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At 67, Sax Man Enters New Phase of Life

Jazz* Gato Barbieri has remarried and relaunched his career after losing his first wife and surviving his own serious illness.


"Now, I am in the best moment of life," says tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri from his home in New York as his 4-year-old son, Christian, scampers noisily in the background.

It's not just the pleasure of being a father at 67 but the survival it symbolizes that bolsters Barbieri's spirits. In 1995, such a prospect seemed unthinkable for the Argentina-born jazzman. Michelle, his wife of 35 years and his manager and musical confidant, succumbed to cancer she had battled for more than a decade; during that time, Barbieri pretty much stopped recording and touring to care for her.

Back at work soon after her death, Barbieri stepped off the stage in Washington suffering from chest pains; the next morning he was at George Washington University Hospital undergoing triple-bypass heart surgery.

Yet, just four months later, Barbieri was back on stage in Washington with his customary signatures: the flowing scarf and fedora outfit, the multifaceted repertoire and the robust tenor and bracingly wide-open, emotionally charged sound.

Part of the credit goes to the physical therapist he ended up marrying. "When I started to play again, Laura showed me many things to do to have that kind of energy, because it is not easy, this triple bypass," Barbieri says. "She helped me a lot."

So did some surgery on his saxophone. Early in his career, Barbieri had grafted the neck of a Selmer onto the body of a Conn saxophone, the smaller neck increasing the airflow and allowing Barbieri to blow hard with a very soft No. 1 reed.

The original impetus was superstition: Saxophones were hard to come by in Argentina in the '50s and, Barbieri once noted, you had to wait for someone to die before you could get one, at which point you fashioned your own mouthpiece so as not to blow through a dead man's mouthpiece.

That's when Barbieri first developed the distinctive sound and timbre that continue to transfix audiences around the world.

But that original saxophone was lost while Barbieri was touring in Europe late last year, necessitating another Conn/Selmer merger. "I destroy and I fix," Barbieri says of the process. "Now I have the same sound I have so many years ago and I am so happy because I blow much better. Same with the music--I destroy a little and then I fix it in some way."

Born Leandro, he picked up his nickname, El Gato (the Cat), early on, and he's been the Cat with many hats from the start. Fifty years after first making his mark in Buenos Aires playing with Lalo Schifrin's big band, Barbieri embodies a constant transcendence of borders and the cross-fertilization of musical genres.

That process started in Schifrin's band, which in the early '50s explored both big-band swing and bebop, which Barbieri was drawn to after falling in love with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

But a directive from Argentina's dictator, Juan Peron, forced Schifrin's band to devote half of its repertoire to traditional music.

"So I have to play tango, malambo, chacarera, carnavalito," Barbieri says. Yet when Barbieri and Michelle moved to Rome in the early '60s, he fell headlong into the free jazz movement, playing with Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman.

By the end of that decade, Barbieri had abandoned the avant-garde, reconnecting to his roots and cultural heritage. He featured folkloric melodies, rhythms and instruments on such groundbreaking albums as "The Third World" and "Bolivia," as well as the four-part "Chapter" series, which focused on different regions of Latin America. All this predated the world music boom by a decade.

"I don't make salsa, which is a fruit salad," Barbieri says of the vanguard fusion of jazz freedom, pop accessibility and folkloric roots. His music, he adds, was "not a little Latin, a little jazz--it was in between and this I did in 1969." An Argentine film director had set the process in motion, telling Barbieri "You are Latin, you have to pick up the things that belong to you and do it."

And, according to Barbieri, his counselor added, "You have many options to play folkloric music, but you have to change things. And you have to do it naturally--it never is good when you copy, you have to become natural at it." Which is how the coarse, wailing sound and strident tone of bebop and beyond melded so comfortably with folkloric idioms, including tango.

In fact, it was Barbieri's sensuous soundtrack for Bernardo Bertolucci's sexually provocative "Last Tango in Paris" that elevated him to international stardom in 1972. He'd worked with Bertolucci and another Italian director, Pier Pasolini, before writing and performing the score for the controversial "Last Tango," which earned Barbieri a Grammy for best instrumental composition.

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