GATO BARBIERI – SAXOPHONIST EXTRAORDINAIRE
It is with great sadness that Soul Brother has to report the passing of another great. Saxophonist Leandro Barbieri, better known as ‘Gato’ passed away on 2nd April 2016 at the age of 83 following a bout of pneumonia.
His nickname ‘El Gato’ (Spanish for ‘The Cat’) derived from his habit of slinking from one Buenos Aires Jazz club to another whilst a youngster. Born in Rosario, Argentina in 1932, he was surrounded by music and musicians from an early age. It was Charlie Parker, however, who inspired him to start playing the alto saxophone and clarinet. By the very late 50’s, he was featured on both in pianist and fellow Argentine Lalo Schifrin’s orchestra.
He also worked with trumpeter Don Cherry whilst both were in Rome, and became fascinated with what was/is known as ‘free’ Jazz. Later he recorded on Cherry’s ground breaking Blue Note sets such as ‘Complete Communion’ and ‘Symphony For Improvisers’, both from 1966. Barbieri’s influences included John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and most noticeably Pharaoh Sanders. Indeed, Barbieri’s warm and gritty tone on tenor sax is not dissimilar from that of Sanders. In many ways their early 70’s careers mirrored one another. Both infused their Jazz with global (or world) musical influences, in Sanders case, mainly African and Islamic and Barbieri Latin American. Indeed, both used the screech or squawk to accentuate emotions, though Gato’s used such techniques more sparingly than perhaps Pharaoh.
By the late 60’s, Barbieri, now in the USA, had recorded his debut album, ‘In Search For The Mystery’ for ESP Disk, a label known for left field music. In 1969, he signed for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label and recorded a string of quality albums (seven in all) over six years. These albums represent, quite probably, his best body of work. On them, he combined elements of Spiritual Jazz, Funk and Latin. Lonnie Liston Smith contributed his distinctive piano to most of these albums; his light and ephemeral sound contrasted with Barbieri’s rich, deep toned tenor. Soul Brother included two of the most vibrant tunes from this period (‘Carnavalto’ from ‘Fenix’ and a version of Jorge Ben’s ‘Maria Domingas’ from ‘Under Fire’) on our ‘Flying Dutchman Anthology’.
It was whilst Gato Barbieri was signed to Flying Dutchman that he was commissioned to write the score for Bernado Bertolucci’s controversial movie ‘Last Tango In Paris’ that starred Marlon Brando. Gato won a Grammy for best movie score. It was arranged by Oliver Nelson and released on United Artists in 1972.
The Grammy award earned Barbieri a contract with ABC’s Jazz imprint Impulse!, where he recorded four albums – chapters as he called them. These forgotten gems are highly regarded in Jazz circles. As Allmusic put it ‘This album (Chapter One: Latin America’) like its remaining chapters, makes up one of the great all but forgotten masterpieces in 1970s Jazz’.
In 1976, the saxophonist moved to A&M Records, where he recorded a number of commercial Jazz Funk albums. ‘Caliente’, produced by label boss Her Alpert, was his first for A&M and remains one of his finest works, fusing Latin with CTI like Jazz Funk. Tunes such as ‘Behind The Rain’ and a sumptuous cover of Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Want You’ are amongst its many highlights. Follow-up albums like ‘Ruby Ruby’ and ‘Euphoria’ cemented Gato’s popularity and sold well, but increasingly incorporated elements of what later would become known as Smooth Jazz, though the music still had that seductive Latin flavour.
In the early 80’s Gato reunited with Bob Thiele and recorded one album for the latter’s Doctor Jazz label, albeit with mixed results. Recordings became sporadic by the nineties and he did not record at all as leader between 1988 and 1997, partly due to contractual issues and partly due to his then wife’s terminal illness. In 1997, he returned with the superb ‘Que Pasa’. The album recorded for Columbia fully embraced Smooth Jazz and remains one of the genre’s best CDs.
Gato’s contribution to Jazz is immense from his avant garde work, the brilliant Latin inspired Flying Dutchman sets to the innovative Impulse! explorations of ‘world’ music to Fusion and onto Smooth Jazz. He has left a rich and varied body of recorded work for us to enjoy. Gato RIP.
FENIX (FLYING DUTCHMAN)
CHAPTER ONE: LATIN AMERICA (IMPULSE!)
QUE PASA (COLUMBIA)