Leandro “Gato” Barbieri: From the “Last Tango in Paris” (1972) to the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2015), he was one talented “Cat” on the sax.

By John P. Walsh

Latin jazz ballad “Beautiful Walk” is from Argentine-born saxophonist Leandro “Gato” (the “Cat”) Barbieri’s 50th album, Shadow of the Cat released in September 2002 on Peak Records.

In a six-decade career (Barbieri died in April 2016 at 83 years old) Shadow of the Cat—a Grammy-nominated album for Best Latin Jazz—looked to two major sources for its inspiration: the 30th anniversary of Last Tango in Paris (1972) for which Barbieri won a Grammy Award for his film score and to Barbieri’s huge-toned, raucous yet smooth jazz-pop sound in five albums he made at A&M Records in the mid-to-late-1970’s.

In November 2015 Gato Barbieri received the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his music that has been described as “mystical yet fiery, passionately romantic yet supremely cool.” Around the same time, according to the Blue Note club in Greenwich Village—where the “Cat” first performed in 1985 and, sporting his trademark black fedora hat, had been performing there monthly since 2013—gave his final concert on November 23, 2015.

In 2006 Gato Barbieri was content that in his long musical career he pursued playing different musical styles—jazz, Latin, film orchestration, etc.—and did not limit himself to a single genre.

“What do you play?”

“The jazz people they don’t consider me a jazz musician. If I am Latin, they don’t consider me Latin. So I am here in the middle,” Gato said. “It’s a good thing. You know why? Because they say, ‘What do you play?’ I say, ‘I play my music — Gato Barbieri.’”

The year is 1966. Tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri is joined by trumpeter Don Cherry, jazz vibraphonist Karl Berger (German, b. 1935) and bassist Bo Stief (Danish, b. 1946). In the mid 1960’s Barbieri and Cherry recorded two albums for Blue Note: Complete Communion and Symphony For Improvisors. In that era Gato also recorded with jazz saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy (1934-2004) and South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (b. 1934).

Jammin’ fusion.

Barbieri’s free jazz meant playing with American jazz double bass player Charlie Haden (1937-2014), American jazz pianist Carla Bley (B. 1936), and many others. The Cat was also found jamming with jazz bassist Stanley Clarke (b. 1951), Brazilian jazz drummer and percussionist Airto Moreira (b. 1941), Cuban composer Chico O’Farrill (1921-2001) and American jazz musician Lonnie Liston Smith (b.1940).

Barbieri recorded a handful of albums on the Flying Dutchman label in the early 1970s and then signed with Impulse where he recorded his classic “Chapter Series” which included Latin America, Hasta Siempre, Viva Emiliano Zapata and Alive in New York. In 2015 Gato Barbieri received the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. His music is described as “mystical yet fiery, passionately romantic yet supremely cool.”

Gato Barbieri and Italian-born wife Michelle. Married in 1960 they moved to Rome in 1962, where Gato began collaborating with American jazz trumpeter Don Cherry (1936-1995). In 1996 Gato Barbieri married his wife Laura and they soon had Christian, their son. After Gato’s death on April 2, 2016 at 83 years old, Laura Barbieri told The Associated Press: “Music was a mystery to Gato, and each time he played was a new experience for him, and he wanted it to be that way for his audience.”

International Sensation.

Gato Barbieri’s free-jazz playing in the late 1960s and early 1970s along with his audacity to blend the improvised style with a cutting-edge mining of Latin jazz in multi-artist projects attracted Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci to recruit Barbieri to compose the score for his 1972 film Last Tango in Paris starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. Bertolucci was seeking his own musical blend from the young Argentine musician who could incorporate jazz,  strings, and tangos into his score to embody the film’s chaos of spirit and ferocious sexuality with a nod to European intellectualism and Hollywood popularity.

Gato’s musical score became an instant international sensation and professional triumph for the 41-year-old musician winning a Grammy Award for best instrumental composition in 1973.

Collaborating with Herb Alpert.

Fireflies is the lead track from Gato’s best-selling Caliente! album for A&M 1976 produced by Herb Alpert. Released at the beginning of the peak of the jazz-fusion and disco eras, Gato Barbieri plays with sizzling heat relying on tango-infused Argentine fluency and as well as the influence of Sonny Rollins (b.1930), John Coltrane (1926-1967) and Pharoah Sanders (b. 1940).

Tango is tragedy.

“Always in the tango is tragedy,” said Barbieri in 1997. “She leaves him, she kills him. It’s like an opera — but it’s called tango.” Caliente! is beautifully arranged and executed which makes for enjoyable listening. The concept of strings combined with rhythmic danceable funk anted up Barbieri’s raucous sound and made Caliente! a successful primogeniture to Herb Alpert’s instrumental Rise in 1979 which became a very big international hit.

Gato Barbieri performed benefit concerts, one the Friends of Chile benefit concert, Madison Squae Garden, May 6, 1974. Gato Barbieri’s five albums on A&M Records in the late 1970s featured a more soothing jazz-pop sound. In the 1980s the “cat” kicked it up a notch for Para Los Amigos (1984), an album which spotlighted the rock-influenced South American sound. 

From the 1997 album Que Pasa (5.20 minutes).

Barbieri’s 50th album, “Shadow of the Cat” released in September 2002 on Peak Records – http://www.allmusic.com/album/the-shadow-of-the-cat-mw0000225929

two sources for its inspiration… – http://www.allmusic.com/album/the-shadow-of-the-cat-mw0000225929

won a Grammy Award for his film score – http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/latin/7318824/gato-barbieri-dead

five albums at A&M Records in mid-to-late-1970’s. – http://www.concordmusicgroup.com/artists/gato-barbieri/

in 2015 Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award  – http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/latin/7318824/gato-barbieri-dead

“Mystical yet fiery…” quotation – http://www.concordmusicgroup.com/artists/gato-barbieri/

First performed at Blue Note – http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/03/arts/music/gato-barbieri-latin-jazz-trailblazer-dies-at-83.html

Perform monthly since 2013 – http://highlighthollywood.com/2016/04/latin-jazz-saxophonist-gato-barbieri-dies-at-age-83-highlight-hollywood-news/

gives his final concert – http://www.tff.gr/nea/arthro/to_teleutaio_tangko_tou_leantro_gkato_mparmpieri_vds-130329325/

“‘I play my music — Gato Barbieri’” quotation – http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/03/arts/music/gato-barbieri-latin-jazz-trailblazer-dies-at-83.html

“Tuxedo cat 1” by RahelSharon is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

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