There's no mistaking the tenor sax sound of Gato Barbieri. His lusty tone and the naked, climactic nature of his improvisations gave his music its trademark eroticism long before he recorded the soundtrack to "Last Tango in Paris."
Barbieri's first set Saturday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano was full of the emotion for which the Argentinian-native is known. Leading a quintet through a heavily Latin-influenced program of originals and the occasional standard, the saxophonist showed a considered, narrative style of soloing, full of simple, expressive statements peppered with loud outbursts and elephantine cries that sounded as though they were pulled right out of a Tarzan movie.
Barbieri's tone and his thematic approach to a solo still owe much to Sonny Rollins, one of his early infuences. But his attack is pure John Coltrane, ripe with confession and filled with anguished shouts that begin and end on a single note. Barbieri doesn't display the technical skills of Coltrane or Rollins; rather than constructing long, intricate statements, he prefers to string together simple melody variations while building to a climax.
Almost all the numbers heard Saturday followed the same format: Barbieri floated sustained, gritty tones over waves of percussion from drummer Rich Gonzales and percussionist Guilherme Franco while pianist Eddy Martinez swirled up and down the keyboard. The rhythm onslaught subsided and a groove, led by bassist Nilson Matta, was established before Barbieri stated the theme. Percussive support increased as the saxophonist's statements became more frantic, finally culminating with Barbieri's gravelly declarations and piercing screams.
Because of this, and the Latin rhythms imposed over every selection, tunes as disparate as "What a Difference a Day Makes" and Barbieri's own "Yamarito" all ended up sounding pretty much the same. Surely the saxophonist knows that, just as with love, variety keeps the program interesting.