Gato Barbieri at The Birchmere
Monday, August 4, 2008 at 02:23PM
Stephen Brookes
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • August 4, 2008

Gato Barbieri has left a lot of disappointed jazz fans in his wake over the past few decades. From the fire-breathing avant-gardist of the 1960s, the Argentine saxophonist has slowly reduced himself to squishy blandness, churning out everything from film scores to Latin jazz to, most recently, smooth-jazz schlock that leaves early fans shaking their heads in despair.

But at the Birchmere on Saturday night, Barbieri showed there's still some edge left in the former revolutionary. Sporting a fedora and a red scarf draped around his neck like a priest's stole, he opened the set with the sultry, powerful "Bolivia," then quickly segued into his famous theme from "Last Tango in Paris." And despite some early problems (heavy fingers, iffy intonation, uncooperative microphones), Barbieri turned in a fiery and passionate performance. At 73, he's still a romantic, and his solos are unabashedly emotional, full of wistfulness and anger and anguished howls of love -- and with all the rough edges left intact, they came off beautifully.

The set drew heavily on Barbieri's Latin period, and he brought some fine surprises to songs like "Fiesta" and "I Want You," while the refuses-to-die classic "Europa" had several couples slow-dancing in the aisles. There may be no hope for the corny ballad "She Is Michelle," but a lively, up-tempo version of "Summertime" was brilliant by any standard.

In fact, the only odd note in the evening was Barbieri himself, whose stage presence was dyspeptic, to say the least. Whether staring out glassy-eyed at the audience, bending over to croak a few words into a waist-level microphone, or stepping all over the solos of his fine four-piece band, Barbieri seemed to be enduring the evening, rather than enjoying it.
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