Gato Barbieri

Fire and Ice

Gato Barbieri is frequently remembered for his Academy Award winning soundtrack the 1972 Bernardo Bertolucci film Last Tango In Paris, but his musical career is much wider than that.

When Barbieri first came to the attention of the jazz world in the mid-1960s, he was a fiery saxophonist interested in the free jazz sounds that were infusing the New York jazz world with a new energy. He recorded for the ESP label and as a sideman with Don Cherry , playing on two of Cherry’s well regarded Blue Note albums, Complete Communion and Symphony for Improvisers. He also moved into the orbit of the experimental Jazz Composers Orchestra, and participated in recordings by JCO members Carla Bley (Escalator Over the Hill) and Gary Burton (A Genuine Tong Funeral).

Gato Barbieri Live in Montreux 1971

By 1971 he was recording a series of albums for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label that featured his fierce, gritty, free jazz blowing paired with Latin-influenced rhythm sections which included label mates and future jazz stars like Lonnie Liston Smith, Stanley Clarke, John Abercrombie, and Airto Moreira. On these recordings (including Fenix, El Pampero and Under Fire) one can hear the influence of Coltrane, which is hardly surprising, but one can also hear a warmth and lyricism that was rare in the free jazz movement.

In 1972, Barbieri scored Last Tango, writing music that was arranged and conducted by Oliver Nelson and providing his signature tenor saxophone sound. The music provides a sense of melancholy and romanticism that was indicative of the direction Barbieri’s later career would take.

However, Barbieri moved from Last Tango to a series of four recordings (Chapter One through Chapter Four) for the Impulse! Record label. Impulse! was Bob Thiele’s newest project, and once again Barbieri’s work for Thiele was destined to be among his best. Chapter One: Latin America and Chapter Two: Hasta Siempre feature Barbieri with Argentine musicians who were not part of the American jazz studio scene.

These recordings, done in both Rio and Los Angeles, show Gato Barbieri developing his own musical language and style, a combinaon of Latin and free jazz that showed one direction in which the music could move at the crucial juncture of the early 1970s. Chapter Three: Viva Emiliano Zapata , features Barbieri fronting Chico O’Farrell’s big band, and Chapter Four: Alive in New York continues to feature the saxophonist’s fiery live playing.


By 1976, Barbieri, like many jazz musicians, was looking for a way to expand his audience, and he began to fuse more mellow sounds associated with pop music at the time. His 1976 album Caliente! was released on A&M, and though Barbieri’s tone isn’t that different from his past recordings, he doesn’t allow his playing to become as free and crying as previously. The background consists more of studio musicians, and there are strings, Spanish guitars, and electric piano. This trend continued on his subsequent A&M releases from ’76—1979.

Gradually Gato Barbieri’s name came to be associated with a mellow, romantic, smooth jazz sound on the basis of recordings like Que Pasa and Che Corazon. In 2002 he returned after a period of not recording with his PEAK Records debut Shadow of the Cat. Though the recording again fell into smooth jazz territory, Barbieri was still capable of raising some sparks in live performance. In less than robust health, he continued to play, wearing his trademark black fedora, at New York’s Blue Note Club every month since 2013. He last played there in November, 2015.

Gato Barbieri with Santana performing “Europa”

Though many think of Barbieri as a smooth jazz artist and something of a caricature, his work with Thiele for both Flying Dutchman and Impulse! should be remembered and investigated by a new generation of musicians who would likely find a lot to take away from these profound recordings. For jazz listeners, these albums, most of which are available for download or streaming, provide a great introduction to Barbieri’s work or, for those who have been listening for years, a reminder of the best work of this talented musician.

Gato Barbieri passed away April 2, 2016 at age 83.

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