Hermann Szobel: Szobel
  • Production
  • Composition
  • Musicianship
  • Freshness
  • over 9000 power level

Last week, while sorting through a number of promos that were available and getting weary of some really bad music, I decided to check this album out because The Laser’s Edge caught my eye. Figuring it had to be at least pretty good, I dove in. Some of you, no doubt, have had the pleasure of hearing this obscure jazz fusion album when it was originally released in 1976 on Artista Records. More of you have heard it since then, but if you’re like me, you’ve never heard of this guy, or this album, so a short introduction is probably in order. Hermann Szobel was 17-18 when he composed and recorded this album. He started practicing the piano at age 6, and probably worked his Austrian butt off to become as skilled as he is (I always thought writing someone off as a prodigy dismisses the insane amounts of practice they always put into their art). In the September 6, 1976 issue of Downbeat the review said that Szobel had “a conception and technique far in advance of most musicians twice his age. Partway though his second album, it is said that he suffered a mental breakdown, and became an enigma and a legend. Luckily, somebody somewhere decided that this needed a CD release so a whole new generation of pretentious music lovers could have their music-loving ears blown off by the masterpiece that is Szobel.

The production on this album is fantastic, as is the remastering, which was done by Bob Katz. Because I hadn’t read the press release carefully, I didn’t know it was an old record, and there was nothing in the production (except perhaps the drums) which can give this away as an almost 40 year old recording. It wasn’t until 2 listens and a day later that I finally read carefully enough to notice that slight detail. There are a few quirks where the songs slip into mono on fade outs and at the end of songs, which I find quite odd, but other than that it sounds excellent. My only complaints about the sound are the drums and some loudish hiss that is sometimes noticeable, but considering when it was recorded, it’s kind of a moot point; snare drums seemed to always get a very muffled and flat sound back then, and hiss was pretty common. Even by those standards though, the drums are better than many albums that came out around the same time, if not as good as the best of them, and the hiss is only really noticeable in the really quiet parts. But the drums aren’t even the main focus of the album anyways. Everything else on the album sounds very clean, and the mixing is very well done, with me wanting some more saxophone only a few times.

To say that the composition is good would be a huge undersell. It is extremely complex, very technical, but more importantly, dynamically diverse, and above all supremely interesting and fun to listen to. Not to mention it was written by a 17 year old, though I’m sure the other musicians definitely help sculpt their own parts. The various solos are performed well, and the unison parts between piano, vibraphone, and saxophone are just fun to listen to. The artists on the album are all obviously very very skilled, and display that skill throughout every square inch of this album. The various parts mesh well to form a chaotic picture that grooves much better than it has any right to, even when it appears that all the instruments are improvising off of each other (or against each other). It is always tight, it is always musically interesting, and it is always good.

If you love extreme jazz piano, and very skilled musicians flapping their superiority about like a fat kid with candy, then you’ll love this album. It comes out today, so go pick it up! You won’t regret it!