Gato Barbieri – Jazz Saxophonist Extraordinaire

Wikipedia: “Leandro “Gato” Barbieri (28 November 1932 – 2 April 2016) was an Argentine jazz tenor saxophonist who rose to fame during the free jazz movement in the 1960s and is known for his Latin jazz recordings of the 1970s. His nickname, Gato, is Spanish for ‘cat.'”

Barbieri was for a while a member of fellow Argentine Lalo Schifrin’s orchestra. (Arguably, Schifrin’s most famous composition is the theme song to the Mission Impossible TV and movie franchise. To my knowledge, Gato did not play on this as he had long since moved on.)

Inspired by Ornette Coleman’s free jazz movement, Gato played with trumpeter Don Cherry, pianist Carla Bley, and bassist Charlie Haden among others. (I wanted to feature one of those tunes but virtually all of them are 25-minute songs with multiple saxophonists as is much of Gato’s early output.)

Starting in the early Seventies, Barbieri headed more towards a Latin sound which reflected his Argentinian background.

In 1971 he released an album called Fenix. Of it, AllMusic said, “A horn player certainly couldn’t complain about a rhythm section featuring bassist Ron Carter, drummer Lenny White, and pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, the last fresh out of the band of Pharoah Sanders, where he had established himself as the absolute king of modal, vaguely Latin or African sounding vamps.

Smith was able to fit right in here, and he, of course, knew just what to do when the saxophonist went into his screaming fits because he surely had plenty of practice with this kind of stuff playing with Sanders.” (There are times in his playing where Gato screeches his horn way up high in the register which I confess is not to my taste– ME.)

From Fenix, here is “Tupac Amaru.”

Spotify link

When director Bernardo Bertolucci wanted someone to create a soundtrack for his then-controversial “erotic drama film” Last Tango in Paris (1972), he contacted Barbieri. “It was like a marriage between the film and the music,” said Barbieri. Bernardo told me, ‘I don’t want the music to be too much Hollywood or too much European, which is more intellectual. I want a median.'”

I don’t know if today you’d listen to this album all the way through as it’s largely a soundtrack album. (But a good one, as Gato won a Grammy.)

From Last Tango in Paris, here is the title tune. I found two versions of this. One “live” (You Tube) and one from the original soundtrack. (Spotify.)

Spotify link

Now how I got into Gato in the first place was through my sister who loved Gato’s playing. And so we were emailing recently about an interesting thing that I did not know but discovered in my research. The quote below is from Bonnie Erickson who served as Head of the Muppet Workshop for Jim Henson Associates who speaks here about some of her favorite Muppet creations:

“Zoot. Now there’s one I’d have to say is one of my favorites. That one is because my husband and I went to see Gato Barbieri. This was right after he did the score for a film called Last Tango in Paris, and he was playing at the Blue Note.

And he was playing, and he’s very distinctive. I love his music. He was wearing a blue or brown hat, and he had on this sort of African shirt and the dark glasses. And as an aside, he now has macular degeneration, so I wonder if the sunglasses were a precursor to that as well as being hip.

So, there he was with his saxophone, so I made this quick sketch that I brought in to Jim, which was part of some sketches I did for the band.  A lot of us did different sketches.  I brought in this sketch of Gato, and that became Zoot. …  I got in touch with Gato, and we went to hear him again, and I now have his album signed from Last Tango, and I have a photo of him with his son. So, it’s a wonderful story, and he’s still as good a musician as he was then.”

By the mid-Seventies, Gato had gotten about as far away from free jazz as you could instead turning his sound towards a smoother type of jazz. This didn’t always sit well with the critics who remembered his intense free jazz period.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll recall that just a short while ago I featured a Santana song called “Europa.” It was a natural for these two titans of Latin rock and jazz to get together.

Here’s “Europa” live in 1977 (YouTube) and Gato solo from Caliente! (1976), 

Spotify link

“After recording prolifically throughout the Seventies, Barbieri’s output slowed immensely following a dispute with his record label, which forced the saxophonist to tour more frequently. He didn’t release any albums between 1988 to 1997, only ending his hiatus with 1997’s Que Pasa, which he recorded while dealing with the death of his then-wife of 35 years.

