Gato Barbieri in performance Photo by Pino Alpino. Wikimedia (Artículo en Español )

Leandro José “Gato” Barbieri, perhaps best known as the composer and performer of the soundtrack for Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial Last Tango in Paris, said more than once that he did not play jazz. Of course, he never saw himself as a Latin Jazz musician. And yet, with a handful of albums recorded between the late ’60s and mid-’70s, Barbieri marked a before and after in the jazz universe.

Pianist Bill Evans once said that jazz was not a “what” but a “how”.
Barbieri applied that “how” – from ideas of reinterpretation and improvisation to instrumentation – to tunes from the Great Latin American Songbook and a wide variety of styles from the Americas. Like many ideas that proved profoundly transformative, the idea now seems obvious.
After all, if an American jazz musician could use an old country blues or “Some Day My Prince Will Come” from a Disney movie no less, as a starting point, why not reinterpret a traditional chamamé, deconstruct the tango “El Dia Que Me Quieras” or reimagine “Bahía”?

Beginning with The Third World, his musical manifesto in 1969, and developed in his albums Bolivia (1971), El Pampero (1971), Fenix (1971), Under Fire (1973), Chapter One: Latin America (1973), Chapter Two: Hasta Siempre (1973), and Chapter Three: Viva Emiliano Zapata (1974), Barbieri gave voice (sometimes literally) to a powerful, revolutionary vision of Latin America.

“Gato had a great nose for the moment, the spirit of the times,” observes Sergio Pujol, music historian and author of the recently published Gato Barbieri Un Sonido Para El Tercer Mundo (Planeta). He’s also the author of Jazz Al Sur (Emecé, 2004) and Cien Años de Música Argentina, Oscar Alemán la Guitarra Embrujada (Planeta, 2015) among others. “The figure of [his wife] Michelle also has a lot to do with that. She seems to me to be very important in this process. She is a kind of ideologist, let’s say, of Gato’s music. She is very attentive to the political and cultural winds that were blowing at that time. Let’s not forget that when he recorded The Third World, Latin America was in the eyes of the world. Latin America was a protagonist in international geopolitics of the time, and there were expectations of change. Culturally, we were living what was called ‘the boom of Latin American literature,’ and I think that they, she, especially, realized that there was an open space to explore”.

Barbieri at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1971, with Lonnie Liston Smith, piano; Chuck Rainey, bass; Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, drums; Sonny Morgan, congas and Nana Vasconcelos percussion and berimbau

Moreover, musically, “Gato, at least until the mid to early 1980s, was always up to date, always in tune with the dominant trends of the time,” observes Pujol. That curiosity took him from bebop and post-bop in Buenos Aires in the 1950s to free jazz when encouraged by Michelle, the couple moved to Italy. It was there, in 1963, that he met Don Cherry. It was a crucial encounter that produced two critical recordings. And from there, Barbieri moved to New York and into the avant-garde represented by Carla Bley and the Jazz Composers Orchestra (with whom he records the ambitious opera Escalator Over The Hill).

The moment presented an opportunity — and a sobering revelation.

“When Gato goes to New York in 1966 for the first time with Don Cherry, he realizes that no matter how well he plays the saxophone, no matter how technical he is, no matter how much Carla Bley touts him as one of her favorite saxophonists, he is not going to have a relevant place in the history of the genre,” Pujol says.

A change is necessary. And just as he is seriously considering moving back to Argentina, Barbieri the artist, responds to the moment. Working with South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim (then under the name Dollar Brand) puts him shoulder to shoulder with a Third World artist reinterpreting his folk music in the language of jazz. The encounter results in the album of duets Hamba Khale (1968). Also, Barbieri befriends Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha in New York, and their conversations set him on the path of a revolutionary aesthetic. Here is the idea of cultural anthropophagy expressed in Tropicalia, a cultural movement that in popular music shaped the work of major artists such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, championing the notion of absorbing foreign cultural influences and spitting them back “Brazilianized.”

“For Gato, this is a very interesting way out,” notes Pujol. “Because what Glauber Rocha does as a filmmaker is to take the tradition of the French nouvelle vague for his cinematic language, but using it to address a very local and very political content.”
For Barbieri, it is an idea in which his musical and political interests converge.

