October 2, 2015

By Howard Reich

Herb Alpert isn’t 80 years old — only his birth certificate is.

The trumpeter who practically danced his way onto the stage of City Winery on Thursday night played breezily for nearly two hours without intermission, the elegance of his phrasing matched by the high spirits of his delivery.

For Alpert didn’t just play his horn. He solicited questions from the audience, told stories about his first heyday in the 1960s, duetted deftly with singer Lani Hall — his wife — and reveled not in the glow of the past but in the joy of the moment.

Sure, there were plenty of oldies to be heard, many pre-dating the classics Alpert recorded with the Tijuana Brass roughly half a century ago. But even the ancient tunes sounded fresh, reinvigorated by new arrangements featuring the trumpeter’s quartet, reimagined with exuberant vocals from Hall and otherwise directed toward the here and now.

“Was the 1960s the best for you?” someone shouted out from the crowd.

“No, right now is the best for me,” Alpert responded, though he regaled the sold-out house with tales of playing one-nighters for “20,000 people at a time.” Back then, right before getting on stage, he’d often ask his road manager, “Where are we?”

Times and musical styles inevitably change — more rapidly now than then — but Alpert has sustained a signature sound and musical attitude through it all. If there was a central aesthetic running through his music on this evening, it was an unabashed love of melody. True, Alpert riffed often on his chosen tunes, showing more fluidity as a jazz improviser than he’s generally given credit for. But the sweet simplicity of so much of his playing evoked the work of the great jazz melodists who showed everyone the way: Miles Davis, Clark Terry, Harry “Sweets” Edison and, of course, the trumpeter at the root of it all, Louis Armstrong.

You have to admire the sheer audacity of any soloist who — at this late date — is willing to dip into “Chattanooga Choo Choo” near the start of his show, complete with sound effects of a train toot-tooting in the background. But the clever re-harmonizations of the arrangement, the silken quality of Alpert’s lines and the pulsing beat of the band kept this very old train running just this side of nostalgia.

In essence, the pleasure in hearing the vintage material was in discovering what Alpert would do with it. “Besame Mucho,” for instance, always will sound most persuasive as a ballad, the ardor and poetry of the melody best savored slowly, as in the kisses the song describes. But Alpert, a tinkerer since the beginning of his career, opened with flourishes, dancing around the tune before getting to it. The tempo may have been a bit brisk for the occasion, but the radiance of Alpert’s sound and the sculpted quality of his lines briefly made you nearly forget the natural tempo for this nocturne.

Of course Alpert offered listeners a medley of requisite hits, but he showed no haste in working his way through them. There was plenty of sustained tension in “Rise,” a golden tone in “The Lonely Bull” (with funk-tinged accompaniment) and the inexorable rhythmic drive of old in “A Taste of Honey.”

Singer Hall contributed significantly to the occasion, her tenure with Sergio Mendes’ Brasil ’66 echoing in her first-rate work in Brazilian repertoire. The airy quality of Hall’s voice, plus her signature vibrato, exquisitely suited music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and past hits such as Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love,” delivered by Hall with unforced suavity.

“Come Fly With Me,” the title track of Alpert’s new album, came toward the end, and here you could zero in on the subtlety of the trumpeter’s phrasing and the distinct character of his articulation. Jazz musicians by nature strive for a singular voice, and Alpert’s remains as recognizable and welcome as ever.

Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.