Born Leandro Barbieri, November 28, 1934, Rosario, Argentina; wife Michelle' nicknamed "Gato", Spanish for cat. Considered a political activist for the Latin American albums on Impulse! Records. Resided in Argentina, New York and Rome. Education: Studied clarinet at age 12; private lessons for alto sax, composition and clarinet for five years before switching to tenor sax. Addresses: Record company--Columbia Records, 51 West 52nd Street, New York, NY, 10019.
By combining the experimental jazz styles of the 1960s and his own Latin roots, Gato Barbieri has etched a place for himself in the music world as an individual character well known in Europe and the Americas. Critics have compared Barbieri with both John Coltrane and his contemporary Pharoah Sanders; but the tenorman would prefer to be likened to the rock group Santana and Motown R&B singer Marvin Gaye instead. "When I play, I try to sing without words," says the man made internationally famous for his score on the controversial film Last Tango In Paris. Barbieri has always seen himself as different from the rest of his contemporaries--as an inense yet mercurial creature, whereby he derived his Spanish nickname which means "cat". And as a cat, he's lived many lives as a musician during his long career, having moved from being an avant garde youth, to a cultural/political figure, to a thriving pop jazz artist in his recent comeback.
Gato was born Leandro Barbieri in 1934 in Rosario, Argentina into a musical family. He began his own artistic journey as a child by taking up the clarinet at age twelve, after hearing "Now's The Time" by jazz legend Charlie "Bird" Parker. At the age of thirteen, Barbieri's family moved to Buenos Aires, after which the young musician moved on to alto saxophone. Initially rejecting the music of his native land, Barbieri followed the influences of the American greats John Coltrane and Charlie Parker; whose methods reached the fledgling South American jazz scene.
Barbieri soon managed to join the roster of Lalo Schifrin's popular band, at first playing alto saxophone. After developing his own feeling and proficiency from his gigs with the band, Barbieri switched from alto to tenor sax; with that solid change in order he departed from Schifrin's ensemble and subsequently began his own. He spent a few years playing in Argentina, often with visiting American artists, and then decided to leave when the jazz scene fizzled out in his native land. This oscillation between the U.S. and his home country would soon become a pattern for Barbieri, paralleling his many changes in adoption of musical styles.
With his Italian-bred wife, Michelle, Barbieri packed up his sax and moved to Rome, Italy in 1962. His reputation began to grow there as he became a fixture of the city's chic club circuit, but Barbieri and his wife were far less than happy in this new environment. Many of Barbieri's contemporaries held the prejudiced assumption that a "real" jazz performer had to be a black man, and with his Italian last name and white skin, Barbieri was not well received by many other musicians who told him that he'd never make it. Not one to let such affronts affect him, Barbieri continued to bolster his confidence and style until band leader Don Cherry turned the tide by adding the Argentine to his group in 1963.
Don Cherry was a well-known trumpeter and free form band leader playing in Paris whose group worked to break the old views of "black jazz" by incorporating an assortment of cultural backgrounds into one band. The cosmopolitan status of Cherry's outfit testifies to such a strategy, as it comprised one German member, one Italian, the Argentine Barbieri, and a French bass player. Barbieri quickly made Europe his home, as did many jazz-loving expatriates at the time, and adopted Cherry as his personal mentor for a few formative free-style years, which resulted in two albums that came out in 1966. Barbieri played tenor sax on Cherry's Symphony for Improvisers along with Pharoah Sanders, with whom he has constantly been compared to ever since, and followed up with Cherry's Complete Communion. Both albums have been regarded to be classics in improvisational recordings, marked by a sound that merges discord with an underlying understanding of harmony.
While the working relationship with Cherry did not end on a sour note, the restless Barbieri and his wife moved to New York City in 1965 to pursue his solo career. Following the social reform movements going on within black culture of this time, Barbieri began to embrace his own roots and incorporate the sounds of his native South America into his stylings. "So slowly, slowly, I changed," Barbieiri says of his blending. His tenor reached warmer textures, thicker coloring, smoothing out the shrieking intensity of earlier practice. "Many people are concerned about technique but I'm concerned about sound," he told Downbeat magazine. To wit, Barbieri's approach to sound is just as unique as the experimental and native roots he ties together. He prefers to use a tight mouthpiece, a Berg Larson 105 instead of the ope 130 Otto Link that Coltrane used, and plays on a one and a half or number two reed instead of the usual four or five.
In 1967 Barbieri's first solo album In Search of Mystery was released on ESP records. In keeping with the experimental jazz of the times, the album has been called by one critic "screechy ... not necessarily a bad thing," and eschewed the more pop oriented, listener-friendly quality found in the works of earlier Coltrane albums, for example. After the fairly inauspicious release of Mystery, Barbieri appeared playing guest spots on a number of avant-garde styled big band albums before signing on to the Flying Dutchman label in 1969. Here he found his true voice on the record Third World which brought into fruition the Latin American impulses Gato had recently embraced, partly inspired by the behest of Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha. Enriched by the collaboration of established jazz artists Charlie Haden and Roswell Rudd, this album has been ranked as one of Barbieri's essential works.
