Mystical yet fiery, passionately romantic yet supremely cool…You hear those first few notes from that instantly recognizable tenor and know you’re in the unique musical world of Gato Barbieri. His global legend continues on The Shadow of the Cat, Barbieri’s long anticipated Peak Records debut and 50th album overall, which resonates with the unmistakable feeling of sensual celebration. On the cusp of his 70th birthday (this November 28th), the Argentine-born world music pioneer is still bursting with a passionate joie d’ vivre, excited about his new family, wife Laura and 4 year old son Christian. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of Barbieri’s Grammy® winning score to the controversial Bernardo Bertolucci film Last Tango in Paris, an unexpected phenomenon that catapulted him from well known jazz musician to the realm of international celebrity.
Beginning professionally as a teenager playing alto sax in several different Buenos Aires clubs, Barbieri’s five decade career has covered virtually the entire jazz landscape, from free jazz (with trumpeter Don Cherry in the mid-60s) and avante garde to film scoring and his ultimate embrace of Latin music throughout the 70s and 80s. He began playing tenor with his own band in the late 50s and moved to Rome with his Italian born first wife Michelle in 1962, where he began collaborating with Cherry. The two recorded two albums for Blue Note, Complete Communion and Symphony For Improvisors, which are considered classics of free group improvisations. Barbieri launched his career as a leader with the Latin flavored The Third World in 1969, and later parlayed his Last Tango success into a career as a film composer, scoring a dozen international films over the years in Europe, South America and the United States.
On The Shadow of the Cat, Barbieri skillfully blends these soulful Latin sensibilities with a modern, seductive contemporary jazz vibe, under the guidance of Grammy winning producer Jason Miles. Well known for his work with jazz and pop legends (from Miles Davis to Luther Vandross) and recent all-star tribute recordings to Ivan Lins and Grover Washington, Jr., Miles brings Barbieri’s explosive tenor “cool” into the new millennium surrounded by members of the smooth jazz elite-including Peter White, Sheila E., Cassandra Reed and Peak Records label co-founder Russ Freeman-and top fusion, traditional and Latin players like bassist Mark Egan, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, pianist Oscar Hernandez, drummer Richie Morales, percussionist Marc Quinones, bassist Will Lee and guitarist Romero Lumambo.
“I really enjoyed working with the younger musicians because I always need different sounds to stay fresh,” says Barbieri. “Working with the same musicians all the time keeps your music at one level, and I love to try new things. I need something to move me. I stick to what I know best, which is music that is basically very melodic, but I experiment with different rhythms. I always enjoy a fusion of international music with Latin American music and after 49 albums (as featured artist or leader), there are still many things to explore. I work with my imagination. Jason understands my sound and has known my music for a long time. We had a good collaboration. I was a friend, years ago, of Marvin Gaye, and Marvin taught me that the only kind of record to make is one where you like everything on it. The Shadow of the Cat is definitely that.”
From 1976 through 1979, Barbieri released five popular albums on A&M Records, the label owned by trumpet great Herb Alpert. The Shadow of the Cat is a reunion of sorts for the two, with Alpert playing trumpet and trumpet solos on three songs-the opening track “El Chico,” a festive, densely percussive Latin swing session featuring a roaring brass section; the title track, a graceful, tropical flavored throwback to the vintage romantic seduction sound Barbieri is famous for; and “Para Todos (For Everyone),” a heavy grooving samba featuring wild brass accents.
“I’ve been friends with Herb for many years, but it was Jason who called him to work on this album,” says Gato. “Herb was very happy to participate, and said that I still play beautifully. I returned the compliment. He knew of all my health problems in recent years, but said that time seemed to stand still for me. We talked about all the musicians we admired who faded away or died young, and it was great to realize we were both still doing what we loved, as active in the business as ever.”
