Gato Barbieri (1932-2016)
A- ‘The Cat’
Gato Barbieri, a jazz saxophonist and composer whose career spanned seven decades, died of pneumonia at a New York hospital on Saturday, April 2, 2016. He was 83.
Mr. Barbieri was born Leandro in Rosario, Argentina and earned the nickname Gato (‘the cat’) during his youth in Buenos Aires, a name that was as distinctive as the jazz icon to whom it was attached. He grew up in a family for which music was an essential part of life, and most of his family members were musicians themselves.
Playing alto sax in the orchestra of Lalo Schifrin, the great pianist and composer and a fellow Argentinian, Mr. Barbieri gained national fame, and in the early 1960s, he started playing with his own groups. In that era, he was splitting his time between Rome and New York. His wife Michelle, a native Italian, managed his career while simultaneously acting as Bernardo Bertolucci’s assistant on his early films. This association that would prove beneficial to Mr. Barbieri, whose name recognition went worldwide after he composed the unforgettable score for Bertolucci’s 1972 film Last Tango in Paris with Marlon Brando. The film garnered two Academy Awards and Mr. Barbieri ultimately won a Grammy Award for this marvelous score.
Mr. Barbieri’s mastery was in incorporating South American melodies, rhythms and harmonies into contemporary jazz, creating a characteristic sound for his tenor sax that became his own style. His sound is romantic, passionate, cool, and mystical, with an underlying sense of sadness. He released more than 40 albums, and his awards included the UNICEF Award at the Argentinean Consulate in 2009 and a Latin Grammy lifetime achievement award.
B- Gato, Michelle and I
Gato was a lovable, sweet and quiet person, rarely seen without his signature black hat and scarf. I first met him and his first wife Michelle in the early 1980s in New York, and spent many hours enjoying their company and sharing and discussing good films. Michelle was a cineaste and had many stories to tell about her time working for the maestro Bertolucci. After the publication of my book, Iranian Cinema, by New York University, Michelle and I began to discuss writing a book together. Her experiences and my tremendous interest made Bertolucci a natural choice. After working on this project for a few years in the early 1990s, Michelle was diagnosed with cancer, passing away in 1995. Gato asked me to deliver the eulogy in New York at a ceremony attended by many distinguished musicians and filmmakers, including Bertolucci who came from Rome and whom I had had the pleasure of getting to know during the time spent working on the book.
C- Two Productions
In 1993, when Amir Naderi was working on his first American film, Manhattan by Numbers, he originally had planned to present the film with no music. After much discussion, he eventually changed his mind, and as an executive producer of the film, I asked if he wanted me to bring Gato in to write and perform the score. Naderi agreed without hesitation. Although it had been a long time since Gato had composed any film music, he graciously accepted. He would not accept a fee for his work, asking only that I pay for the musicians and recording studio. The score that resulted added a magnificent dimension to our film, an element that caught the notice of all the critics, including Vincent Canby of the New York Times. It cost me an extra fifty thousand dollars to get it done, but I remain especially proud of that decision. A behind-the-scenes recording of his score is available as an extra on the Manhattan by Numbers DVD.
Three years later, when I produced Seven Servants, directed by Daryush Shokof and starring the master Anthony Quinn, I asked Gato to do another score for me, arranging a meeting between him and Mr. Quinn at a restaurant in New York to discuss the music. The result was another wonderful set of pieces that pleased everyone who heard it.
When Seven Servants was selected for the Thessaloniki Film Festival in 1996, the festival organizers asked me to bring Gato and his band to the festival for a one-night concert. Despite the fact that, owing to scheduling, he and his band would have to come to Greece, perform that one night and then return to the States the very next morning, Gato agreed to do me this unforgettable favor, one more thing for which I owe him greatly.
Manhattan by Numbers and Seven Servants are both available on DVD from Pathfinder Home Entertainment, and his music scores can be purchased on CD from Sony.
It is with a broken heart that I express my sincere condolences to his beloved wife Lora and his son Christian, who lost his father on the evening of his birthday. Thankfully, the love and the beautiful music for which this ‘cat’ was so justly celebrated will be with us always.
-Bahman Maghsoudlou, New York, April 3, 2016