Leandro “Gato” Barbieri, the influential Latin jazz bandleader and saxophonist best known for his Grammy-winning score to the film Last Tango in Paris, died Saturday at a New York hospital following a bout with pneumonia. He was 83. Barbieri’s wife Laura confirmed her husband’s death to The Associated Press, adding that he also recently underwent bypass surgery to remove a blood clot.
“Music was a mystery to Gato, and each time he played was a new experience for him, and he wanted it to be that way for his audience. He was honored for all the years he had a chance to bring his music all around the world,” Laura Barbieri said. In 2015, Barbieri was awarded a Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his musical contributions.
Born in Argentina in 1932, Barbieri broke into the American jazz world as part of fellow Argentine Lalo Schifrin’s orchestra before immersing himself in the free jazz movement pioneered by Ornette Coleman; in the late Sixties, Barbieri worked primarily in the quartet led by trumpeter Don Cherry, another Coleman disciple.
In the Seventies, Barbieri shifted his sound toward the Latin jazz previously mined by Charlie Parker, the jazz great who first inspired Barbieri to learn his instrument, as well as the native music of his South American roots. That blending of styles led director Bernardo Bertolucci to recruit Barbieri to compose the score for his controversial 1972 film Last Tango in Paris.
“Always in the tango is tragedy — she leaves him, she kills him. It’s like an opera but it’s called tango,” Barbieri said in 1997 of his score. “The lyrics and the melodies are very beautiful. It’s very sensual.” The Last Tango in Paris soundtrack scored Barbieri a Grammy win for Best Instrumental Composition and made the saxophonist a star on the jazz circuit.
After recording prolifically throughout the Seventies, Barbieri’s output slowed immensely following a dispute with his record label, which forced the saxophonist to tour more frequently. He didn’t release any albums between 1988 to 1997, only ending his hiatus with 1997’s Que Pasa, which he recorded while dealing with the death of his then-wife of 35 years. Barbieri’s final LP was 2010’s New York Meeting, which featured covers of Miles Davis’ “So What” and Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser.”
In addition to his work as a bandleader, Barbieri also worked alongside artists like Herb Alpert, Charlie Haden, Carla Bley, Alan Shorter, Ennio Morricone, Santana, the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, Oliver Nelson (who also arranged the Last Tango in Paris soundtrack), Leon Ware and more.