Saxophonist and composer Leandro “Gato” Barbieri before running the press gauntlet at the Special Awards ceremony hosted by the Latin Recording Academy at the 16th Annual Latin Grammy Awards in Las Vegas, November, 2015. That morning, Barbieri received a Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo by Christian Barbieri
Saxophonist and composer Leandro “Gato” Barbieri died Saturday at a New York hospital from pneumonia. He was 83.
For many, Gato will forever be that guy with the hat who wrote that tune from “Last Tango in Paris.” Others will remember his free jazz playing days, his association, early on in his career, with Don Cherry (check Cherry’s extraordinary Symphony for Improvisers, on Blue Note, 1966), or his work with the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra (Escalator Over the Hill, 1971) or perhaps pop jazz hits such as his version of Carlos Santana’s “Europa.” But some of us who grew up in a place far, far away from jazz called Argentina, will remember Gato as the man who opened a world of possibilities.
For a kid from a working-class neighborhood in Buenos Aires, for whom names like Charlie Parker and Miles and Mingus meant little, his music was a revelation. Wait. Can you do that with Carlos Gardel’s “El Dia Que Me Quieras” or “Mi Buenos Aires Querido;” with Don Atahualpa Yupanqui’s “El Arriero”? What is this jazz thing? So this is jazz, too? Albums such as Fenix, The Third World, Bolivia, Under Fire, and the Latino America series, recorded in part in Buenos Aires and Rio with local musicians, offered a path to a truly pan-Latin Latin jazz. And just like that, some of us decided that why not? We would speak jazz with an accent, yes, but we could do it, too.
As it turns out, a show by Gato at Alice Tully Hall many, many, years ago, was the first concert I ever saw in the United States — just arrived to study composition at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
I’ve admired many of the brilliant artists I’ve been fortunate to meet and write about over the years. I have been an unabashed, kid-like fan of two: Astor Piazzolla and Gato Barbieri.
I know the advice, “Never meet your heroes.” But it was a privilege, many years later, to meet them both in person and, over the years, get to spend time with them. My last encounter with Gato took an unexpected turn.
Last November, as a member of the Latin Recording Academy, I was asked to informally serve as an assistant to Gato at the presentation of his Lifetime Achievement Award by the Latin Recording Academy. I jumped at the opportunity. He was not well, he tired easily, and it was hard for him to walk. Or perhaps it was just my perception. It’s painful to see our superheroes age, and become fragile — much more so if he was someone who had that invincible sound.
With a world of cameras and tape recorders and handlers going around, I got him a chair and a bottle of water, and we settled down to talk about music, saxophone mouthpieces, and of course, soccer, and Newell’s Old Boys, his beloved team from his hometown, Rosario. It still makes me smile to look at the pictures of that morning at the Latin Grammys and see the edge of a Newell’s emblem I gave him as a gift, peeking out of his breast pocket. He was so happy with it. He insisted on putting it there.
The picture was in media around the world.
After helping him navigate his way to his seat on stage, my job was done, and I faded to the back of the theater to watch the presentation. He received the award sitting down. At the end of the ceremony, I went up to the stage just to say goodbye. He looked exhausted but happy. I crouched next to him, congratulated him, and he took my hand and said, “Thank you,” and I almost lost it right then and there. I shook his hand, managed to mumble: “Noooo maestro, gracias a usted. You have no idea. Thank you,” and ran out before he could say anything else, and I started to cry.
I close my eyes and see the scene as if I were watching a movie. More importantly, I hear that sound, a sound that could change a life. Gracias maestro. You have no idea.