Laura Barbieri, his wife of nearly 20 years, said her husband died Saturday in a New York hospital from pneumonia. The musician recently had bypass surgery to remove a blood clot.
“Music was a mystery to Gato, and each time he played was a new experience for him, and he wanted it to be that way for his audience,” she said. “He was honored for all the years he had a chance to bring his music all around the world.”
The Argentine-born musician recorded some 35 albums between 1967 and 1982, when he stopped consistently making new records. He toured regularly and went on to record four more albums, including 1997’s smooth jazz “Que Pasa,” which reached No. 2 on Billboard’s contemporary jazz charts.
Last year, Barbieri received a Latin Grammy lifetime achievement award for a career that covered “virtually the entire jazz landscape.”
The citation from the Latin Recording Academy credited Barbieri with creating “a rebellious but highly accessible musical style, combining contemporary jazz with Latin American genres and incorporating elements of instrumental pop.”
Barbieri won a Grammy for best instrumental composition in 1973 for his music for “Last Tango In Paris,” the controversial erotic drama starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider that earned two Oscar nominations.
Born on Nov. 28, 1932, in Rosario, Argentina, Barbieri grew up in a family that included several musicians, but did not take up an instrument until he was 12 when he heard bebop pioneer Charlie Parker’s recording of “Now’s the Time” and began studying clarinet.
After moving to Buenos Aires in 1947, Barbieri picked up the alto saxophone. He earned the nickname “El Gato,” which means “The Cat,” in the 1950s because of the way he scampered between clubs with his saxophone.
He gained national prominence playing alto saxophone in an orchestra led by Lalo Schifrin, the pianist and composer who later made a big impact with his TV and film scores, including “Theme from Mission: Impossible.”
Later in the 1950s, Barbieri switched to tenor saxophone as he began leading his own groups.
Barbieri married again in 1996 and had a son, Christian, who turns 18 on Sunday. Besides his wife and son, he is survived by his sister Raquel Barbieri, who lives in Buenos Aires.
In lieu of flowers, his family requests that donations be sent to The Reciprocity Foundation, a nonprofit that works to help homeless and foster youth in New York City.
A public memorial is being planned.