Barbieri’s final LP was 2010’s New York Meeting, which featured covers of Miles Davis’ “So What” and Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser.”

Gato gets back to his jazz roots here and goes out in style. Here’s “Straight, No Chaser.”

Spotify link

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Muppet fandom wiki

18 thoughts on “Gato Barbieri – Jazz Saxophonist Extraordinaire

  1. I have to say I dig his sound, even though jazz is largely outside my core wheelhouse.

    It’s also funny you included that great clip with Santana. He was the first artist who came to my mind when listening to the first track you featured. Undoubtedly, the Latin-infused rhythm played a major role. But I could literally hear Santana-type guitar fill-ins. I hope this doesn’t mean I’m losing my mind!😆

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    1. When I started re-visiting Gato for this piece, the early 70’s stuff immediately brought Carlos to mind. I was thinking of later ’70’s albums like ‘Borboletta’ and it occurred to me that Carlos was clearly influenced by Barbieri’s sound. And so then it was a happy thing to recall that Gato had done “Europa.” I didn’t realize they had done it together so it seemed like the obvious choice to post it.

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      1. Ha, good point! Maybe I like it without being aware of it. 😀

        In the past, I’ve said the same about country, yet, surprisingly, I seem to find more and more exceptions!

        I guess a better way to characterize it would be to say I don’t listen to jazz and country very often. That’s still an accurate statement.

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        1. Understood. Country is the perfect analogy for me. I used to say I didn’t like country at all. Then I found there were a bunch of country songs I did like. But like you, i can’t live there.

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  2. You said a sax guy,I never would have guessed on Gato. When I first heard him it was the smooth style he was into. Then a little research took me to his harder sound (which I really dig). Yeah you can hear Saunders/Shepp/Coltrane influence on his playing. The first cut uses the same bongo intro that Santana used on ‘Waiting’ from his first album.
    He blows hard on all cuts. I remember the ‘Tango’ soundtrack (I love that film). I like when he got back to his “roots” on the Monk tune. I also love that style. Good job Doc.

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    1. As a self-proclaimed sax guy, not surprised you know him. I heard him in the Seventies too. Some of his mid-Seventies stuff is too smooth for me, with the hard edges shaved off. Got him some heat from the purists. I would love to have posted some of his earlier stuff but I couldn’t find many short tunes! Good call on ‘Waiting.’ Didn’t pick up on that but I knew somebody influenced somebody. It’s a kick that they actually played together.

      I actually own a copy of ‘Last Tango’ but haven’t watched it in a while. Quite the controversy at the time.

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      1. I actually really liked that early CTI jazz stuff with Grover Washington and others. It was funky stuff. As far as purists go, they aren’t paying Gato’s bills. Like George Benson. I loved the guy but he changed gears and went onto to make some good dough. Good for George. I still listen to his early stuff. Even “Breezin’ is not a bad record.
        ‘Tango’ is a Brando must. Totally uncensored. “Action Marlon”. Script girl says, while Marlon says his lines,”It’s not in the script”. Director says “Who cares”. Watch it again Doc. I’d be curious on what you think.

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        1. If you’re not trying to play music for a living, it’s easy to judge these guys for going more commercial. Truthfully a lot of the jazz guys over the years have played commercials and jingles and stuff to keep food on the table. I guess you could say Gato was at least up front about it. Benson and Grover Washington, both good players. The heyday of the last great popular jazz movement was the Seventies.

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        2. If we dig Doc there are still people doing it, like that Cody Dear, more funky but still jazzy to me.
          Yeah, what do musicians call those paying gigs “Casuals’? That 70s had some good stuff for sure.

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  3. I like this, Jim… I’m not usually a jazz guy – beyond a few choice albums (the usual – Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme, for example), but I do like this. Certainly leans towards that ballsy Jazz.

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