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Gato Barbieri

Sax Heats Kresge

By Allison Lewis

Gato Barbieri

Kresge Auditorium

Sept. 22, 7:30 p.m.

Gato Barbieri and his tenor saxophone made Kresge Auditorium come alive last Sunday night as part of the Cambridge City MusicFest. This weekend festival featured Barbieri, other well-known talents like Shirley Horn, and a few local bands, playing in areas around Cambridge to raise money for Agenda for Children, an organization that helps children in the area learn to read.

Opening for Barbieri was Hillary Noble, another tenor saxophone player, and his band Conclave (keyboard, guitar, and drums). Their sound combined African, Latin, and jazz beats and would be great to dance to. But, in Kresge’s brown, airy, undercrowded auditorium, the performance lacked a certain intensity. Perhaps this was due to the dull crowd.

Still, Conclave was flavorful, and the keyboardist played along with funky 1980s tunes, like the ones programmed into my 15-year-old keyboard at home. Even more enjoyable was watching Hillary Noble make faces as if he was experiencing a hernia or labor pains while he ripped away at the bongo drums. Does it hurt to hit the drums so hard? Of course, there was also psychotic, crazy-cool saxophone. A member of the band starting swinging with his saxophone. (His head almost hit the floor!) As much as I enjoyed this, the crowd looked unimpressed, and, for me, without a vibrant audience, a show’s not as good as it could be.

Gato Barbieri took the stage with attitude and style, like Speedy Gonzales. He wore a red shirt, black pants with slits, red socks, a black vest, black loafers, enormous shades, a black hat À la Blues Brothers, and a camel-colored scarf. I wondered about the scarf -- was it to lean his saxophone against? He looked like a shorter, more rugged Carlos Santana. Was he chewing gum?

He began with smooth, expressive sax playing, to a fast, Latin rhythm, punctured by his random shouting, “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” His band played superbly, excitingly -- a keyboardist, guitarist, drummer, and percussionist. With a red drumset, red electric guitar, and red bongo (single among two tan bongos), the band had an electrified, energetic sound combining Latin and jazz. Individually, each player made his own amazing sound, yet only one sound was heard behind Barbieri, like music on an album polished in the studio.

“Yaaaaaaaaaaayee!” And there was Barbieri again. Was he looking at me behind those dark frames? If he was anyone else, I would have thought he was weird, even creepy. But tonight, he was downright impressive with the smooth, intimidating stature of a bull-fighter.

Impressive to me, anyway. The rest of the audience? Barbieri wanted us to clap along, and the audience grudgingly obliged, clapping off the beat. I didn’t let it bother me.

I loved this stuff. The enthused keyboardist had more of that 1980s sound. The electric guitarist didn’t just fall into his role, but at times, played like Pete Townshend, at times, like Dave Matthews. Most of all, I loved Gato’s saxy sax. He was bold, almost brassy, and not afraid of anything. He wandered, cool, and calm, like he owned the stage. In fact, Barbieri continued to play from backstage, a voice from the heavens. A prophesy perhaps.

Gato Barbieri, the man. When he was twelve, he bought his first ratty saxophone, something not easy to find in Argentina in the 1940s. To fix the broken, out-of-shape sax, he bent the neck outrageously, so that he increased the airflow, and he blew very hard with a very soft reed to produce his signature, outstanding sound.

This trance-like sound filled Kresge’s big brown auditorium Sunday night. Gato played Summertime, latinized. It was sexy and summery, like drinking lemonade on the beach, like someone you love rubbing oil on your back. It was a moment I could be content to stay in forever.

Kresge’s big brown auditorium was heavy with Barbieri’s trance-like sound. The audience was touched, in an emotional state. We howled for him. We bounced around our seats. Finally we couldn’t sit still. We couldn’t shut up. Gato Barbieri made some heat.