The year that just ended can hardly be described as a good one. The carnage of the civil war in Syria
The rock music world experienced many notable losses, as well, starting with David Bowie who died on January 10 at age 69, ending with George Michael passing away on Christmas Day at just 53. In between, Prince’s death on April 21st (at 57) probably received the highest attention, as did that of Leonard Cohen (November 7th at 82). Other notable departures from the popular music scene included the pianist Leon Russell (November 13th at 74) whose sound was more influential than many listeners realized; another highly influential behind-the-scenes force, Rod Temperton (October 5th at 66); the laid back southern pianist/singer Mose Allison (November 15th at 89); and Greg Lake (December 7th at 69), the fabulous bassist, vocalist and composer of King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame. Others, such as the Belgian-born harmonica master, Jean ‘Toots’ Thielemans (August 22nd at the tender age of 94) whose music everyone has heard, whether they realize it or not; the magical Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos (March 9th at 71), and the legendary drummer Alphonse Mouzon (also on Christmas Day at 68) were great losses to the musical world. Finland lost one of its more prominent jazz musicians, bassist Make Lievonen (December 14th at 69). Although I grieve for all of these fabulous artists, I will here briefly focus on two forceful creators who were amongst the most important to me personally: Gato Barbieri and Jeremy Steig.
The saxophonist Leandro ‘Gato’ Barbieri (b. November 28th, 1932, in Rosario, Argentina; d. April 2nd, 2016, in New York) was my hero during my teenage years. I remember the first album I heard from him, ‘El Pampero’ (1971). It completely blew my mind. It still holds a central place in my record shelf. This was a live recording. The tunes were long – just two to a side – with nearly constant soloing by Gato against a South American beat provided by three percussionists, Bernard Purdie, Sonny Morgan and the above mentioned Nana Vasconcelos. The band was completed by electric bassist Chuck Rainey and Lonnie Liston Smith whose piano added freer fills into the mix. I was sold. Especially, the tune ‘Mi Buenos Aires Querido’ with the gorgeous saxophone intro caught my heart and made me long for the sensuous capital of tango on Rio de la Plata. Gato in his trademark black fedora hat was the coolest cat I knew (apologies for the pun). Even my mother warmed up to his warm, huge and highly distinguishable sound on the tenor sax.
I immediately went back to look for his earlier recordings to find that they were mostly free jazz, inspired by Ornette Coleman. In the mid-1960s Gato divided his time between Rome and New York performing and recording with Don Cherry, Carla Bley and others in the avant garde movement. Only with the 1969 album ‘The Third World’ did he find the voice that would combine elements from Coltranesque jazz with tunes and rhythms from South America. Other recordings followed, including ‘Bolivia’ (1973), which brought forth the lyrical side of Gato, with melodies borrowed from the South American jungles and pampas. Mind you, this was not what you would normally call ‘Latin jazz’, because Gato’s music never flirted much with salsa or even bossa nova. His roots were more firmly in the music of his native country, Argentina.
This was most clearly demonstrated by the film score Gato made for Bernardo Bertolucci’s scandalous ‘Last Tango in Paris’ (1972) for which the composer won a Grammy. The dramatic and sexy score became an international hit record with Gato’s powerful tenor at the lead accompanied by a tango orchestra featuring a bandoneon and strings. Its melancholy laments of forbidden, fleeting love pulled my heartstrings more than most other music ever. The legend has it that Bertolucci had planned a role for Gato in the film but the latter turned out to be such a wooden actor that the plan was scrapped. Nevertheless, when he made a cameo appearance as a stranger practicing the saxophone, whom the lovers, the middle aged Marlon Brando and 19-year old Maria Schneider, could see through a window, I was I heaven.
"Always in the tango is tragedy — she leaves him, she kills him. It's like an opera but it's called tango … The lyrics and the melodies are very beautiful. It's very sensual," Barbieri is quoted as having said in 1997 (Billboard, April 2, 2016).
Then followed in rapid succession the series of Chapter albums recorded for Impulse!: ‘Chapter One: Latin America’, ‘Chapter Two: Hasta Siempre’ and ‘Chaper Three: Viva Emiliano Zapata!’ (1973-1974). The third introduced a large orchestra arranged and conducted by Chico O’Farrill, and some truly beautiful music, such as a version of the classic ballad ‘Cuando vuelva a tu lado’. A fourth in the series, ‘Chapter Four: Alive in New York’, released in 1975, was as the title suggests a concert recording.
Not all Barbieri records were masterpieces. Having earlier recorded for the jazz labels Flying Dutchman and Impulse!, his new label, A&M took Gato to a more commercial smooth jazz direction. I could still find great merit in records like ‘Caliente!’ (1976), even if I missed the earlier rougher productions. The intensity, lyricism and warmth never disappeared from Gato’s playing. His collaboration with Carlos Santana on a rendition of the latter’s composition ‘Europa’ can still bring tears to my eyes.
There was a long hiatus in his recording after a dispute with the record label in 1982. During the 1980s he released a couple of albums that received little attention. Throughout the period he toured extensively performing around the world. His wife of 35 years, Michelle, died in 1995, and he himself went through the first of his bypass heart operations. His comeback album after the break was the 1997 ‘Qué pasa.’ By that time, Gato had married again, to Laura, with whom he would spend the remaining two decades of his life. During the 2000s he would only release a couple of albums, but he continued to perform in concerts. I last saw him at the Blues Alley club in Washington, DC, more than a decade ago. He was in great form performing the music that he loved, not the smooth jazz version of it.
