My Afternoon with Gato Barbieri in 1977

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Latin jazz saxophonist Leandro Gato” Barbieri passed away recently at 83. When I heard the news, I rummaged through my old tapes and pulled out a cassette of my interview with him, which I did in a noisy room at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1977.

I love Gato Barbieri and have most of his albums in my music collection. Under Fire and Fenix are terrific, as is his soundtrack for the x-rated Bertolucci film Last Tango in Paris, starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider…a film that gave new meaning to the uses of butter.

Gato (born 1932, Rosario, Santa Fe, Argentina) had a strong tenor sound: he once said that when he screams with his sax, it’s “because the music needs screaming.” His sound was crunchy not creamy, and instantly recognizable. Gato scurried and pounced like a cat from club to club when he first got to Buenos Aires, two hundred miles from his old riverside home in Rosario, Argentina; that’s how he got his nickname.

In 1977, Gato was in Los Angeles for a gig at the Roxy on Sunset, on the heels of Ruby Ruby, an album released that year. Listening to this ancient cassette recording of our conversation, it sounds like there are two tiny tap dancers inside the room with us, probably because the tape is so old and stretched. Gato tries to answer my questions in English, but also gets lots of help from his (then) wife Michelle, who died in 1995. Cigarettes are lit, the phone rings with the long “dring, dring” sound now imitated by cell phones, a waiter brings in drinks, and you hear the sound of spoons stirring the libations. The sound is so noisy that the tape would need a facelift to be of broadcast quality, so I’ll recap some of our conversation here instead.

I asked Gato if music producers and executives ever tried to force him to have a “caliente” approach to making records–that was the name of his 1976 album that branded him as a hot latin saxman. If he wanted to do a quiet album, a meditative one, would they pressure him not to because that would depart from the Latin stereotype, the “caliente sound”?

He answered by saying his biggest problem was taxes. (Maybe something was lost in translation?)

What projects would he want to do that he hadn’t done already? He told me he wanted to play with Marvin Gaye, and with Brazilian superstar Jorge Ben. He told me how much he loved Miles Davis’ soundtrack for l’Ascenseur Pour l’Échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold), Davis’ music for the first Louis Malle film from 1957. He said he loved Coltrane from the Blue Note album Blue Train, but not so much Coltrane’s playing on the far-more popular album Kind of Blue.

I asked Michelle what is the hardest thing and the best thing about being married to an international artist. She responded by saying the best thing was to be with an artist who was now famous, because he wasn’t when she first met him.

His favorite way to spend a day in New York City? To take a leisurely bike ride.

Did they ever wish they had the quiet life of being school teachers in a small town? No, Michelle said, but relaxing on an island in the Caribbean would be nice. Rest in peace, Gato. Hope you are relaxing somewhere with Michelle.

Here is a video from 1977 of Gato blowing with Carlos Santana on the song “Europa.” Barbieri is wearing, as always, his trademark fedora:

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