Cult Classic: Gato Barbieri-Fenix.

When Bob Thiele founded Flying Dutchman Records, he was a man with a vision. His vision was for his nascent label to release music that was cutting-edge, innovative and pushed musical boundaries. To do that, he signed some of the most progressive artists. Bob Thiele was looking for leaders, rather than followers and wanted musicians that started trends, rather than blindly followed them. That’s what he got. 

For the next few years, Flying Dutchman Records was home to musical visionaries like Gil-Scott Heron, Leon Thomas, Big Joe Turner, Teresa Brewer and Ornette Coleman. Another artist who called Flying Dutchman Records home, was Argentine tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri. His Flying Dutchman Records’ debut was his 1971 album Fenix, which showcased the rhythmic delights of the Argentinian showman Gato Barbieri.

Born in Rosaria, in the Santa Fe province of Argentina, Gato Barbieri was born into a family of musicians. With both parents talented musicians, fate dictated that Gato would follow in their footsteps. Like many other jazz musicians, Gato learnt the clarinet. He spent five years mastering the clarinet, alto saxophone and learning to write music. Ironically, the clarinet was just a gateway to the more glamorous saxophone. Especially when played by Bird.

Hearing Charlie Parker blow his saxophone was like a eureka moment. Now life and music made sense. Gato was a late starter when he switched from clarinet to tenor saxophone. He was already twenty and by then, other musicians were already playing professionally. However, these other musicians weren’t as determined as Gato. 

For the next few years, determinedly, Gato set about mastering the tenor saxophone. It was all about honing his own unique sound. The one advantage Gato had, was he could already play the alto saxophone and could read and write music. His determination paid off. Soon, Gato was a member of legendary Argentinian pianist Lalo Schifrin’s band. That proved to be a stepping stone for Gato.

Soon, Gato headed for America. It was not just the land of the free, but the home of jazz. The time Gato spent here allowed him to be fluently play what he referred to as American jazz. What he meant by that, was it was what American musicians perceived as jazz. Jazz in South America or Europe was different. The jazz he played in America was “American” jazz. There was acknowledgment of South American, African or European influences. Having tasted American jazz, Gato headed to Europe.

After traveling around Europe, Gato landed in Rome. He decided that would his home for some time. During his stay in Rome, he came across a number of jazz musicians. Many of them had left America and called Europe home. This included a number of pioneers of free jazz. Among them, was Don Cherry, who was a member of the legendary Ornette Coleman’s band. Soon, ge was a member of Don Cherry’s band and played on the sessions for his 1966 albums Symphony For Improvisers and Complete Communion, which are perceived as two of the most important free jazz albums. This was the start of Gato’s career as a musician.

The following year, Gato released his first album as bandleader. In Search Of Mystery, which was released in 1967, was the first album from The Gato Barbieri Quartet. Gato also recorded Obsession in 1967, which wasn’t released until later. Until then, Gato was busy working as a sideman and bandleader.

During 1968, Gato was a member of The Jazz Composers Orchestra. He played on their eponymous 1968 album. Innovative and groundbreaking, it took free jazz to another level. So did The Gary Burton Quartet’s 1968 album A Genuine Tong Funeral. The other album Gato played on during 1968, was Hamba Khale with Dollar Brand. As a jazz duo, they proved the perfect foil for each other. Working with different, progressive and talented artists helped improve and hone Gato’s playing. 

Through 1969, Gato continued playing on other artists albums. He played on Alan Shorter’s free jazz album Orgasm. Then Gato released The Third World. It was well received and helped spread the word about Gato’s potent, fiery playing. As the sixties ended, and the seventies dawned, Gato’s reputation was growing.

As the seventies dawned, played on Charlie Haden’s 1970 album Liberation Music Orchestra. That was the first album of the new decade he’d played on. It certainly wouldn’t be the last. The seventies would proved to be both busy and fruitful for Gato Barbieri.

In 1971, Gato released two albums. The first was Fenix, which was released on Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Records. Fenix features six tracks, including Tupac Amaru and Carnavalito which Gato wrote. Gerardo Pereira wrote Falsa Bahiana, while Carlos Gardel and Alfredo Lepera cowrote El Dia Que Me Quieras. The other tracks on Fenix are El Arriero which Atahaualpa Yupalqul contributed El and Bahia which was written by Ary Barroso. These six tracks were recorded by a band featuring several jazz greats.

At Atlantic Recording Studios, New York, the band included a rhythm section of drummer Lennie White III, Ron Carter on electric bass and Joe Beck on electric guitar. Percussion came courtesy of Na Na, who added congas and birimbau, while Gene Golden contributed congas and bongos. Lonnie Liston Smith played piano and electric piano. Gato unleashed his fiery tenor saxophone, while Bob Thiele produced Fenix.

On the release of Fenix, critics welcomed the meeting of Latin rhythms and the energy, passion and ferocity of free jazz. An unlikely pairing, it worked. Ying and yang springs to mind. With an all-star band, featuring some of the most inventive and adventurous musicians, Gato Barbieri had released the best album of his career so far, Fenix.

