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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND : Storied saxophonist of many
moods and more albums is seizing music to aid his recovery
from bypass surgery and his wife's death. | SOUNDS

Love of Jazz Helps Musician in Trying Times

February 15, 1996|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: Josef Woodard is an avowed cultural omnivore who covers art and music

When you hear the name Gato Barbieri, two reasonable questions are liable to pop up: Who is he, really? And where has he been?

Now 61, the Argentina-born tenor saxophonist, known for passion-on-the-sleeve and a volcanic tone, has been a worldly figure--known to us on a first-name basis--for more than two decades. Yet he has also been an elusive persona, circulating on the outskirts of the jazz scene.

Although his jazz reputation began in the '60s playing with left-of-center players such as Don Cherry and Mike Mantler, Barbieri made his first sizable public splash with his moody, romantic theme for Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris" and went on to record popular Latin-jazzy albums for Herb Alpert's A & M label in the '70s. Simple Latin-inflected tunes like "Fiesta" and "Europa," from his 1976 album "Caliente," struck a chord with audiences who shied away from more cerebral jazz.

Barbieri continued recording for various small labels, but by the late '80s had gradually slipped out of circulation. When he plays at El Paseo in Santa Barbara tonight, it will be the first time he has been to town in seven years.

In the interim, Barbieri has been through trying times. His wife of 35 years, Michelle, died of complications related to cancer a year ago, and a month later Barbieri had triple bypass surgery.

After a period of recovery, Barbieri speaks now like a man reborn. "I'm starting to have something like a new life," the normally press-shy Barbieri said recently from his home in New York. "I have a lot of ideas. I'm going back into it."

But it has been a dark transition into the light. "Michelle was sick," he recalled, "and, in seven months, she went. I suffered a lot. I took care of her and didn't play too much. I knew Michelle was very ill and she knew, too, and we tried to not say things in front of her. I would say, unconsciously, I have this pain and maybe it's the end. The death of Michelle happened so fast, and one month later, I had this operation.

"But I am a fighter, and I love playing. I think that's the only thing that keeps me alive. I enjoy it and have a beautiful new group of musicians. They love me very much, and I try to make it some kind of family."

At the time of this interview, Barbieri had just finished the score for the film "The Seven Servants," a German-U.S. production starring Anthony Quinn, and recently played at Manhattan's upscale Tavern on the Green. In addition to the 35 albums he has recorded in 40 years, Barbieri has done a lot of film scoring, before and after "Last Tango."

But the live arena is an almost sacred rite, particularly for a musician so acutely tethered to the electricity of the moment.

"I love to play live," he said. "I always say that when you play to a film you have to play to an image. You play differently. You can't just blow. You have to create something with what is happening on the screen. When you play for a record, you play different. You have to be a bit controlled. When you play live, you play live. I enjoy that very much."

Born in Rosario, Argentina, in 1934, Barbieri started playing clarinet after hearing Charlie Parker, which set him apart from his musician peers. "I was 12 or 13 and listened to bebop for the first time. It was so perfect. I was young and impressionable, listening to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Monk.

"In my country, musicians analyze too much. These people didn't understand. I left Argentina in 1962 and went to Europe. There, one day, I met Don Cherry and he came to see me with Sonny Rollins. I started to play with Don. For me it was very strange at the beginning, but in the end, it was fantastic."

It was the recently deceased trumpeter Cherry who brought Barbieri to New York in 1965, and with whom Barbieri recorded his poetic album "Complete Communion" for Blue Note. What could be termed the avant-garde period of Barbieri's career is often overshadowed by his more commercial music of the '70s.

To him, it's all part of a broad personal musical tapestry. "I tell you, I've done many things in my life. I've played with Cuban musicians, with Brazilian musicians. I played jazz in Buenos Aires, but that was in Juan Peron's era. One day he decided that musicians had to play 50% Argentine music. We had to play 50% jazz and the other 50% tango, carnivalito, music with some kind of Argentine rhythm.

"But I never grumbled about doing this. If you are clever or intelligent, you always learn when you're playing music, whether you're playing with good musicians, bad musicians. I learned all these things and put them in my mind, until one day, I did the 'Third World' and 'Phoenix' albums and had these memories of playing all this music. The sequence from album to another album was like a trip around South America."

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