Gato Barbieri - Biography

By Nick Castro


            Gato Barbieri is an Argentine jazz saxophonist who has had made an enormous contribution to several jazz scenes, most notably free jazz and Latin jazz. His birth name is Leandro Barbieri. He was born into a musical family in Rosario, Argentina, in 1932. In his youth he began playing alto saxophone and clarinet upon first hearing some Charlie Parker recordings. He moved with his family to the city of Buenos Aires when he was 15 and continued his studies in music. He showed unusual talent for his few years of playing and by his teens he was professionally playing locally. By his early 20s was already famous in his home country for accompanying another Argentine jazz player, Lalo Schifrin.


            By the late ‘50s, Barbieri was leading his own groups in Argentina. He married an Italian woman and together they moved to Rome in 1962. He began to tour Europe and it was only a year after moving there that he met trumpet player Don Cherry. He and Cherry hit it off right away and Barbieri began sitting in with Cherry's group. This marked a change for Barbieri who, up until then, had been playing pretty straightforward jazz.


            Once Barbieri began working with Cherry and understanding the music from a new perspective, it did not take long for Barbieri to fully make the transition onto the leading edge of the new music scene. He began to develop a tone not unlike the records he had recently begun to love by artists such as John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler. One can hear these sounds in the deep and slightly overblown tone of Barbieri's playing. By this time he had also switched to tenor saxophone which would become his woodwind of choice. Cherry and Barbieri recorded two albums together, Complete Communion (1965 Blue Note), which was Cherry's first as a leader, and Symphony for Improvisers (1966 Blue Note), which finds Barbieri playing with one of his idols, Pharoah Sanders. Complete Communion was recorded in a single take and is comprised of two long sides made up of suites within them. This album was assisted by bassist Henry Grimes (who was recently re-discovered living in a weekly motel in downtown Los Angeles and is now playing again) as well as drummer Ed Blackwell. Barbieri, on this album, can be heard playing much of the time, in the upper octaves of his instrument. Barbieri and Cherry basically followed in the footsteps of Ornette Coleman, whose group Cherry was a full-time member of, and they did it amazingly well while adding their own touches and colors to the overall sound. On Symphony for Improvisers, Barbieri went to New York with the group to record. The sound is basically an extension of their previous effort but with the addition of vibraphonist Karl Berger and bassist Jean François. Cherry and Barbieri can also be heard on a rare session titled Gato Barbieri and Don Cherry (1965 InnerCity) with a team of French musicians.


            For a short while Barbieri would also play with Mike Mantler and Carla Bley's Jazz Composers' Orchestra of America. JCOA was hugely influential in the world of free jazz, having amassed the largest collection of master players in the genre to date. Barbieri was blowing his saxophone alongside musicians such as Cherry, Coleman, guitarist Larry Coryell, Roswell Rudd (one of the few free jazz trombonists) and legendary pianist, Cecil Taylor.


            In 1967, Barbieri released In Search of the Mystery (1967 ESP Disk), a recording of a chaotic and noisy free jazz session which featured Barbieri destroying the boundaries of music and structure with his wailing solos. This album consists of four, sizable pieces. That same year he also released Obsession (1967 Affinity) which really shows Barbieri's fiery free jazz work on the saxophone in the trio setting. The next year he released an album of duets with pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (who was then still called “Dollar Brand”) called Confluence (1968 Arista). This is the first release of Barbieri's that shows him slowing down and playing with subtlety and feeling for the compositions in place of the energy and chaos of his previous releases.


            Unfortunately for the free jazz scene (yet fortunate for the Latin jazz scene), Barbieri made a switch, in the late ‘60s, in the direction of his roots. He began to reincorporate traditional instrumentation and melody into his compositions. He also released his first solo album with his new sound when he created The Third World (1969 Flying Dutchman). Along with musicians Charlie Haden on bass, Rudd on trombone, Beaver Harris on drums, Lonnie Liston Smith on piano and percussionist Richard Landrum; Barbieri creates a sound which is still between the worlds of free jazz and Latin jazz. This transitional sound is often said to be the perfect blend and the height of his artistic statements. This is also the album that helped Barbieri cross over into the mainstream. The album was a big hit with the open-minded college crowd of the day.


            The ‘70s saw Barbieri make a full shift toward Latin jazz and even make some pop records which have been compared to Herb Alpert. He also became a prolific film composer. One of his most famous film scores was for the racy Last Tango in Paris in 1972. This catapulted Barbieri to fame and he began working large festivals and halls. In the ‘80s Barbieri worked with famed jazz producer Teo Macero to produce some fine Latin rock albums in the vein of Santana's jazzier work. By the late ‘80s, Barbieri began to have trouble with his heart and he was forced to have triple bypass surgery. Within a short span of time his wife also died. Barbieri all but disappeared from the jazz scene until he emerged, in full bravado, at the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1997. His latest album is Shadow of the Cat (2002 Peak Records).



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