HERB ALPERT: ART, HIS TRUMPET & OTHER DELIGHTS
Herb Alpert is not the man you think he is. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, that’s what you’re thinking of. Instrumentals like “The Lonely Bull.” And that famous, famous album cover, Whipped Cream & Other Delights.
Alpert is 80 and still vibrant-sounding as he talks on the phone from his beachfront home in Malibu. Where else would you expect this icon of the swingin’ ’60s to live? Living larger than life. Creating larger than life: Alpert is an abstract painter and a sculptor, some of his bronze monoliths so large they must be moved by forklift. He is a philanthropist, and through The Herb Alpert Foundation, is a major contributor to educational and environmental causes.
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The musical legacy is larger than life as well. Five No. 1 albums, the only musician to ever have No. 1 hits as both an instrumentalist, “Rise,” and a singer, “This Guy’s in Love With You.” The stories he’s telling on this Malibu morning are of larger-than-life encounters. Lessons learned from the great soul singer Sam Cooke. And how, as head of A&M Records, he signed The Carpenters. Yet Alpert also throws in a few anecdotes that bring his legacy back to Earth. “I don’t know what a hit record sounds like,” he says. “I know what a good record sounds like to me.” So he rejected The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” because it sounded out of tune.
“Every time I heard it on the radio,” he says, “it haunted me.”
Alpert plays Saturday at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, Day 2 of the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. His band includes his wife, Lani Hall. Another reminder of that man you think you know. She was a singer with Brazil ’66, another talisman of the time. A&M released the group’s first album, Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66.
Miles Davis once said of Alpert, “you hear three notes and you know it’s Herb Alpert.” Of course, coming from the famously cryptic and acerbic Davis, that could have been either a high compliment or a commentary on the Tijuana Brass’ relentlessly upbeat sound. But Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass were selling more albums than The Beatles, another group A&M considered, but didn’t sign. That happy window is just a small part of Saturday’s show. Songs such as “Whipped Cream,” “Lonely Bull,” “Tijuana Taxi” and “A Taste of Honey” — the ones you’re thinking of when you think of Alpert — are confined to a celebratory medley.
It’s music from a half-century ago, and Alpert has covered a lot of sonic ground since then. He took over the discos in 1979 with “Rise.” His 2013 album Steppin’ Out won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental album. The latest album, In the Mood, has his familiar Latin feel, but also shows Alpert experimenting with hip-hop beats. And just as he added an electronic ambiance to Steppin’ Out‘s remake of “The Lonely Bull,” he revisits the Tijuana Brass’ “Spanish Harlem” with a little electronica, funk and R&B. The album’s a collection of standards, including a Latin version of “America the Beautiful” — just in time for the next round of political debates on immigration — that he calls “a really interesting combination of electric, jazz and a sophisticated string section.”
But early in his life, this accomplished fellow was struggling to find his life’s path, just like the rest of us. “I had a classical background, and listened to people like Harry James,” Alpert says. “And then I got co-opted by Miles and Louis Armstrong. Miles taught me about space, how space is as important as jamming everything full of notes.” Alpert was also toying with acting. He had brief roles in The Ten Commandments and Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, although you wouldn’t know it unless you knew where to look; typecast already, he played musicians.
His early music career was writing for others. He co-wrote “Wonderful World” for Cooke and “Alley Oop” for The Hollywood Argyles. And when he stepped into a studio, it was as a singer. Not until a 1962 visit to Mexico, when he heard Mariachi music, was Alpert inspired to create the Tijuana Brass sound in his garage studio. When “The Lonely Bull” became a hit, he realized he’d better put together a real Tijuana Brass.
And a label to release the music. Alpert was the A in A&M. Jerry Moss was the M, the business side of what became the most-important independent label in the industry. One business decision that really boosted the Tijuana Brass profile was its decision to license its music for gas, beer and chewing gum commercials, and as the theme for The Dating Game.
“I surround myself with really good people,” Alpert says. “I’m a right-brain guy.” Neurologists have long maintained that’s the creative side, so Alpert gets the feel thing.
“It’s all about feel,” Alpert says. “I learned that from Sam Cooke. Sam was a genius. He didn’t know he was a genius. He was special, he had an innate ability to hear the right things.
“He had this notebook with lyrics, and sometimes he’d show them to me. I’d look at these lyrics and think: Man, this is corny. Then he’d pick up a guitar and transform them into something magical. It was all about intent, where he put the notes. He’d say, ‘It ain’t what you do, it’s how you do it.’ “
And it worked when someone handed Alpert a tape of a brother-sister duo. “I listened to the tape like Sam Cooke taught me,” he says. “He said, ‘Close your eyes, listen. Music is just a cold piece of wax, it either makes it or it doesn’t.’ I listened, and it felt like Karen was sitting in the couch next to me.”
The Carpenters didn’t catch on immediately, but Alpert had a feeling. He gave them a song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” That did it.
But that was decades ago. Alpert and Moss sold A&M to Polygram in 1987, and in recent years he has stayed at a safe distance as the record industry collapsed. “We were really behind the curve,” Alpert says. “Steve Jobs had the right idea. As we were chasing people for file sharing, he came up with new technologies for music.”
The new technologies: “It’s moving so fast, I wish all of these egghead people would take a six-month break,” Alpert says.
Let the feel come back into the music. “A lot of artists are just seeing singles,” he says. “LPs are not that popular anymore, except for the Taylor Swifts of the world. The way it is now, you don’t get a feeling for the artist. That’s why I think the old LPs are great.”
LPs like Whipped Cream & Other Delights. And its iconic cover of a naked woman slathered in whipped cream. Actually, she’s wrapped in a white blanket with strategically applied doses of shaving cream, as whipped cream would melt under the photo studio’s lights.
“At all the concerts we play, it never fails,” Alpert says. “Somebody is going to ask about that cover. And I’ll say, ‘Yeah, what did you think of the album?’ And they’ll say, ‘Well, I haven’t heard it yet.’ “
Herb Alpert and Lani Hall
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre.
Tickets: $33 to $63 at rochesterjazz.com.