The Shadow of the Cat begins with the unique contrasting moods of “El Chico” and the title track before evoking Barbieri’s romantic film score sensibilities with the balmy cool of “Last Kiss,” which blends his hypnotic sax with Peter White’s elegant acoustic guitar harmonies and Sheila E’s easy percussion and a subtle synth string section. “If I Was Your Woman” is a graceful Brazilian flavored ballad featuring a light samba groove and a passionate lead vocal by newly signed Peak Records recording artist Cassandra Reed. The next two tracks, “Tierra Del Fuego (Land of Fire)” and “Beautiful Walk” combine the styles and musical sensibilities of Barbieri and Russ Freeman. The first is a gospel laden funk-rocker featuring Freeman’s edgy electric lines and explosive soloing. The second is a radiant Brazilian flavored slow dance number, with Barbieri’s high note wailing complemented by Freeman’s elegant acoustic guitar. Ivan Lins’ “Ai Ai Ai Ai” is given a punchy, strutting Latin funk treatment (complete with anthemic vocals near the end), while “Bliss” cools the heat into a moodier vibe. “Para Todos (For Everyone)” is followed by the lush, late night sweetness of “Blue Habanera” and a medium tempo, neo-soul reworking of Barbieri’s classic “Last Tango.” The set closes with a Spanish language rendering of “If I Was Your Woman,” entitled “Si Tu Me Quisieras.”
Gato Barbieri called his 1999 release Che Corazon a “musical biography, nostalgic, about friends and family,” and he dedicates The Shadow of the Cat to his beloved mother, who passed away in 1991. In his liner notes, he writes, “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 rich in what he learned from her about life, love and music. She encouraged him to work with his hands and to play clarinet and alto sax, while his brother became a trumpet player. “She understood me and encouraged my musical dreams,” he says. “She was an incredible woman.”
Barbieri officially took up the clarinet at age 12 when he heard Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time,” and even as he continued private music lessons in Buenos Aires, he was playing his first professional gigs with Lalo Schifrin’s orchestra. “During that time, Juan Peron was in power,” he recalls. “We weren’t allowed to play all jazz, we had to include some traditional music, too. So we played tango and other things like carnavalito.” In Buenos Aires, Barbieri also had the opportunity to perform with visiting musicians like Cuban mambo king Perez Prado, Coleman Hawkins, Herbie Mann, Dizzy Gillespie, and João Gilberto.
Barbieri credits his learning of musical discipline to his years working with Don Cherry while living in Europe. While collaborating with Cherry in the mid-60s, the saxophonist also recorded with American expatriate Steve Lacy and South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, then known as Dollar Brand. Other associations during Barbieri’s free jazz days included time with Charlie Haden, Carla Bley and the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, as well as dates with Stanley Clarke, Airto Moreira, Chico O'Farrill and Lonnie Liston Smith. He had recorded a handful of albums on the Flying Dutchman label in the early 70s and then signed with Impulse where he recorded his classic Chapter Series Latin America, Hasta Siempre, Viva Emiliano Zapata and Alive in New York. While at Impulse, Last Tango hit, and by the mid-70s, his coarse, wailing tone began to mellow with ballads like “What a Difference a Day Makes” (known to Barbieri as the vintage bolero “Cuando Vuelva a tu Lado”) and Carlos Santana’s “Europa.” Many smooth jazz stations later adopted “Europa” as their theme song, indicative of the vibe of the “new” format, which launched in the late 80s.
Most of Barbieri’s A&M recordings of the late 70s --including the brisk selling 1976 opus Caliente!--featured this softer jazz approach, but early 80s dates like the live Gato…Para Los Amigos had a more intense, rock influenced South American sound.
After many years of musical inactivity due to the passing of his first wife Michelle (also his closest musical confidant) and his own triple bypass surgery six weeks later, Barbieri returned stronger than ever with the 1997 Columbia offering Que Pasa, the fourth highest selling Contemporary Jazz album of the year.
“It’s the melody,” he continually says. “The melody is the most important thing, and something I very much love. When I play the saxophone, I play life, I play love, I play anger, I play confusion, I play when people scream; all of these aspects of the world I inhabit become naturally important to me. 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.”