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JAZZ REVIEW : Same Old, Same Old Still Works for Barbieri

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Hey hey hey!,” natty Gato Barbieri spoke-sang into the microphone as he arrived on stage at the Galaxy Concert Theatre on Friday, and the packed house of expectant fans immediately gave him a ready ovation.

It had been 2 1/2 years since the Argentine tenor saxophonist last played locally, and his listeners obviously were thirsting for the trademark, accessible Latin-infused jazz that has been the basis of his show for close to 20 years.

Few artists can get away with what this spry and vibrant 60-year-old does: offer essentially the same batch of tunes at each show in what amounts to the same way. But Barbieri keeps drawing fans because he delivers music’s basic ingredients in a very attractive manner.

For one thing, the man loves melody. Friday’s show was built around such appealing and tuneful vehicles as “Europa,” “Brazil” and “Granada” that one can hear again and again.

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And in his extended treatments of these numbers, his playing was highly charged: Long, plaintive tones, gritty cries and punchy statements all were delivered with his grainy and majestic tenor tone. His improvisations had copious rhythmic life of their own, and were buttressed by throbbing support from his New York-based trio (pianist Bill O’Connell, bassist Nilson Matta, drummer Robbie Gonzalez).

From the opener, the evergreen “What a Difference a Day Makes” (available on Barbieri’s “Chapter Three: Viva Emiliano Zapata” Impulse! CD), to Carlos Santana’s “Europa,” which has become the saxman’s signature piece, one heard a melange of melody and rhythm that was infectious.

Decked out in black pants, jacket, T-shirt and fedora, and red socks, shoes and scarf, wrapped around his neck and trailing down his left side, Barbieri began each rendition with exploratory phrases, never simply stating a melody. After a series of rhythmic fragments, he usually signaled his band-mates with his hand and the number took off in earnest.

Then, as he strode around the stage (a portable microphone gave him freedom of mobility), he played an array of mostly elastic, long-noted phrases, occasionally dropping in rapid-fire bursts, and climaxing a particular section with high screeches that planted notes you could have peeled off the ceiling.

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Occasionally he would pause, return to the mike and speak briefly in Spanish (his utterances ranged from “Emiliano Zapata!” to “te Qiuero!” (“I love you!”) to, again and again, “hey hey hey!”) or shuffle spritely around the stage, bobbing to the beat.

For all its flavor and color, though, there is a drawback to Barbieri’s passionate display: It is far too one-dimensional in terms of volume. Most numbers Friday were medium-loud to loud and the bombast ultimately proved wearing. Some songs, such as “Europa,” opened with just saxophone and piano, and Barbieri did bring the sound down in mid-number occasionally, but not often enough. Softer tones would draw listeners in.

The Art of Sax, a group from the Inland Empire, warmed up the crowd with R&B-funk-jazz; numbers. Bassist Ed Reddick’s vocals were solid, even if the lyrics he sang were insipid, and saxman Will Donato roused listeners with the sort of funk one associates with Dave Koz and Richard Elliott. Ironically, given the name of the band, it was guitarist Bruce Conte (formerly with Tower of Power) whose on-the-money phrases and polished, bluesy ideas sparked the set.


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