Chico Hamilton’s El Chico (1965)
After Szabó moved to California in the early ’60s, he linked up fairly quickly with drummer Chico Hamilton, who encouraged him to find his own sound, which he would under Hamilton’s tutelage. Szabó’s first star-making performance occurs not on his own albums, but on Hamilton’s El Chico, and specifically “Conquistadores,” a song that would go on to be one of Hamilton’s calling cards. It’s Szabó’s guitar riff that brings the song’s charging percussion a spaced-out quality; while the band is conjuring a village of drummers, Szabó is cutting like steel in a dexterous riff both through and around them. It’s the performance that would allow everything that came after, when you get down to it. The rest of the album lives up to that singular song, too.
Gypsy ’66 (1966)
When left to his own devices for his Impulse! Debut, Szabó started inventing his own jazz vernacular, one that could incorporate bebop, Renaissance-era European music, modern pop, and his own Flamenco-tinged guitar phrasing. His debut as a bandleader, Gypsy ’66 lays out his vision quickly: It opens with a cover of the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” its title track is a winding road jam that wouldn’t be out of place on a Grateful Dead record, and he covers two songs from orchestral jazz pioneer Gary McFarland. It’s a head-trip of a record that would lay the groundwork for everything that came after.
Szabó’s second 1966 album for Impulse! is his first masterpiece, an engaging, winding album that would become a touchstone for a wide swath of jazz-influenced guitarists, from Santana to Steely Dan’s Walter Becker. Just the title track alone let’s you know that Szabó was, in 1966, outside of Hendrix, maybe the best guitarist alive. He plays like he has 22 fingers and is able to turn riffs on a dime. If you pick up no other Szabó record than Dreams, make it this one.
Szabó was insanely prolific from 1966-1968, releasing seven albums between Spellbinder and this record. Wanting to take more control over his music, he joined forces with McFarland and Cal Tjader to launch Skye Records, and one of the label’s first releases was this LP, which found Szabó bridging the gap between psych-rock and his jazz; this might be the first acid-jazz LP to ever exist. The centerpiece of this album is Szabó’s cover of Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman,” which he flips on its ear.
Lena and Gabor (1970)
The most successful LP in Skye Records history — the label would declare bankruptcy shortly after its release — this LP pairs Szabó with the formidable Lena Horne, making her return to vocal jazz after four years away. The album has Szabó delivering rock-solid lounge jazz that allows Horne to showcase her still-sensational vocals, particularly on covers like “Everybody’s Talkin’” and George Harrison’s “Something.” Horne would ride the success of this album to the charts, while Szabó would chase his muse on indie operations for most of the early ’70s.
Charles Lloyd’s Waves (1972)
We’re in serious deep-cut territory here, but this record is too bonkers to be ignored: In 1972, Szabó teamed up with former Chico Hamilton bandmate Charles Lloyd, Byrd guitarist Roger McGuinn, and the literal Beach Boys to make this spaced-out, mellow record. It’s about the only jazz album to ever feature the vocal stylings of Mike Love, and it’s easily the weirdest LP Szabó worked on in his years between Skye and his later commercial success.
In the late ’70s, a number of jazz artists went fusion crossover, making soft-jazz records that would be equally dope to hear in the middle of a cocaine binge or in a bank lobby. George Benson was the god of this era, but Szabó’s Nightflight is another signpost for the era. It actually contains his biggest hit — the frictionless “Keep Smiling” — and features him turning his guitar into a watery vapor behind the smooth sounds of the rest of his band. Depending on your state of mind, you could argue this album predicted chillwave, but either way, it was Szabó’s biggest LP, and one of the last he recorded for an American recording company before his death in 1982.