vocals, bass
Manfred von Bohr / drums
Jan Reimer / guitar
Michael Herting / keyboards, vocals
Norbert Stein / saxophone

Headband - 1980 - Suntalk


01. Heidi Travolta (5:10)
02. It Ain't No Jazz (6:27)
03. Rain Dance (4:51)
04. Tingeltown (3:39)
05. Für Die Sonne (24:08)

Cläusel Quitschau / vocals, bass
Man Breuer / drums
Jan Reimer / guitar, bass, congas
Michael Herting / keyboards, vocals
Norbert Stein / saxophone

Recorded at "The Sound Experience" Studio am Dom

''Suntalk'' (1980, veraBra Records) was a much different album than Heaband's debut.Yes, it's still following a sympathetic Jazz Fusion vein, but both sides of the album are largely different, especially the 24-min. long ''Für die Sonne'' makes you wondering what this thing will turn up to be.The shorter tracks on the opening one show an increase of funky elements in guitar, bass and drum parts with the sax sounding always melodic and Michael Herting offering a varied keyboard work.Much more tropical than anything the band played on ''Straight ahead'', pretty enjoyable but not too adventurous.''Für die Sonne'' kicks off in an excellent way.It's based on an Eastern-influenced enviroment with a great and very Kraut Rock-ish steady groove, while Norbert Stein dominates the scene with his impressive sax soloing and Jan Reimer offers a raw, jazzy electric guitar performance, which reminds some of Jan Akkerman's 70's live footage.Problem is...this thing goes forever and never changes until the farewell seconds.Headband deliver here some really lovely soft Kraut Jazz, but destroyed it themselves by pushing it way too far.Anyway, a decent effort, but lacks the more consistent characteristics of their discographic entry.

Headband - 1979 - Straight Ahead!

Straight Ahead!

01. The Devil & Miss Brown (7:30)
02. Careful Exercise (6:14)
03. Gringita (6:55)
04. Zero-Zero (9:10)
05. A Day Is a Year (10:10)

Cläusel Quitschau / bass, cuica, percussion
Man Breuer / drums, percussion
Jan Reimer / guitar, congas
Michael Herting / keyboards, vocals
Norbert Stein / saxophone

Recorded At – The Sound Experience Studio am Dom, Cologne

HEADBAND was a fusion band from Köln active from the early 70's and early 80's. Through their career they played a quirky kind of fusion comparable to that of PASSPORT for example, or on their earlier albums someone from the German jazz scene of the time like SURGERY. Even though they were active for a long time, they released their first album as late as 1979. Through all three albums they had a mostly stable line-up whose members were related in one way or another to other artists from the krautrock scene; like on the last album in 1982 when drummer Manni Von BOHR from bands like BIRTH CONTROL, MESSAGE and ALEX ORIENTAL EXPERIENCE joined the band.

Unexplored German progressive jazz funk on the fine experimental label pläne. Back to back quality, listen to Zero Zero to catch my drift.