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By Tom Murphy
In jazz, your sound is everything. It's your identity, your symbol of maturity. It defines your artistry. There's no quicker put-down than "he hasn't found his own sound yet": It means you're not really worthy of being talked about at all.
Now consider Argentine tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri. He has his own sound, undoubtedly, a one-of-a-kind clarion call to the jazz gods. But maybe sound isn't everything, after all, because when we're talking about Gato, we're faced with the vexing question of how, exactly, to describe his sound. Is it a soulful cry? A passionate shriek? A go-for-broke banshee wail? A kind of Promethean, chain-breaking, fire-breathing yawp? Or is it a noise so singularly indigestible -- loud and furious, gritty and jagged -- that it can actually put a crick in your neck and make your head ring?
"He's very colorful, he's very hungry, he's very soft, he's very melancholic," says Barbieri, describing his horn and the sound it makes. "It depends what tune I play and how I feel in this moment." Barbieri has been known to achieve his textured tone by humming and blowing through his mouthpiece at the same time; he also uses soft reeds, which create a billowing sound that washes over you -- almost as if there were two Gatos playing at once.
Or more. In Barbieri's playing, signs of all the styles he has passed through on a fifty-year career are preserved like layers of subterranean rock. An early disciple of Charlie Parker and, later, John Coltrane, Barbieri, who's now 66, cut his musical teeth mastering the rhythmic forms of South America, then stretched out and embraced the '60s avant-garde movement in jazz. After returning to his Argentine roots, he dabbled in film composing and, with his breezy 1977 rendition of Carlos Santana's "Europa," unknowingly contributed to the rise of smooth jazz a decade later. His musical wanderings have taken him from Argentina to Brazil, Italy, France and, these days, the United States. And it's all in his sound: At turns harsh and sweet, dissonant and smooth, it is always very much alive.
Born Leandro Barbieri in 1934 in Rosario, Argentina, a few hours north of Buenos Aires, Barbieri always had music in his blood. His father played the violin, his older brother the trumpet. His uncle had played tenor sax in the mid- and late '20s, days when you could make a lot of money playing the new music -- jazz -- filtering down to South America from the United States. Buenos Aires was the second Paris then: financially strong, modern, and busting at the seams with opera, orchestras, dancers and musicians of all persuasions. Barbieri's family moved to the city in 1945; a year later, Juan Perón was in power. The beboppers reigned on the jazz front, and when Barbieri found a recording of Charlie Parker's classic Now's the Time, he was hooked. He picked up the clarinet, studied privately for five years, then switched over to the alto sax (which Parker played) and began studying composition. In 1951, the seventeen-year-old Barbieri made his professional debut playing in a jazz band fronted by the talented Latin American composer Lalo Schifrin, who later composed the exciting theme to television's Mission: Impossible.
By age twenty, Barbieri switched to the tenor sax and during the next ten years struggled to establish himself. Under Perón's leadership (which ended in 1955) and in the years that followed, jazz was discouraged. Musicians were expected to fill at least half their shows with traditional music forms like the tango. "When Perón came, everything was ruined," he says. "They paid 100 pesos, which was nothing. We had to play in three or four orchestras. They considered us labor, not musicians." He earned his nickname, El Gato -- the cat -- because of the speedy way in which he darted from one club to another, saxophone in tow. The young musician was forced to play many styles, with big bands, orchestras and small groups, an education that would one day prove valuable.
Faced with union trouble and the stifling creative atmosphere, Barbieri and his wife and manager, Michelle, split Argentina in 1962; they spent seven months in Brazil, then moved off to Michelle's native Italy, settling in Rome. Shucking aside the music of his homeland, Barbieri dove headfirst into the free-jazz movement, which was pushing the limits of improvisation. He met trumpeter Don Cherry, a frequent collaborator with free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, and in 1965 followed him to New York to record several albums; their work together for the Blue Note label moves fluidly between form and formlessness. "The most important lesson was to be fast," Barbieri says of playing with Cherry. "He played one tune in one minute and then jumped into another one, and you had to be very alert. I learned."
In 1967 he recorded, as a leader, In Search of Mystery, an album that marked the peak of his free-jazz years. Afterward, his interest waned, though his improvisational style -- given to sonic outbursts of dazzling and dizzying disorder -- still bore the imprint of the free-jazz scene. At the time, he told an interviewer that he always liked playing melodies; the free-jazzers were busy running from melody, or else stretching it, pulling it or cutting it up. So Barbieri began a kind of emotional journey back to his roots -- back to the music of Argentina and Brazil, music he had resisted having to play under Perón. He began to listen more closely to the work of one of his favorite composers, Astor Piazzolla, tango's most famous composer.