Opening Fenix is Tupac Amaru the first of two consecutive tracks Gato wrote. Against a glorious rhythm backdrop, guitars reverberate, while flourishes of wistful piano probe a series of questions. Above the arrangement sits Gato’s growling saxophone. Played with power, passion and commitment, he never misses a beat. Enthralling, compelling and breathtaking describes his playing. This spurs on the band who create a series of Latin rhythms.  A pulsating bass line, which carries the melody. It’s crucial to the song’s success. As the drama builds, the arrangement gets busier. Free jazz and mesmeric rhythmic magic become one, thanks to Gato Barbieri.

Carnavalito sees Gato and his all-star band head into a groove. A pondering, then pulsaating bass gives way to searing guitars, a myriad of percussion and stabs of piano. As they settle into a groove, Gato unleashes a series of scorching, blazing saxophone solos. His fiery licks sit above the mass of congas and bongos that add a Latin influence. As for the piano, it’s locked into the tightest of grooves. Eventually, it escapes, matching Gato every step of the way. Lonnie Liston Smith’s piano dance’s above the arrangement, where it joins Gato’s saxophone. Soon, there’s no holding Gato and soon, he’s showboating. Unleashing a mesmeric solo, it’s no wonder that after Fenix’s release, he was seen as the future of jazz. Going by the glorious Carnavalito, that’s no surprise.

Falsa Bahiana sees the tempo drop, and is reminiscent of a track from a Lonnie Liston Smith album. Percussion joins the melancholy sound of the electric piano. They provide an understated, thoughtful backdrop for Gato’s fiery saxophone solo. Here, it’s as if he’s blowing as if his life depended on it. Power, passion and raw emotion are combined. It’s akin to a baring of the soul. Melodic, melancholy, impassioned and rhythmic, what more can one ask for?

El Dia Que Me Quieras is an oft-covered track. Seen as the centre-piece of Fenix, it’s as if the drama builds and gets ready to explode. Flourishes of piano, shakers and a bubbling electric bass provide the backdrop for Gato’s beautiful, dramatic and flamboyant playing. Lonnie Liston Smith’s piano and Gato’s tenor saxophone play leading roles. As Ron Carter’s bubbling bass, it plays an important role. It might not play a leading role, but if it weren’t there, would be sorely missed. The same can be said of the percussion. Essentially, although Gato and Lonnie play starring roles, everyone plays their part during this six-minute opus.

El Arriero is a jaunty track that breezes along. Lonnie Liston Smith’s piano is at the heart of the action, with the band playing around him. Above the arrangement Lonnie kicks loose. One minute he’s playing within himself, the next it’s as if his life depended upon his performance. Somehow, he takes his saxophone to places it’s never been before. Using controlled power plus equal measures of emotion and passion, he drives the band along. He encourages and harries. They respond, squeezing every last ounce of effort to satisfy his demands. Ron Carter’s bass helps march the arrangement along, while Lonnie draws inspiration from jazz’s past. Drummer Lennie White III is using the whole kit, punishing the cymbals. Their collective efforts are rewarded. The result is a creative, innovative and scintillating, fusion of traditional jazz, free jazz and Latin music.

Bahia which closes Fenix, wah-wahs into being. Experimental and revolutionary, describes the music. You wonder what’s about to unfold? When a sultry saxophone and Lonnie’s piano combine with a myriad of percussion and probing bass, it’s not the outlandish, left-field jazz I was expecting. It’s still inventive and innovative though. Melodic and dramatic too. Having settled into a groove, the band explore it to its fullest. Then when they’re let of the leash, hi-hats hiss, the piano dances and the bass pulsates. As for Gato, he takes centre-stage unleashing another blistering, breathtaking solo from the man they call The Cat. Melodic, dramatic and spellbinding, that’s just a few of the words to described Bahia.

Thirty-nine minutes long and featuring just six tracks, Fenix was Gato Barbieri’s breakthrough album. Suddenly, he arrived. No longer was he just a contender. From sideman, he comfortably assumed the role of bandleader on Fenix. He did what a good bandleader does, and inspire those around him. He drove them on to greater heights. Gato was an inspirational leader, one who could command the respect of his band members. These weren’t just any musicians. No. They were some of the best jazz musicians of that era. This included one of jazz’s best rhythm sections and some of the most talented percussionists. Being able to inspire and command their respect wouldn’t be easy. To do that, took a musician that was inventive, innovative and influential which describes Gato Barbieri.

Throughout Fenix, Gato combined the energy of free jazz and his Latin heritage. The rhythm delights of Latin music was like ying to the yang of free jazz’s ferocity and energy. It was an unlikely, but successful, melodic and rhythmic success. Fenix was critically acclaimed. Gato Barbieri and his all-star band had won friends and influenced critics on Fenix, which showcased one free jazz’s mavericks at the height of his creative powers.

Indeed, on Fenix Gato Barbieri rewrote the rulebook. His playing style was unique, fierce, blazing and dramatic. Gone is the image of the stereotypical saxophonist. Gato Barbieri is more like a gunslinger than traditional jazz saxophonist. He’s like jazz music’s answer to James Dean. Playing with his inimitable style, this musical maverick and rebel got results. Fenix proves that. Gato Barbieri musical maverick and gunslinger comes alive during Fenix, playing as if his very life depended upon it. Playing with power, passion and emotion, Gato Barbieri rewrote the musical rulebook on Fenix, a rhythmic free jazz opus that launched his career. 

Cult Classic: Gato Barbieri-Fenix.

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