June 14, 2024

Gato BarbieriTenor Saxman with the Big Sound of Amor
Love Letter for Gato Barbieri 
by Vallynda Voz 

In 1976, I heard the amazing sounds of “Europa” on the radio (probably on WRVR FM – a jazz/R&B station inNew York City at that time) from a tenor saxophonist named Gato Barbieri. Barbieri’s album (vinyl back then) Caliente! (“HOT” in Spanish for those who don’t know) had the debonaire saxophone hero in a dramatic stance wearing his trademark black fedora hat, with multi-colored flames in the background of the cover art (on Herb Alpert’s A & M label). The album became a favorite of mine, with many joyful latin-jazz pop tunes, from “Fiesta” to “I Want You.” That music still sounds as powerful and as fresh today as it did almost three decades ago. It is music that nourishes the soul, is emotionally-sustaining and life-affirming – in other words timeless.

Caliente! became a classic, best-selling recording pre-dating the smooth jazz radio genre. The tune “Europa (Earth’s Cry, Heaven’s Smile” (written by Carlos Santana) would become Gato Barbieri’s ultimate “theme” – an anthem that his adoring fans would expect to hear at every show – and he wouldn’t disappoint them. Gato’s intense, passionate and warm playing was partly my inspiration to learn to play saxophone. I learned from his biography that we had in common starting out on clarinet in our pre-teen years. Gato also played alto saxophone, until he switched to tenor, where he found his unique, passionate, growling tone.

At that time, little did I realize, that Gato Barbieri had a long career before his popularity beginning in the 1970s. Gato,(born Leandro Barbieri in Argentina), had played as a young adult in Lalo Schifrin’s orchestra in the 1950s. He started out playing traditional Latin music, and then went on to become a renowned avant-garde player of free jazz in the 1960s, performing with Don Cherry in Paris, as well as with Mike Mantler’s Jazz Composers’ Orchestra. In early 1970s, Gato returned to playing music influenced by Latin American melodies and rhythms and received recognition from the jazz world and with college audiences around the United States. Most traditional jazz critics view Gato’s earlier work as powerful contributions to jazz. In 1972, Gato achieved unexpected widespread acclaim for his playing on the soundtrack to the controversial Bernardo Bertolucci Last Tango in Paris film. Gato then toured at festivals around the world. He also became a successful composer for numerous international films in Europe, South America and the United States.

The first time I saw Gato play live was in April 1984 at S.O.B.’s (Sounds of Brazil) – a club that is still around today in Manhattan. It was a very special time – it was my birthday and I went to see Gato with my saxophone teacher, Fred Reiter (who in the early 80s had played with guitarist Stanley Jordan in college, and currently tours the world with a ska-jazz band called The Toasters). The funny thing was, I remember seeing all of these Gato look-alikes wearing the Gato-style hat and suave suits, waiting in a long line around the corner from the S.O.B.’s venue.

Twelve years later, in 1996 I saw Gato play at the legendary Blue Note club in NYC. I was thrilled to see him, but I sensed a deep sadness – something was wrong. Not long after, I heard that his beloved first wife, the Italian-born Michelle, who had been instrumental in his life and his career, had passed on, and then Gato had triple-bypass heart surgery.

The next year, in 1997, I heard this incredible tune “Into the Sunrise” from Gato’s new CD Que Pasa on the radio on CD101.9FM – the smooth jazz station in the New York City area. The big Gato sound, the passion – was back! It was Gato’s comeback! I was thrilled that Gato returned to his music and his audience in top form. I was also happy to hear that Gato had found new love in his life with his second wife Laura and then had a new baby son Christian.

The intensity of emotional playing of the beautiful songs on Gato’s Que Pasa CD, represented hope and made me realize that new love and a new start in life are possible anytime, if one looks deep within one’s soul and has faith. I’m sure Gato’s music has been inspirational to many fans. I’m just one that happens to be a jazz journalist and a musician who’s had the privilege to have Gato’s music play an important role in my life.

