Jazz Traveler

Argentinean jazz legend Gato Barbieri's constant search for new sounds goes on

Although he's probably best known for the light jazz of the song "Europa," saxophonist Gato Barbieri's odyssey as a musician has taken him to nearly every corner of the world and brought him in contact with a host of musical giants. In the process, Barbieri has managed to carve a distinctive niche in modern jazz as an innovator and tireless exponent of stylistic exploration.

A native of Rosario, Argentina, Barbieri was born into a highly musical family. He was an impressionable 12-year-old when he first heard the music of jazz legends like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Absorbing the rich traditions of American jazz and his native Argentinean music, Barbieri began to develop his unique playing style. After performing with a number of big-band and dance outfits (including one with fellow countryman and film-score composer Lalo Schifrin), Barbieri switched from alto to tenor sax and began leading his own groups in the 1950s.

Moving to Rome in the early '60s, Barbieri worked with trumpeter Don Cherry, who had been a key collaborator to the free jazz innovations of Ornette Coleman. After playing with Cherry for several years, Barbieri became immersed in the avant-garde movement. Later moving to New York as part of Cherry's outfit, Barbieri would contribute to a pair of important improvisational albums for the Blue Note label.

As the free jazz movement began to wane in the early '70s, Barbieri started to seek his roots in Latin American music. It was during this period that he began recording a series of groundbreaking albums for Flying Dutchman's Third World imprint. Exploring the subtleties of Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music as well as the sounds of his own native Argentina, Barbieri's mid-'70s work was a progenitor for what was later to become known as World Music. During this period, Barbieri would begin to be sought out by filmmakers (most notably Bernardo Bertolucci for 1973's Last Tango in Paris) eager to utilize his evocative style in their pictures.

After completing the exhaustive four-volume series Latin America in 1975, Barbieri went down yet another musical path with his mid- and late-'70s recordings for A&M. Shunning the heavily percussive sounds he had been utilizing until then, Barbieri opted for a smoother sound epitomized by his signature reworking of Carlos Santana's "Europa."

Barbieri was absent from music for nearly a decade beginning in the late '80s due to the lengthy illness of his wife. After her death, he decided to record again, making a triumphant return with 1997's Que Pasa (on Columbia Records), which became both a critical and commercial hit. On his latest release, Che Corazon, Barbieri continues his lifelong exploration of geographically and culturally varied musical idioms.

While the album features eight original compositions (including the stirring balladry of "Seven Servants" and the Brazilian samba of "1812"), it's Barbieri's interpretation of the material of others that is most memorable. His versions of Marvin Gaye's "I Want You" (featuring vocalist Frank McComb) and the celebratory standard "Auld Lange Syne" capture the spirit of the originals without compromising the distinctiveness of his own brilliant touch.

Gato Barbieri is scheduled to perform on Thursday, July 22, at Red River Music Hall in Tempe. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.

Ladies Night: Last week's Go-Go's/Berlin/Lunachicks triple bill at the Celebrity Theatre was (for the most part) a thrilling affirmation that real "rock chicks"--both young and old--still have much to offer in a world dominated by folkish Lilith fairies.

New York's Lunachicks kicked off the evening with a brief but enjoyable performance. The crowd seemed somewhat taken aback by the group's cartoonish appearance and its music, which throws together everything from AC/DC to Suzi Quatro and a whole lot in between.

Berlin's set was predictably snoozy, as the group plowed through its requisite '80s hits as well as a handful of new songs. Berlin front woman Terri Nunn (who bore a striking resemblance to fellow aging songstress Nancy Sinatra) was in good voice, although her bandmates looked like refugees from some painfully chic L.A. watering hole.

The crowd seemed nonplussed by anything the group was able to muster until a midset run-through of its 1983 hit "The Metro"--nothing like a song about mass transit to get the kiddies going. Not surprisingly, the band waited until its final moments onstage to break out with "Take My Breath Away," the smash love theme from the thinly veiled homoerotic coming-of-age film Top Gun. The film's subtext was certainly lost on the ladies in the crowd, most of whom (including the overexcited Gap clerks sitting in front of me) gushed and sighed while they dreamily recalled Tom Cruise's diminutive figure.

Thankfully, the Go-Go's rescued the evening's faltering momentum with an inspired and ballsy performance. Entering the stage to the tune of Tom Jones' "She's a Lady," the group kicked off the set with an instrumental take on "Surfin' & Spyin'," at which point front woman Belinda Carlisle emerged wearing pink lounging pajamas and slippers (how very un-rock 'n' roll). While the attire managed to make her look like a wealthy hausfrau, Carlisle did score the night's most memorable line in reference to the Celebrity Theatre's revolving stage: "Now that we're rotating, you can see how big our butts really are. We're real happy about that."

Despite the self-deprecating barb, the Go-Go's were in surprisingly good form, both literally and musically. The rhythm section of Kathy Valentine and Gina Schock has only improved since the band's halcyon days (helped no doubt by the pair's tenure in the fem-blues band the Delphines). The musical and personal interplay between Carlisle and guitarist Jane Wiedlin was as entertaining as ever with the two taking playful shots at one another all night.

But the highlight of the evening (and I say this as an objective journalist and not as someone who's had a crush on her since I was in grade school) was the performance of lead guitarist Charlotte Caffey. The biting surf-punk tone that Caffey wrung from her Fender gave the songs a distinctive edge, while her choppy punk chords recalled the band's earliest roots.

Running through most of the obvious choices from their early-'80s catalogue, the group dug out a few rare nuggets, including the Wiedlin-penned "Fun With Ropes." But the crowd came to hear the hits, and they didn't go away disappointed. Rousing versions of "Our Lips Are Sealed" and "We Got the Beat" were played with more vitality and spark than a dozen '80s bands on a nostalgia trip could muster.

More than anything, the Go-Go's performance showed that they're still capable of crafting the kind of pure sonic confection that made them equally loved by mainstream audiences and pop diehards. As a fellow New Times contributor (and one who is much more jaded and cynical than I) commented, "There was a moment during 'Vacation' where it completely crystallized why I love pop music."

Christmas in July: Last week, United Cerebral Palsy of Central Arizona held its annual Merry Arizona search at the Celebrity Theatre. Glendale's Reigning Mercy came out on top as both the People's Choice Award winner and the Desert Star Contest winner. Swaying voters with its a cappella version of "Amazing Grace," the group beat out a diverse field of competitors that included Satellite front man Stephen Ashbrook.

As part of their victory, Reigning Mercy will have one of their songs included on the annual Merry Arizona CD, as well as a slot performing at the disc's record-release party. The Merry Arizona project has raised more than half a million dollars in the past four years to benefit UCP of Central Arizona. In addition to aiding those with cerebral palsy, the organization also serves children and adults with various disabilities.

Former Merry Arizona participants have included Charlie Daniels, Nils Lofgren and the Pistoleros, among others. The CD will be available beginning in November.

--Bob Mehr

Contact Bob Mehr at his online address: bmehr@newtimes.com

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