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The Cat Came Back

Sax legend Gato Barbieri refers to his instrument as a living being -- one with a mind all its own.

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.

"If I was born now, I don't play the saxophone," he says. "I play the bandoneon [the accordion-like instrument brought to Argentina from Germany that sparked the tango revolution]. The bandoneon has twelve or thirteen octaves, so you can play very down and very high. It's an incredible instrument."

Though he remained a saxophonist, Barbieri's albums began to feature an assortment of exotic instruments, such as Indian flutes and drums, ten- and four-string guitars, and all manner of cool percussion. Swirling around Barbieri's robust and impassioned playing, the new style was multiethnic, earthy and ethereal. It was world music before there was such a thing. In 1972, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci hired him to compose and perform the score to the celebrated lustfest Last Tango in Paris. Barbieri crafted a steamy stew of tango stylings, lush cinematic strings, percussion, his own resonant saxophone, and even, on one track, his own wailing voice. The effort won him a Grammy and worldwide fame.

Following the soundtrack's success, Barbieri joined Impulse, the label that had been home to the most adventurous playing of his idol, John Coltrane. There he introduced his Chapters series by releasing the first of four volumes, a rainbow explosion of Latin polyrhythms and hybrid sounds. As the decade progressed, his music became more commercial. His bolero version of Santana's "Europa" is firmly '70s: Replete with dreamy bells and chimes, synthesized strings and Barbieri's brightly brash tone, it's like the music of fusion legend David Sanborn, only sexier. In 1978, Santana himself matched his streaking electric guitar riffs against Barbieri in a driving track off the album Tropico. A year later, Barbieri came out with the final Chapter album. But instead of the earthy rhythms of the first two albums, he now blew in front of a tinkling electric piano and funky electric bass in what sounded like the perfect theme song for a Latina "Charlie's Angels."

The effort was a long way from his days of stretching out with the likes of Don Cherry, and some critics accused him of trying to make a career as some kind of pop star. Barbieri says he's always gone his own way. "I am not considered Latin by the Latins, and then jazz is played another way, and I play between the two," he explains. "I just play my music."

During the late '80s and much of the '90s, though, Barbieri wasn't playing anything. Michelle became seriously ill, and he stopped recording and touring to take care of her. She died in 1995, and just a few months later, he nearly died himself: Playing a gig at the Blues Alley club in Washington, D.C., he had a heart attack, was rushed to a hospital and underwent triple bypass surgery.

"Everything was bad. It was a black period," he says quietly. He doesn't really know how he got through it, but after he recovered, he wanted to make music again. In 1997 he joined the Columbia Jazz label and released Qué Pasa, his first album in ten years. He describes it as a labor. "After my surgery, I had to do something. I wasn't strong. I had to do it, because in the thirteen or fourteen years I didn't play, I never had any things written about Gato Barbieri, so a lot of people thought I died."

Perhaps fittingly, the album was full of tender homages to loved ones now departed, including his wife and his mother and musician friends. Since then, things have been looking up. In 1999 he released Ché Corazón. He also married his physical therapist and had a son, Christian, who turns three in April. He recently sold out a week of dates at the Blue Note in New York City, where he makes his home.

The one constant has been Barbieri's always-evolving sound. It's a sound that reflects his own philosophy of music: Nice music is boring, but beautiful music is just beautiful.  

"You don't have to rush," he says. "You don't have to make a lot of notes to impress. You have to be you and play for you. If you play for you and it's beautiful, people understand."


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