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" in 1973. Though he'd have to undo some shirt buttons, don some gold chains and pack on more than a few pounds to become the Tom Jones of jazz, his effect on an audience is much the same.
Barbieri's first set Saturday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano was full of the emotion for which the Argentine native is known. Wearing his trademark fedora, he led his quintet through a heavily Latin-influenced program of originals and the occasional standard while displaying 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 influences. 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 variations on the melody while building to a screaming climax.
The group opened with a long percussive introduction to Barbieri's minor-key lament, "Yamarito," the rhythm section showing some free-form interplay while the saxophonist waited to make some minor repairs on his instrument. Percussionist Guilherme Franco moved between congas and a number of bells, shakers and other instruments to develop backgrounds as lush and alive as a rain forest. Drummer Rich Gonzales used his toms to set a strong backbeat, adding color with various sized cymbals and using his snare to punctuate. Solid and inventive electric-bass lines came from Nilson Matta, who used a heavy thumb to add to the overall rhythmic effect.
Keyboardist Eddy Martinez showed he was able to construct the breezy, almost celestial chording of the kind that Lonnie Liston Smith provided earlier editions of Barbieri's band, as well as concise, lyrically pleasing solos of his own. Martinez's best moments came supporting the opening to "Viva Emiliano Zapata," in which the two exchanged feisty, involved lines before the rest of the band jumped in.
Almost all the numbers heard Saturday followed the same format: Barbieri floated sustained, gritty tones over waves of percussion from Gonzales and Franco while Martinez swirled up and down the keyboard. The rhythm onslaught subsided and a groove, led by bassist Matta, was established before Barbieri stated the theme. Percussive support increased as the saxophonist's statements became more frantic, finally culminating in Barbieri's gravelly declarations and piercing screams. After a solo from Martinez or percussion antics from Franco, the song would climax, often with the band in a frenzy and Barbieri squealing above them.
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 "Brasil" all ended up sounding pretty much the same. The saxophonist showed he was capable of sensitive expression during the few quiet passages heard this night. Maybe he can take a cue from Tom Jones: variety in music, just as with love, keeps the program interesting.