35. Return of the native

India. From Gato Barbieri, Chapter One: Latin America, 1973

Don’t recall exactly when I got this recording, but fairly sure I’d already heard Gato with Don Cherry, Carla Bley and (separately) Dollar Brand – as he was when they worked together – and never seen Last Tango In Paris (still haven’t, it turns out). But I do remember listening to it incessantly. It was unlike anything I’d heard before and I loved it.

It’s the first of a series the saxophone player made for Impulse, after he got famous for that film soundtrack. And it sees the man who had imbibed free jazz in the US and Europe, and honed his own saxophone style, taking it back home to Buenos Aires. The tunes are credited to him but seem akin to folk melodies, and most emerge from the ensemble beginning what sounds like a studio jam. Repeat listening makes clear it’s a more disciplined affair than that, and that the session contrives a series of brilliant showcases for the saxophonist, combining the Argentinian instruments and sounds with one of the grittiest horn timbres anyone ever delivered.

It’s world music before that unhelpful term was coined, I suppose. In any case, the blend works brilliantly. And yes, Gato does scream, as writers tended to notice – though not for the reasons Pharoah Saunders screams, as he said somewhat enigmatically in the sleeve note. But he does so much more. The simple themes cue passionate melodic improvisation, interwoven with the guitars, flutes and multiple rhythm instruments in a superbly atmospheric tapestry.

The sax dominates, though, even on this track (not to be confused with Coltrane’s India) which slows the pace a little after the headlong rush of the 12-minute Encuentros that makes for one of the most memorable opening tracks of any LP of the time. The dreamy tune proceeds without any screaming, just rather beautiful slow elaboration of the melody. It’s pithy and pointful, unlike innumerable world jams to come, and still sounds as fresh as can be. The subsequent Chapters were great too, before Barbieri went into different, and less appealing, territory. He made some very successful albums then, but in hindsight this one still sounds to me as it did at the time. It’s a session that captures a particular moment when one way of making music, embodied by a player who has moved away from his original milieu, rubs up against another, and strikes the most lovely sparks. I like to imagine the result made Gato as happy as it made me.

Why the No 35? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify.

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