In 1997, the year that Que Pasa was released, Gato returned to play at the Blue Note. I saw him perform at least two nights that week. One memorable evening John Travolta and his entourage sat at the table behind me, dancing by his seat, and digging the music. Gato’s big sound enveloped the room and was wonderful; his piano player Bill O’Connell (who finally released his own solo CD recently), and the other members in Gato’s band were terrific. I had the pleasure and honor to talk with Gato backstage at the Blue Note, and tried to explain to him in English and in Spanish what his music meant to me. That same year, I also had a Gato “sighting” in the audience at Bea Smith’s Café in NYC at a Philippe Saisse show (the smooth jazz pianist who had a radio hit with “Moanin'”). Saisse had produced Que Pasa (on Columbia Records), which became the fourth highest selling Contemporary Jazz album that year.

Fast forward and it’s now 2004. Gato Barbieri’s current CD is called The Shadow of the Cat, (his debut on Peak/Concord Records and his 50th album). Last year, The Shadow of the Cat won Billboard’s award for “Best Latin Jazz Album.” Barbieri dedicated The Shadow of the Cat to his beloved mother, who passed away in 1991. In his liner notes, Gato wrote, “If not for you and the spark you lit in me, I would not be who I am today. There would be no [The] Shadow of the Cat.” Barbieri grew up poor in Rosario, Argentina, but felt enriched by his mother’s teachings about life, love and music. “She understood me and encouraged my musical dreams…She was an incredible woman.”

The CD continues Gato Barbieri’s legacy by combining soulful Latin sensibilities with a seductive, contemporary jazz flavor. The first tune,”El Chico” is a festive, percussive Latin swing tune with a boisterous brass section. The title track is a beautiful, Latin romantic tune with the trademark Gato sound, that has the sweet, melodious complement of Peter White on acoustic guitar and Sheila E. on percussion. “Para Todos (For Everyone),” is a groove-oriented samba. “Tierra Del Fuego” (Land of Fire)” is a funky tune with rock and gospel influences that features Russ Freeman’s powerful electric guitar. There’s also the laid back, mellow finesse of “Blue Habanera” as well as a mid-tempo, neo-soul version of Barbieri’s classic hit song “Last Tango.” The CD finishes with a Spanish language rendering of “If I Was Your Woman” called “Si Tu Me Quisieras.”

The Shadow of the Cat was produced by Grammy winning Jason Miles. Jason Miles has worked with jazz and pop legends from Miles Davis to Luther Vandross and recently produced a tribute CD to the late Grover Washington Jr. Other special guest artists on Gato Barbieri’s new CD include vocalist Cassandra Reed, bassist Mark Egan, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, pianist Oscar Hernandez, drummer Richie Morales, percussionist Marc Quinones, bassist Will Lee and guitarist Romero Lumambo. The best surprise guest is the legendary trumpeter Herb Alpert, who plays on three songs.

In the next few months, Gato is doing some touring in select cities

I always look forward to seeing and hearing Gato Barbieri with the big, unique tone on the tenor saxophone and those special vocal chants – emotional exclamations of simple words such as “Hey” that punctuate between his gorgeous melodic lines on the horn. Gato Barbieri’s music is simply the sound of Amor. To me, Gato, your music is the epitome of the beauty of love and the precious gift of how wonderful life can be. Your music will always have a special place in my heart.

Gato recently said: “It’s exciting that people are still moved when I play, and I consider myself blessed to have had fans that have listened to me for such a long time. They still do, and I’m still having fun. When I start recording, I am playing for me, but when I play a concert, I play for me and them. It is not a “show”, but it is a musical message. They understand where I am coming from.”

Yes Gato, we do understand. So to Gato Barbieri the legendary one-of-a-kind saxophonist with the glorious sound – still the cool cat in the hat – best wishes for a healthy, Happy 72th Birthday this November 28th!! Muchas gracias, for bringing your wonderful music with such joy to jazz fans throughout the world.

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