The phrase "muscular" is frequently used in musical criticism to describe a musician’s attack or forceful nature in the playing of their instrument. Pharaoh Sanders or McCoy Tyner might be described thusly. No one comes close to wielding their instrument with such passionate ferocity, however, as one Leandro ‘Gato’ Barbieri, the powerful Argentina-born tenor saxophonist responsible for these two classic recordings. Bolivia
, originally released in 1973 and Under Fire
, published two years previously, first saw light of day on the Flying Dutchman label. Both are extraordinary recordings. Each is given half the space of this 10-song delight.
Gato, the cat, is joined on the songs from Bolivia
by Lonnie Liston Smith (acoustic and electric piano), John Abercrombie (electric and acoustic guitar), Stanley Clarke or Jean-Francois Jenny-Clark (bass), Airto Moreira, Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie or Roy Haynes (drums), M’tume, Gene Golden and/or Moulay Ali Hafid (percussion). Each player brings fire to the session, though Barbieri ignites the set with his undeniably muscular lines on his opening volcanic "Merceditas". This is followed by the understated "Eclypse/Michellina," on which Smith offers a beautifully rhythmic and tender intro that Gato follows with a hard blowing tenderness of his own. Here he combines a traditional Latin American folk tune with the adventurous blowing that was first introduced to jazz audiences while in the Don Cherry band of the mid 1960s. This was music that he would call Latin Third World. The title piece is as steeped in Latin tradition as in various permutations of electric and acoustic jazz. Fusion of the highest level. Over agile percussion and rhythmic accompaniment, Barbieri blows a beautiful bolero line that is heart achingly beautiful, while still powerful . On "Ninos" following a brisk bongo, bass and percussive opening, Barbieri breaks into stratospheric playing that remains rooted. He remains ever adventurous here, while wholly accessible. That was the secret to this being one of the most popular recordings of his career. On the final "Vidala Triste," with hand claps in the mix and juxtaposed against Abercrombie’s acoustic guitar, Gato plays wonderful flute and sings. It is an extraordinary moment on the recording, being the most representative folk element.
Opening the Under Fire
segment of the program is "El Parana," on which Abercrombie and Clarke set up an inconspicuous platform over which Barbieri blows with an understated intensity. An extended Smith solo is riveting, with Clarke and Haynes especially hard at work on the bottom. For "Yo Le Canto a la Luna," on which Gato’s vocals remind of Gilberto’s, the melody is played atop a fiery percussion spearheaded by Airto. Abercrombie’s acoustic guitar works well against Gato’s relatively brief sax work. On the following "Antonica," it is again Abercrombie’s acoustic, in tandem with electric piano, that intros the dually tracked saxophone choir. Another highlight in a program that excites throughout. The following Jorge Ben-penned ""Maria Domingas" is a Carnival piece that may best represent the album’s title. This is fiery with references to tradition and the emerging fusion style of the era. Finally, the closing "El Sertao," with a piano intro that reminds of Joe Zawinul and a texture that reminds of early Return to Forever, puts the master saxophonist’s tone on display. He was more than merely a hard blower. That doesn’t require any particular skill, only strong lungs. Gato has always been about inflection, finesse, texture and emotion. The combination of these two masterpieces on one disc is a treat for those of us who may have forgotten just how amazing Gato Barbieri was in his prime. Though some would argue he continued to grow and become even more amazing, for me this was the apotheosis.