Gato Barbieri, a fiery tenor saxophonist born in Argentina whose Latin-jazz approach on albums and in film could stir up moods ranging from steamy seduction to frenzied passion, died on April 2. He was 83.
Influenced by the spiritual free-jazz of John Coltrane and Coltrane's disciples in the 1960s and hard-charging abandon of Sonny Rollins in the 1970s, Barbieri nearly always thought in cinematic terms. He routinely created works of seemingly open-ended attack and desire that was rife with imagery of the wild.
Despite reaching the heights of fame with his compositions for Last Tango in Paris, a masterpiece of tango-influenced jazz arranged and conducted by Oliver Nelson, Barbieri was never able to leverage his initial success in the States. Part of the reason for this may have been his one-track aesthetic. While the sound of his saxophone was distinct, his flinty attack and sizzling vibrato could seem repetitive and grating over long periods. The other part were his priorities, which didn't include traditional notions of American success—relentless film work, Christmas albums and a home in Bel Air. For Barbieri, family was everything, a joy that was stolen away when his wife (who was also his manager) endured a long illness that began in the early 1980s and ended with her death in 1995. A long-time New York resident, Barbieri withdrew from his relentless performing schedule, resurfacing in 2002.
Barbieri's music is perhaps most reminiscent of the jazz fusion era of the 1970s, when the late-night sound of his heat-seeking horn and extended improvisation were in vogue. His passion will be missed.