Saturday, July 24, 2010

Gato Barbieri: Latin America: Chapter 1 (1973)

Gato Barbieri is one of the unsung heroes of late twentieth century music. If you've heard of him, it's probably through the credits of Last Tango in Paris (1973), that faux-arthouse spank film that Marlon Brando did in the immediate wake of The Godfather. Gato wrote the award-winning soundtrack for the movie, and this was probably the most valuable and enduring thing about it. If you watch the film and are sufficiently enchanted by the music, you might even hit up and search for Gato in the website's music section. The first two results that will come up are a "Best of Gato Barbieri" disc with an outrageously tacky photo of Gato on its cover, along with an album called Caliente that he recorded in the late seventies. Here's the thing: Caliente, while a good and fine album, doesn't represent Gato at his best--not even close; and that "Best Of" collection is filled with tunes culled from the latter portion of Gato's career, after he'd jumped the proverbial shark. You'd hardly gather from the reviews, however, that there was anything lacking about either of these discs; most customers are veritably slobbering over them.

If you want to hear Gato at his feral, manic best, you'll need to backpedal a few years to the early seventies, when he scaled a towering Alp of creative vision that most other musicians can only dream of. An Argentinian born in 1934, presumably he came of age imbibing the sounds of middle and late Coltrane, those impassioned ebullitions of sound that distilled, in their own way, the fury and determination of the Civil Rights movement. "When 'Trane died," said one of Coltrane's contemporaries whose name I can't remember, and whose exact words I'm struggling to quote from memory, "it was like he left a giant crater in his wake. We all felt a little empty and lost." A number of saxophonists, all of them touched by Coltrane in some way, quickly rallied to fill that crater. The best of these, perhaps, were Pharaoh Sanders, Wayne Shorter, the underrated Gary Ba
rtz, and Gato. To be sure, distinct echoes of A Love Supreme and Crescent can be found in Gato's best work: the daring harmonic experimentation, the famous "cascades of sound" approach. But what makes albums like Bolivia, El Pampero, Fenix, and the four-chapter Latin America series tick, it seems, is their cunning synthesis of North American jazz harmonies with the indigenous folk rhythms of Gato's native South America. (Check out, for example, the second movement of the stunning four-part suite "La China Leoncia".) Underneath the deranged Orphic probings of "Encuentros," "India," and especially "La China," one senses the presence of something really profound: vast swathes of rhythmic and melodic tradition, the accumulation of centuries, which Gato was frantically seeking to excavate, commit to vinyl, and preserve for all time. The fact that he recruited a group of session men exclusively from Argentina, and cut the record in Buenos Aires, further hints that he was attempting something like a sonic panorama of his native continent, insofar as such a thing is possible; whether he succeeded, you can of course decide for yourself. What is beyond debate is that Latin America: Chapter 1 and its three successors represent one of the most frenzied, original projects of 1970s music.

Whatever it was that Gato had tapped into by this point--and it was something truly special--it may have been too much for him to contain. By the second half of the seventies, he had signed with a different record label (A&M, and later Sony, Columbia, and CBS) and was recording the comparatively innocuous stuff found on
The Best of Gato Barbieri. Thankfully, though, by this point he had already left behind a string of albums that testify to his astonishing gifts, and that we can only listen to in rapt wonder, even disbelief, marveling that we have never heard of him.

Latin America: Chapter 1

1. Encuentros (12:29)
2. India (8:58)
3. La China Leoncia Arreo Correntinada Trajo Entre la Muchachada la Flor de la Juventud (13:30)
4. Nunca Mas (5:27)
5. To Be Continued (2:26)

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