ESP-Disk’ has long been a haven for the under-recognized in left field music, documenting valuable works by artists as diverse as saxophonist Marzette Watts and psych priestess Erica Pomerance. In a few cases, artists who released their debuts on ESP went on to some degree of commercial success, usually well-removed from their initial steps. Pianist-composer Bob James is one example, and Argentine-born tenorman Leandro “Gato” Barbieri is another. Known mostly for his soundtrack music and orchestral Latin American-jazz sides for Impulse and A&M in the 1970s (the first few Chapters on Impulse are particularly exciting), it’s easy to forget that Barbieri unleashed hellfire squall on records by Don Cherry, Alan Shorter, and the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra in the 60s and contributed a Coltrane-like language to rare Italian jazz sides in the decade’s waxing years.
In Search of the Mystery was Barbieri’s leader debut, released in 1967 alongside that of another Cherry sideman, vibist Karl Berger. Rounding out the quartet are cellist Calo Scott (who worked with Mal Waldron and Archie Shepp), bassist Sirone and drummer Bobby Kapp on a split-sided continuous performance. Supported by rumbling, pliant bass and Scott’s droning cello, the opening recalls the alap of Coltrane’s Indian-influenced pieces, yet by no means is it subtle. Though on the surface rising on similar modal stairsteps to his forebears, Barbieri’s screaming, hard-bitten buzzsaw is unmistakable and immediately hits extreme, primal soul-eviscerating peals. Scott’s cello is an incredibly able front-line partner; bowing double and triple-stopped chords and drawing out lines of staccato high-register electricity, he alternately ups the ante and provides a welcome respite from the leader’s sustained fireworks. Indeed, Scott sounds plugged-in and contributes a bluesy, guitar-like wah-wah to “Michelle,” the coyly delicate, brittle homage that closes out the first side. There is beauty amid destruction, too – the heartbreaking line of “Cinemateque” could be Gato’s “Alabama.”
In Search of the Mystery is, however, a particularly egregious example of low fidelity in the ESP catalog, as bass and drums sometimes sound as though they’re in another room. There’s also an unnatural reverb on everything but Barbieri’s tenor. If this reissue were done from the tapes rather than a needle drop, things like balance or the abrupt drop-off at the end of side one could have been fixed. Nevertheless, as a focus on Barbieri’s completely unhinged and downright frightening tenor playing, this disc does all it needs to do. Play loud and play often.
~ Clifford Allen