Mystical yet fiery, passionately romantic yet supremely cool; you hear those first few notes from that instantly recognizable tenor and know you’re in the unique musical world of Gato Barbieri. Beginning professionally as a teenager playing alto sax in Buenos Aires clubs, Barbieri’s five-decade career has covered virtually the entire jazz landscape, from free jazz (with trumpeter Don Cherry in the mid-60s) and avant-garde to film scoring and his ultimate embrace of Latin music throughout the 70s and 80s. He began playing tenor with his own band in the late 50s and moved to Rome with his Italian-born first wife Michelle, in 1962, where he began collaborating with Cherry. They recorded two albums for Blue Note, Complete Communion and Symphony for Improvisers, which are both considered classics of free group improvisations. Barbieri then launched his career as a leader with the Latin flavored The Third World in 1969, and later parlayed his Last Tango in Paris success into a career as a film composer, scoring a dozen international films over the years in Europe, South America and the United States. From 1976 through 1979, Barbieri released four popular albums on A&M Records, the label owned by trumpet great Herb Alpert.
Barbieri officially took up the clarinet at age 12 when he heard Charlie Parker’s ‘Now’s The Time’, and even as he continued private music lessons in Buenos Aires, he was playing his first professional gigs with Lalo Schifrin’s orchestra. “During that time, Juan Peron was in power”, he recalls. “We weren’t allowed to play all jazz; we had to include some traditional music, too. So we played tango and other things like carnavalito.” In Buenos Aires, Barbieri also had the opportunity to perform with visiting musicians like Cuban mambo king Perez Prado, Coleman Hawkins, Herbie Mann, Dizzy Gillespie, and João Gilberto.
Barbieri credits his learning of musical discipline to his years working with Don Cherry while living in Europe. While collaborating with Cherry in the mid-60s, the saxophonist also recorded with American expatriate Steve Lacy and South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, then known as Dollar Brand. Other associations during Barbieri’s free jazz days included time with Charlie Haden, Carla Bley and the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, as well as dates with Stanley Clarke, Airto Moreira, Chico O’Farrell, and Lonnie Liston Smith. He had recorded a handful of albums on the Flying Dutchman label in the early 70s and then signed with Impulse where he recorded his classic Chapter Series Latin America , Hasta Siempre, Viva Emiliano Zapata and Alive in New York . While at Impulse, Last Tango hit, and by the mid-70s, his coarse, wailing tone began to mellow with ballads like ‘What A Difference A Day Makes’ (known to Barbieri as the vintage bolero ‘Cuando Vuelva a tu Lado’) and Carlos Santana’s ‘Europa’. Many smooth jazz radio stations later adopted ‘Europa’ as their theme song, indicative of the vibe of the “new” format, which launched in the late 80s. Most of Barbieri’s A&M recordings of the late 70s;including the brisk selling 1976 opus Caliente!, featured this softer jazz approach, but early 80s dates like the live Gato…Para Los Amigos had a more intense, rock influenced South American sound.
After many years of limited musical activity due to the passing of his first wife Michelle (also his closest musical confidant and manager) and his own triple bypass surgery six weeks later, Barbieri returned stronger than ever with the 1997 Columbia offering Que Pasa, the fourth highest selling Contemporary Jazz album of the year.
“It’s the melody,” he continually says. “The melody is the most important thing, and something I very much love. When I play the saxophone, I play life, I play love, I play anger, I play confusion, I play when people scream; all of these aspects of the world I inhabit become naturally important to me. It’s exciting that people are still moved when I play, and I consider myself blessed to have had fans that have listened to me for such a long time. They still do, and I’m still having fun. When I start recording, I am playing for me, but when I play a concert, I play for me and them. It is not a “show”, but it is a musical message. They understand where I am coming from.”
Since 2003’s The Shadow of the Cat, Gato has continued to play festivals, concerts and clubs around the world. One reviewer, who first saw Gato live in 1972, and then reviewed Gato live again in 2004, said of his 2004 performance (May 15, 2004, Washington, PA), “Gato’s show that night was nothing less than consummate artistry by a true master of the jazz idiom. If this is what his performances are like these days, then everyone should see him while he still has the energy to play like this. He is one of the rarest musicians in any style because he has created a sound unique to himself that is timeless. His music sounds every bit as powerful, vital, and refreshing as it did in 1972,” when this reviewer first saw him perform in Princeton , NJ .
Other recent highlights in Gato’s life include in July of 2003, Long Island University and WLIU combined to give Gato a Lifetime Achievement Award. In September of the same year, Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Jazz Festival headlined Gato Barbieri at the Ozawa Concert Hall. The performance was broadcast live by Boston ’s WBGH and New York ’s WBGO; it was the beginning of the fledgling NPR station network as the concert was simulcast over eight stations from New England to Pennsylvania to Chicago. The 2004 Puerto Rican Heineken Jazz Festival featured Gato as the 2004 Honoree. And late in 2004, Gato was honored by his homeland of Argentina when the Argentine Ambassador presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award at a special function at the Argentine Consulate in New York City. While in late August, 2004, Universal Music released four new compilation CD’s in their world renown “20th Century Masters” series: Sarah Vaughn, Charlie Parker, Carmen Mcrae and Gato Barbieri. This association with other jazz icons only serves to once again confirm Barbieri’s legendary status both within the music business community and to the entire world.