Following Third World's creative success , Barbieri returned to Argentina to continue studying the sounds of his roots, and by 1971 his Flying Dutchman release Fenix demonstrates a rounding out of the Barbieri style, filled with Brazilian and Caribbean sounds. However, once again Barbieri was pulled away from working in his homeland toward Europe, and the success he found there nearly eradicated his newly found roots sensibility, and in retrospect Third World seems like a nostalgic farewell to traditional Argentinian rhythms.
Although Barbieri was well aware of the controversial nature of the project, he was quick to accept Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci's invitation to score his movie Last Tango In Paris. Although he had done a few soundtracks in Argentina and Europe before the 1972 film, Bertolucci's risque movie achieved enough fame for Barbieri to be heard by a larger audience, and consequently made him an "overnight success." The Last Tango soundtrack blended the traditional Argentinian tango with a shimmering, European flavor which perfectly captured the doomed romantic essence of the story and images it underscores. The album snared Barbieri a Grammy Award for Best Original Soundtrack, and soon popular artists such as Herb Alpert and Willie Mitchell were adding the film's theme to their repertoires. However, partly due to the fleeting nature of public taste and partly to yet another disenchantment with the European scene, Barbieri's status as a celebrity was relatively short lived.
In 1973 Gato returned again to South America, first to Buenos Aires, then to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He recorded a series of four albums he calls "chapters" for ABC Impulse --his style having become outside the realm of the more conservative Flying Dutchman--which utilized native musicians and instruments, and reflected the tumultuous air that characterized the politically charged South America of the 1970s. "There was an almost overloaded thickness to the music," said a Downbeat critic of this period, "a texture of electric and acoustic, ancient, and modern instruments." But it was his 1976 pop and jazz hybrid album Caliente that brought him back to the pubic eye. Flying Dutchman and Impulse went out of business and popular horn-virtuoso Herb Alpert, founder of A&M Records, picked up the tenorman to play Santana and Marvin Gaye songs on his label. In yet another shift of milieu, Barbieri quickly moved from being an eclectic synthesizer of styles to a radio friendly artist. Caliente sold 225,000 copies, and became his most popular-selling album.
Barbieri ould remain known throughout the eighties as a jazz pop artist, and during the years 1982-97 Gato took time off from creating in order to re-evaluate his style and identity. Since his move into the pop terrain, Barbieri had lost much of his critical viability, and this creative hiatus may in part be seen as a reaction to this, but more likely reflects personal issues. Suddenly, in 1995, only several months after the death of his wife and manager Michelle, Barbieri had a heart attack. Barbieri and his wife had been inseparable, and kept each other company in a life they had called "self-contained" and "insulated". Deeply bereaved, he returned to the only other constant in his life, his saxophone, to initiate a comeback with the release of the 1997 album Que Pasa?. Blending in perfectly alongside a new generation of popular "smooth jazz" artists Barbieri's earlier helped engender, Que Pasa?, in the words of Billboard magazine's Jim Macnie, "stresses the hallmark of Barbieri's work: a fervent attack and commitment to melody." Gato is a name the artist took to describe his intensity, but the name takes on new meaning when looking back on his career from the vantage point of his return to recording. Cats have seven lives for Argentineans and nine for Americans, and Barbieri's penchant for reinvention has indeed allowed a similar longevity.
by Shaun Frentner
Gato Barbieri's Career
Member of Lalo Schifrin's Band in Argentina (alto/tenor sax) at age 20; member of Don Cherry Band in Europe (tenor sax) 1963-65; released first solo album In Search of Mystery, 1967; released Third World, 1970 and Fenix, 1971 on Flying Dutchman Records; Last Tango In Paris soundtrack released, 1972; well-received Latin America "Chapters" fused South American rhythms with modern jazz; best selling album Caliente released, produced by Herb Alpert brought crossover to smooth jazz, 1976; makes his "comeback" recording Que Pasa?, 1997.
Gato Barbieri's Awards
Grammy for 1972's Last Tango In Paris soundtrack.
- Selective Works
- Symphony For Improviser (with Don Cherry), Blue Note, 1966.
- Complete Communion, (with Don Cherry) Blue Note, 1966.
- In Search of Mystery, ESP Records, 1967.
- Third World, Flying Dutchman, 1970.
- Fenix, Flying Dutchman, 1971.
- Last Tango In Paris (soundtrack), United Artists, 1972.
- Chapter 1: Latin America, Impulse!, 1973.
- Chapter 2: Latin America, Impulse!, 1973.
- Chapter 3: Viva Emiliano Zapata, Impulse!, 1974.
- Chapter 4: Alive In New York, Impulse!, 1975.
- Que Pasa, 1997, Colombia/Sony.
- Billboard, April 12, 1997.
- Downbeat, May 1974; April, 1977 Essence, August 1978.