The Strange Case of Gato Barbieri

When I was in college, Gato Barbieri was all the rage.

‘Last Tango in Paris’ came out in the middle of my college years and, if you see the film today, the music is the only thing that holds up. Brando could improvise a scene here and there (and some of the most affecting scenes in the film are his inventions-the monologue over his wife’s casket, for example) but when you asked him to fashion a narrative, he couldn’t do it, as Francis Coppola found out to his dismay a few years later on ‘Apocalypse Now.’ So ‘Last Tango’ now seems overblown and self-indulgent—except for the music, which is the same shrieking, emotional bath it was at the time of release.

I went to the record store (that was a place where they sold bins and bins full of those big vinyl discs that needed a needle to move along the grooves—they had lasers in those days but only the military could afford them—just pointing this out for those of you who just went ‘Huh? Record store?’) and found the ‘Last Tango’ soundtrack and, shortly after, something called ‘Under Fire‘. I played them both constantly for a few years and have rediscovered them periodically ever since.

They are unique and wonderful and trying records, all at once. Gato Barbieri seemed to know only two gears—first and fifth. Which made his transitions pretty amazing sometimes but it also meant he spent a whole lot of time reprising the same line over and over and pushing it ever upward into shrieks and screams in a range no tenor sax was ever meant to be played before Coltrane arrived. I played one of my favorite cuts for a friend in his basement a few years ago. When we got upstairs, his wife remarked that it sounded like one of her nightmares.

But with him, you take the good with the bad. He is relentless but his best music is truly passionate, truly the music of someone who’s determined to leave nothing on the table, to get it all out there. The songs were clearly recorded live in the studio, because they’re full of little inconsistencies and momentary hesitations that only happen when a band is making it up on the spot. And his band at the time was a miracle, great musicians who ended up leading their own bands after: Lonnie Liston Smith on keyboards, Stanley Clarke on bass, Airto Moriera on drums, Mtume on extra percussion. They created this amazing swirling, living sound around Gato’s fierce center, like the chattering of a rain forest around the cries of a big cat on the hunt.

See? Even I get over the top just trying to describe it. The sound is primal and, to my ear, totally unique. I get moments of clarity and beauty from that music like nothing else.

Like most things that unique and that demanding, it couldn’t last.

The MOR years-ick

After mining that vein hard for seven or eight years (the fine Latin America series of albums), Gato folded his tent and went to work for Herb Alpert. Alpert built pre-recorded backing tracks for Barbieri to play and multi-track over. The music got tamed. He didn’t shriek so much. The little hesitations and the overwhelming, overbearing explosiveness went away. I lost interest and can’t listen to them. They seem to me examples of how an artist goes wrong.

Gato’s beloved wife passed away in the 80’s and he went into hiding for a while. But I’ve seen videos of him in recent years—he’s featured in the wonderful ‘Calle 54’ film of several years back. He’s in his 70’s, a bit fragile-looking and wistful for the old days but the band still rocks behind him and that powerful, primitive shriek still comes out of his horn. And the music is again that music of the Latin American jungle, that strong melody and constant swirling percussion.

So maybe it’s proof that you can right the ship even after it’s sunk. You just keep playing.

About ted krever

Ted Krever watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, went to Woodstock (the good one), and graduated Sarah Lawrence College with a useless degree in creative writing. He spent the next few decades in media journalism, at ABC News on the magazine show Day One with Forrest Sawyer and the Barbara Walters Interviews of a Lifetime series, as General Manager of BNNtv, a documentary production company, creating programs for CNN, A&E, Court TV, CBS, MTV News, Discovery People and CBS/48 Hours, and as VP/Production of a short-lived dotcom, followed swiftly by nine months of unemployment. Ted now writes novels and sells mattresses in Staten Island NY, a job which registers at a loathsome -98 on the Cosmopolitan Eligible Male Job-Status Guide. Ted is happily divorced, purports to be a good kisser and hopes for world peace. He was once accused of attempting to blow up Ethel Kennedy with a Super-8 projector.


The Strange Case of Gato Barbieri — 6 Comments

  1. Gato’s Sax, back jack do it again (steely dan) …introduced me to Jazz and was one of my best memories of college. Great music, no words, could study all night long.

  2. I was House Officer of Essex House when we got a call from a doctor. She could not reach her patient, who had just had heart surgery. Went to the room with master key. “Hello, Security” I announced, not knowing what to expect. Saw a black hat lying on a table and a seemingly lifeless body on the bed. He moved. Said he wasn’t feeling good, opened shirt to show stitches running up his chest, then said “and I play saxaphone.” Barbieri? Black hat? Sax?
    “Oh sugar, are you GATO Barbieri?” He smiled. “Man, you and Coltrane are my two favorites!” He smiled some more. Got him to sip some O.J., told him his doctor was on the way. Spoke to me in fluent Italian (better than mine) about his wife and how sad he was since her death. Offered me a publicity still, and instead of autographing it, made an incredible flowing drawing “to Wanye”. God bless Gato and God bless you for your kind words.

  3. Saw Gato in the 60’s in Miami. He played in a movie theater that had been converted for that specific event that night. The concert started at 9 pm. He just stood and watched a three piece playing then walked over to he mike and said something like, “Hello every body, thank you for coming. I was going to do 3 sets for you but can only do one. Don’t be mad OK?” Everyone was quiet. True to his word, he only played one set that started at about 9:30 and ended at 2am. All night long he had a lovely girl going to him to change his face towels and give him water and teaspoons of honey. It was pure. The applause lasted at least 30 minutes. Great experience.

  4. I love this Artist.. My mother introduced me to his incredible talents at age five… I’ve been a literally daily listener and a follower of his music since childhood. On my 35 birthday My dream came true by meeting him at one of his concerts at the ferst center of the Arts in Atlanta , Ga. After 43 years I’m still a fan. My children, family and friends have grown to love his style, class, and talents as well.. Gato music will forever be an inspiration to me.. Gato wherever you are, I want you to know I have listened to your music literally everyday for 43 years… I’m truly one of your greatest fans. Rock on my Latin friend………

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