“Let’s not forget that he was affiliated with the Communist Party,” says Pujol. “He was never really a militant, and maybe he didn’t have too clear an idea of political issues either, but he was by no means an insensitive guy to those issues. For example, when the coup against Allende took place on September 11, 1973, in Chile, he participated in a series of concerts in repudiation in New York.”

That Latin American theme and aesthetic in The Third World, Bolivia, or El Pampero, was a mirror in which African-American jazz musicians giving voice to the civil rights struggles of African-Americans in the United States could see themselves.
In his music, Barbieri redefines jazz as a global language that can be spoken with different accents.

No one is surprised today when Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez works on tamborito; Spanish pianist Chano Domínguez speaks jazz in bulerías; or Peruvian trumpeter Gabriel Alegría explores Afro-Peruvian landó.

And in this creative moment in his jazz career, Gato, a film buff who had composed and participated in soundtracks in Argentina and Italy, finds his greatest popular success making music for a film.

Filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, with whom Barbieri and especially Michelle had a friendship and working relationship, calls him to make the music for Last Tango In Paris. The sensuality of the main theme and that unique Barbieri sound, rough, powerful, and deeply emotional, are a perfect frame for the film’s story of loss, sex, and utter loneliness. The scandal surrounding certain scenes (the film was banned in Argentina, for example) only adds to the publicity.

Last Tango makes Gato Barbieri an international star.

But by the mid-1970s, the moment has passed.

Even the concept of the Third World begins to fade from the socio-political discourse.

“In the ’80s, Gato is no longer in tune with the moment,” notes Pujol. “There’s a kind of retro thing about him. Outdated. In recent years, Gato is like the stamp of another era, an anachronistic figure.”

Musically, what follows is a long coda in which Barbieri turns, on record, to instrumental pop and smooth jazz. To the critics, he is a musician in decline. But Barbieri finds a new audience and hits, such as his version of “I Want You,” made famous by Marvin Gaye or, most notably, Carlos Santana’s ballad “Europa.” (In his biography, Pujol notes that Michelle wanted to make Barbieri “the Santana of the saxophone.”) 

But Pujol argues there is more than mere commercial calculation in this change of direction.

 “Gato is an omnivorous listener. He listens to all kinds of music and likes a lot of soul and funk,” notes Pujol. “Gato names Marvin Gaye among his musical idols. What other jazz musician of his generation would name Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder as referents? None.”

If the material, and sometimes the production, was insubstantial or irredeemably mediocre, there was always the reward of that unmistakable, virile, decisive sound. And live, in concert, Barbieri would hover lightly over his most recent album, obliged playing the pop hits, and moved on to revisit his Latin American jazz.

Although a very active performer, in his last two decades, Barbieri suggests at times an artist adrift. Not everything has to do with music. The death in February 1995 of Michelle, his great love, his unfailing companion, and his musical “ideologist” leaves him without a port. And only a few months later, after feeling chest pains during a performance, Barbieri needs to undergo emergency heart surgery.

But some moments suggest the possibility of a happy ending. Barbieri formed a new couple with Laura Ryndak, a physiotherapist who, when she met him, “had no idea who Gato Barbieri was,” and, in 1998, at the age of 66, Barbieri became a father for the first time.

With Laura and Christian, their son, music returns.

Barbieri at the Artscape festival, Baltimore, 1999. Photo by John Matthew Smith. Creative Commons.

Barbieri’s last recording, New York Meeting in 2010, is a return to the beginning – and a farewell.

“It’s a journey into his past, a sort of his In Search of Lost Time,” Pujol offers.
In New York Meeting Barbieri plays accompanied by a trio of two Argentine musicians — pianist and composer Carlos Franzetti, drummer and close personal friend Néstor Astarita — and the American bassist David Finck. The repertoire is predominantly composed of standards and pieces Barbieri has already recorded. It includes jazz songbook pieces such as “Someday My Prince Will Come,” “Equinox,” but also “Prepárense,” an Astor Piazzolla tango that Barbieri had performed with urgency and ferocity in The Third World, and a Barbieri piece from the soundtrack of Last Tango: “It’s Over.”

Gato Barbieri died on April 2, 2016, in New York City.
He was 83 years old.

But by then, he had long since been immortal.

(For more on Gato Barbieri, please check Jazz With an Accent here )

A longer version of this piece was first published, in Spanish, by Gladys Palmera, Spain