A Man, A Muppet and Latin Jazz

For Hispanic Heritage Month 2021, looking at the Chapters series of albums Impulse Records last major star recorded for the label during the mid 1970’s, as well as his truly iconic connection to a Jim Henson character. #latinjazz #gatobarbieri #muppets #jazzfusion

When we talk about Latin Jazz, it simply isn’t just Jazz music from Latin American countries. Traditionally, it was divided into two main subgroups: Afro-Cuban Jazz, which finds its distinctive voice from Caribbean countries and is incredibly rhythmic, and Afro-Brazilian Jazz, which finds its distinct voice in mainland South America, where Bossa Nova is a prime example.

Gato Barbieri, circa mid-1970’s. Photo courtesy of Michael Ochs archives, photographer unknown.

By the late 1960’s, however, a new type of Latin Jazz started to emerge on the western coast of South America: one that used Jazz Fusion and Avant-Garde elements, sometimes combined with more indigenous instruments. One of the musicians leading this charge was Leandro Barbieri, known by his nickname “Gato”, which is Spanish for cat. It seemed Barbieri used to scamper between clubs quite often, like a cat, in the early days of his professional career in his native Argentina in the 1950’s.

Barbieri moved to Europe in the early 1960’s, notably playing with trumpeter Don Cherry. After being exposed to John Coltrane’s later, more Avant-Garde Jazz recordings, he retooled his sound dramatically. He rose to prominence on the wave of the Jazz Fusion movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s on the labels Flying Dutchman, also home to Gil Scott-Heron, and Impulse, which was the last label Coltrane recorded for. Often, in addition to recordings released by him as a leader, he would also work as a sideman on other projects.

Barbieri on the cover of the first of the Chapter albums, of which he would release four in the series. Courtesy of Impulse/UMG.

Barbieri composed and performed on the soundtrack to the highly controversial film The Last Tango In Paris, which exposed him to a much wider audience. After this, Barbieri released a series of albums on Impulse entitled Latin America in four chapters that proved highly successful. His biggest hit would be on the A&M label with the track “Europa”, which was written by a former rocker turned Jazz Fusion artist who also happened to be highly influenced by John Coltrane, Carlos Santana.

Sadly, after Barbieri’s wife, Michelle, died in the 1980’s, he withdrew from recording and performing for about a decade and a half. He would occasionally record some solo material in his later years, preferring it seemed to once again play as a sideman. He died in 2016, at the age of 83, after a bout of pneumonia, in New York City.

The Muppet character Zoot, designed by Bonnie Erickson and built by Dave Goelz, released in 1975, and based upon Gato Barbieri. Photo courtesy Jim Henson/Disney.

And, for those wondering, the character Zoot from the Muppets, who plays in the Electric Band featured on the television program The Muppet Show and all but one of the Muppet films, was based upon Barbieri. The Beatles, by contrast, were made into wax figures at Madame Tussauds; you tell me which is cooler.

First Part

  • Encuentros, 1973, Chapter One: Latin America
  • Juana Azurduy, 1974, Chapter Two: Hasta Siempre
  • Lluvia Azul, 1974, Chapter Three: Viva Emiliano Zapata


  • Milonga Triste, 1975, Chapter Four: Alive in New York

Ben “Daddy Ben Bear” Brown Jr. 
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