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Playing the keys of success.

"A work which speaks only to the intelligence of man will never reach his heart," Argentina's noted classical composer, Alberto Ginastera, once commented. "A musical composition must come from the artist's heart and then pass through his head."

Ginastera's recipe for making music describes the qualities a fellow Argentine has been quietly contributing to the North American music scene for over two decades. Keyboardist and arranger for a star-studded array of pop and jazz artists, Eduardo del Barrio has endowed many a recording project with that extra something that would have met with Ginastera's approval.

Del Barrio is finally out of the recording studio shadows with his long overdue debut album, Free Play. His emotional and energetic vision defies classification. It merges the many influences of his native Argentina, a lifelong love of classical music, and his extraordinarily refined improvisational skills. "It's just free art, free expression," he sums up. "It shows my roots, people who influenced me. And it shows I love to play free!"

The 54-year-old musician was born in Argentina's third largest city, Mendoza, a rural town sandwiched between the towering Andes to the west and the vast pampas to the east. Mendoza, like many other Argentine cities, is known for its fine symphony orchestra and conservatories. In this most European of all Latin American countries, the classical tradition is more cultivated than virtually anywhere else in the Americas. It is not surprising, then, that in such an environment the young del Barrio fostered an early interest in serious music by great European composers.

"The Symphony Orchestra of the University of Cuyo was as good as one can expect for a province," del Barrio recalls. "They did all kinds of things. They played Prokofiev and Stravinsky, and the concern hall was just around the corner from my house. My father loved going to rehearsals more than to the concerts themselves. So I went along, and I learned a lot."

His father, Ramon Gutierrez del Barrio, was a piano instructor and classical composer whose works were often featured by the symphony. Del Barrio's mother, Concepcion Requena, was a concert pianist. The couple operated a conservatory in their home, reserving five of sixteen rooms in their large house for pianos and the study of harmony and theory.

With so many pianos at hand and inspiration literally around every corner, del Barrio started playing a soon as he could climb on the piano stool. "I never wanted to practice or study, though," he laughs today. Indeed, until his father shipped him off to Buenos Aires at the age of 16 to study with Spanish composer Julian Bautista, a serious career in music was far from an all-abiding passion.

The peacefulness of a life of relative obscurity in Mendoza satisfied del Barrio until his need for artistic growth demanded a move. "When I decided to leave Mendoza, my feelings were very simple: I hated big cities anyway, but if I had to go to a big city to seek opportunity, I'd go to one that had everything." That view led the 28-year-old del Barrio in 1965 not to Buenos Aires but to New York.

The naive assumption that he could find work as a jazz pianist soon collided with the reality of New York's ruthlessly competitive professional music scene. What he did find was steady and prestigious work as the house pianist at the Chateau Madrid, one of New York's classical Latin nightclubs. It was a solid, if unspectacular, beginning to his three-decade-long career in the United States. But wider recognition and more artistic freedom were to be found elsewhere. In 1968, tired of the Big Apple grind, del Barrio moved to Los Angeles. The relaxed pace of life and the more laid back approach to making music was perfect for an artist whose professional side cried for the big city while the inner sould longed for the serenity of Mendoza.

The 1970s were a fertile time for the creation of new hybrids of Latin music, and del Barrio was in the right place at the right time to become an influential founding member of the group Caldera. One of the more daring and original bands that sought to capitalize on the exotic rhythms of Latin America, the energy of rock and the freedom of jazz, Caldera featured exceptional young musicians from Argentina, Costa Rica, Cuba, Florida and California. Their devotion to innovation and musical excellence made the band's five-year, four-album history a remarkable success story. But for del Barrio, much bigger things were to come.

Del Barrio's highly personal concept of arranging for a string section--a hallmark of Caldera's distinctive sound--soon won him a series of prestigious orchestrating assignments. Among others, del Barrio arranged for the pop group Earth, Wind and Fire, and the Brazilian singer Djavan. The turning point in his career, however, came with his association with Herb Alpert, the trumpeter who had converted the spirit of Mexican mariachi music into the most popular instrumental sound of the 1960s, the Tijuana Brass band. Alpert, a longtime secret admirer of del Barrio, became employer, mentor and friend all in one.

When the Tijuana Brassman called one day, del Barrio was admittedly surprised. "He wanted me to work with him, and I said, 'Well, I can't give you anything, because your music is not my music.' But he said, 'I'll make you a deal. You help me with my music, and I'll help you with whatever you want to record.'" As head of A&M Records, one of the world's most successful recording companies, Alpert's promise carried a great deal of weight.

"I told him, 'That really sounds good, but I warn you, it's going to be really strange music!' And he said, 'I don't care. Whatever is in your heart, I'll put out.'"

What is in del Barrio's heart may be strange to patrons of pop music, but to the adventurous listener with a taste for contemporary classical music and bold improvisation, his vision spells something radically new.

"What really went to my heart first, more than anything else, was Dmitri Shostakovitch," del Barrio explains, "because my father had an incredible love for Russian music and French composers like Ravel and Debussy. So when I started writing and became interested in jazz, I was already a classical musician at heart. I think a lot of my sound today has to do with that--what you're hearing is my love for all those geniuses!"

The keyboardist's alliance with Alpert resulted not only in two of the trumpeter's most musically rewarding albums, but in an opportunity to write original music for one of the jazz world's true giants, tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. Renowned for his popularization of the Brazilian bossa nova in the early 1960s, Getz was prime for another lyrical, contemporary Latin sound in the late 1980s. Del Barrio's arranging skills helped create one of Getz' finest recordings, Apasionado. Unfortunately, it was also his last. The 64-year-old saxman died earlier this year of cancer. A planned recording session of a new del Barrio arrangement remained unfinished at the time of Getz' death.

Ironically for one nurtured in the classical tradition in provincial Argentina, the computer has become del Barrio's most artistically liberating tool. A vast array of the latest keyboard and computer technology, graciously provided by Herb Alpert, affords del Barrio the freedom to create what until recently could only be captured in his mind.

His "Three Freedom Movements." the centerpiece of his debut recording Free Play, exemplifies his classically-tinged vision. Thanks to computer-driven keyboards, del Barrio has been able to create improvised music on an orchestral scale. Oboes, bassoons, flutes and a phalanx of strings are his at the touch of a finger and shape a sound he has toyed with since those boyhood days in his parents' conservatory.

Unusual time signatures, different harmonics and scales, and new concepts of musical dimensions are all trademarks of Eduardo del Barrio in the 1990s.

Mark Holston, a lifelong musician, writes about jazz and Latin music for a variety of publications.
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Title Annotation:Argentine keyboardist and arranger Eduardo del Barrio
Author:Holston, Mark
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Biography
Date:May 1, 1991
Previous Article:Bright visions, fine contours.
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