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 enduring career has covered virtually the entire jazz landscape, from free jazz with trumpeter Don Cherry and avant-garde in the mid-’60s, to film scoring and his ultimate embrace of Latin music throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Barbieri began playing tenor saxophone 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 (1965) and Symphony for Improvisers (1966), both of which are considered classics of free group improvisation. He also collaborated with Steve Lacy, Abdullah Ibrahim, Charlie Haden, Carla Bley and the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, Stanley Clarke, Airto Moreira, Chico O’Farrell, and Lonnie Liston Smith during this period.
Barbieri recorded a handful of albums on the Flying Dutchman label in the early ’70s and then signed with the Impulse imprint, where he recorded his classic Chapter Series: Latin America (1973), Hasta Siempre (1973), Viva Emiliano Zapata (1974), and Alive in New York (1975). While at Impulse, he also composed the Grammy-winning score for the film Last Tango in Paris (1972) – an achievement he parlayed into success as a film composer, scoring a dozen international films over the years in Europe, South America, and the U.S. By the mid-’70s, Barbieri’s coarse, wailing tone began to mellow, a change evident on his ’70s A&M recordings. However, early ’80s dates like the live Gato … Para Los Amigos (1984) saw the saxophonist reclaim a more intense, rock-influenced South American sound.
After many years of limited musical activity due to the passing of his first wife Michelle (also his closest musical confidant and manager) 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 that year. Since that reemergence, he has continued to release albums, including The Shadow of the Cat (2002), which won Billboard’s prestigious 2003 Latin Jazz Album of the Year award and garnered a Grammy nomination, and New York Meeting (2010), his latest release.