"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,” Laura Barbieri is quoted as saying (Rolling Stone, April 3, 2016). In 2015, Gato Barbieri received a lifetime achievement Grammy Award from the Latin Recording Academy. He is greatly missed but the consolation may be that there is no better way to remember him than through his sensuous, melancholy music.
Another artist and human who made a huge impression on me was Jeremy Steig (b. September 23, 1942, in Manhattan; d. April 13, 2016, in Yokohama). I also started listening to him as a schoolboy in Finland in the 1970s. I often biked over to my friend Timo’s house on afternoons to listen to music. We’d have a wide scale, ranging from Edgard Varèse to Eric Dolphy to Frank Zappa, as long as it was novel and interesting. Timo was the one who introduced me to the records of Jeremy Steig and the music hit me like a rock from the very beginning. Both Timo and I were aspiring flute players, so discovering a rare jazz flautist who was as versatile and creative as Steig was a real treat for us. At that time, almost all jazz flutists were primarily saxophonists who doubled on the smaller instrument, but Jeremy Steig was a flutist first. The first record I remember hearing was ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ (1971), which featured a small group of leading contemporary jazz musicians, such as Eddie Gomez and Don Alias, but playing to a funky rock beat. The music was free in a loose format with largely improvised interplay. Again, I went back to older albums by Steig, such as the 1968 ‘Jeremy & The Satyrs’ which embodied the psychedelic spirit of the era.
Jeremy Steig had grown up in the straight jazz tradition and had been on the New York scene since the early-1960s. He released his first album as a leader, ‘Flute Fever’, in 1963. The album featured a traditional piano trio with young Denny Zeitlin. His greatest claim to fame in mainstream modern jazz was, however, ‘What’s New’ recorded with the pianist Bill Evans, backed by Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell, in 1969. The song list consists of standards, such as ‘Straight No Chaser’, ‘Lover Man’ and ‘Autumn Leaves’ but the treatment was novel and the playing enormously creative and interactive. Jeremy later told me how in those days, there were no fancy music schools for jazz musicians to take a shortcut to fame; the only way was just to practice and play and try to get the chance to be accepted to sit in with the established stars in clubs. To me, one of the best collaborations was the rather free form album ‘Outlaws’, recorded in 1976, with just Eddie Gomez on bass and Jeremy Steig on flute and alto flute.
Jeremy Steig’s flute playing was truly unique. He had perfected his jazz chops but then moved more towards a crossover style, adopting techniques that incorporated singing into the flute and ample use of overtones. What contributed to his special sound was a motorbike accident at 19 that left a side of his face paralyzed. He re-learned to play and rebuilt his face muscles, but never fully recovered from the damage. In the 1960s Jeremy would sit in with both jazz and rock groups at live performances in New York’s Greenwich Village. He observed that he could still solo “with integrity” over the funky beats of rock bands. “We decided that we’d invented jazz-rock … Of course, there were about 50 other people who had come to the same conclusion,” he later mused (New York Times, June 2, 2016).
It was in Greenwich Village where I caught Jeremy Steig on one of his rare live appearances in 2007 (see my review of the gig). The gig was amazing, with Jeremy playing as innovative music as ever, alternating between the regular and alto and bass flutes (one of his last records – the 2007 ‘Pterodactyl’ – consisted of only overdubs with flutes of different sizes from piccolo to bass). After the show I went to talk with him and his wife Asako who was acting as his manager. We established a good rapport and followed up with a dinner in a nice restaurant in the Village on another evening not long after. A common element was found in the fact that we both had spent a lot of time in Japan. As it happens, Asako hails from Morioka, not far from my wife’s hometown in the same northern Japanese prefecture, Iwate. Asako and Jeremy established a home in Yokohama, which is where Jeremy passed away.
Over the long dinner we discussed many matters, around and beyond music. Jeremy considered himself retired, “senior citizen”, as he repeatedly mentioned. He hadn’t made new records since the above mentioned ‘Pterodactyl’ and the excellent 2007 quartet recording ‘Flute on the Edge’, both produced and released on his own label. He seldom performed but he continued to paint, which had long been his other artistic passion. In fact, he produced the cover art for several of his albums and lately he and Asako created a series of ‘digital picture books’ with his art. Jeremy’s interests were wide and included politics. I remember him raving about the book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, which detailed how American firms had taken over developing countries by convincing them to take huge loans for construction and infrastructure projects.
Sadly, Jeremy Steig never became a household name, even amongst jazz aficionados. Still his music was highly influential in many respects. He made appearances as sideman on recordings by famous artists ranging from Art Farmer and Urbie Green to Johnny Winter and Tommy Bolin. One of my favorites is his performance on a rather obscure, but lovely pop tune, ‘Hurricane’ by Dee Carstensen. As Jeremy would tell, the most money he ever made through his music was in 1994 when the Beastie Boys sampled his 1970 ‘Howlin’ for Judy’ for their hit ‘Sure Shot’.