Born to a family of musicians, Barbieri began playing music after hearing Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time". He played the clarinet and later the alto saxophone while performing with the Argentinean pianist Lalo Schifrin in the late 1950s. By the early 1960s, while playing in Rome, he also worked with the trumpeter Don Cherry. By now influenced by John Coltrane's late recordings, as well as those from other free jazz saxophonists such asAlbert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders, the warm and gritty tone, which would become his trademark sound, began to develop. In the late 1960s, he was fusing music from South America into his playing and contributed to multi-artist projects like Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra and Carla Bley's Escalator Over The Hill. His score for Bernardo Bertolucci's film Last Tango in Paris earned him a Grammy Award and led to a record deal withImpulse! Records.
By the mid-70s, he was recording for A&M Records and moved his music towards soul-jazz and jazz-pop with albums like Caliente! in 1976 (including his best known song, Carlos Santana's Europa) and the 1977 follow-up, Ruby Ruby, both produced by fellow musician and label co-founder, Herb Alpert.
Although he continued to record and perform well into the 1980s, the death of his wife Michelle led him to withdraw from the public arena. He returned to recording and performing in the late 1990s with the soundtrack for the film Seven Servants by Daryush Shokof (1996) and the album Qué Pasa(1997), playing music that would fall more into the arena of smooth jazz.
He received the UNICEF Award at the Argentinian Consulate in November 2009.