1967: Gato Barbieri - In Search of the Mystery

Even the most casual listener’s cursory research can trace back the origins of free jazz and its major players, figures who hang like deities in a Caribbean grocery store: Coltrane, Ornette, Mingus, Ayler, Sun Ra, etc. All amazing musicians who transcended linear arrangements, traditional solo structures, and the possibilities of that music that started the whole sex, drugs, and what have you: jazz. All fine and dandy artists.

All of these beings, of course, are American.

The music did originate in the US, so it’s bound to have representatives of the highest order. Go deeper and you’ll find the European masters of chaos like Derek Bailey, Peter Brötzmann, and Han Bennink, or even delight yourself on the orgasmic brutality of Japanese destroyers like Kaoru Abe and Masayuki Takayanagi. But, what about the dirty dirty south? I mean the really really dirty dirty south? Of the Western Hemisphere?

You’d need to be a George W-brand idiot to believe there’s no free jazz south of El Paso; still, one is caught without much argument that there’s almost no major players within the skronk-honk business that are from Mexico, Central, and South America. The few that make it to the ears of connoisseurs are mostly odd additions to very detailed collections; still, fewer artists were there when it all happened in the first place, when the hot sound of the cool cats was set free from its own obliterating slavery (and into another kind of music idiom, with forms and structures, but that’s another discussion for another day).

A reason might be that free jazz attempts to reach for the ultimate state of being, of the most plentiful of liberties spiritually through sound, all done with an artillery to create a magnificent cacophony — sharp high notes, rumbling low-end mumbles, cymbal crashes. Bullets, explosions, and landmines that are the language of war — a modern electric, merciless, honorless war — not of desperate and impoverished people working for the goals of a manipulative asshole, but one of unsettling global consequences. USA, Europe, and Japan were all part of the two biggest and cruelest armed conflicts in the 20th century with an outcome ingrained in the subconscious of all their citizens from then on.

But seldom did it have a major impact in Latin America, with hardly anyone there having contact with the battlefields and the aftermath (Nazis going into hiding there don’t count). The idea of a collective afterlife, of a new chance for the masses through chaos and destruction — via technology and weaponry — is not uncommon in many fields and disciplines, and the free jazzers from territories that were affected by WWI and WWII certainly tap into that point of view when playing in public. Yet native Latinos have little concept of rebirth through destruction. For them, wars are civilians kicking the living shit out of some corrupted government to install a new kind of government and live happily until their new appointed leaders become oppressive and corrupted themselves. In other words, war is a local phenomenon, and its consequences have a different kind of effect. Perhaps this is why, when the free-jazz call to arms was put forth for a better, peaceful, and more enlightened tomorrow, Latin American people thought it was a flawed and doomed cycle.

Or maybe all of this is bullshit I’m making up and people near the southern hemisphere just really love structured rhythms to dance to.

At least Leandro “Gato” Barbieri didn’t think so, consciously or subconsciously. Hailing from Argentina, Barbieri was in the thick of improvised mayhem, recording for ESP-Disk — home to some of the most radical no-bop players and most insane acts, even by today’s standards, outside of jazz — collaborating with Don Cherry and Charlie Haden, making his tenor saxophone scream for and with vengeance. Although he recorded a number of earlier albums along with Cherry, In Search of the Mystery is his first album as a leader, in this case of a quartet featuring sax, drums, bass, and cello, the latter of which provides atmosphere and drones to an album of busy intervals, varying from discordant hard bop to all-out, no-rules beatdowns of frequencies, accidental chords, and wails of desperation, imitating Barbieri’s very nickname (“Cat” in spanish) on sax. All instruments add elements that surprise and complement, most notably the bass, which sometimes mimics inverted guitar chords. The ebb and flow of the whole affair is telepathically precise in its spontaneity, attacking then retracting to safer, warmer places, just to spike again into exchanges of dissonant notes that battle like a fencing match with 14 swords each.

Barbieri’s playing didn’t remain within this style for long; by the late 60s, he would start incorporating sounds of Spain and South America into his playing, as well as more structured and conventional styles (as heard on the score to Bertolucci’s film Last Tango in Paris, which, no doubt, has some inspiration from the jam sessions with fellow countrymate Lalo Schifrin). He continued his road to convention until the 80s when his wife Michelle (half the title of the first piece of In Search…) died, leaving him more or less retired from music. ESP-Disk is reissuing this album to remind us that Gato once heard the good news of bad skronk, said “I want to do that too,” and made one of the most well-developed albums free jazz ever hoped to achieve.


There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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