‘IN THE MOOD’: HERB ALPERT STILL WORKS MELODIES LIKE NOBODY ELSE
Before Grammy-winning trumpeter Herb Alpert’s new album even came out last Tuesday, buzz for In The Mood on Shout! Factory was huge. Sure enough, the collection of updated standards and originals hit iTunes and Amazon hard, consistently garnering five out of five stars.
Customer reviews — the best endorsement — are in, and couldn’t be more positive. Captain Bacardi wrote: “I’ve listened to this about a dozen times already and I keep digging it more each time. One of the first things I noticed is the rather short times on many songs — between 2:30 and 3:30 for the most part, conjuring up memories of the records of old. That may explain why this album has been so easy to listen to. It seems this is a bit more pop-oriented, although Herb does get in some brief jazz solos here and there.” Quasimike added that “Herb’s back, as good as ever! What a great sound! Unmistakably Herb (sounding as good as he ever has) yet very bouncy and groovy in a get-up-and-dance kind of way. Such a fun arrangement of the classic ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo!’”
Groove. Alpert, 79, oozes it out of every pore. He doesn’t play a song without feeling the melody, heightening it, enhancing it, making it a part of an emotional experience. “I’m always trying to do something that’s a little bit different than the time before. Not really knowing what that’s gonna be like until I get there but, you know, I try to be as honest as I can as an artist,” Alpert explained. “… If it feels good, I stop no matter what stage I’m in. But that’s the measure for me… I think the audience responds to honesty. They like when it feels good. And that’s going back to the mystery of art. I think if something feels good, it resonates, not necessarily in the ears, but it feels good, it resonates in the soul.”
This jazz icon — with over 72 million records in the record books — can make music feel good. He’s so good at this that nearly every album he’s ever recorded has topped the charts and attracted much critical favor in the industry. Last January, he won his ninth Grammy for the 2013 album, Steppin’ Out, which contained the updated dance hit, “Puttin’ On The Ritz.” In the glorious instrumental heyday of the 1960s, Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Band ruled the radio waves, with scores of platinum and gold albums — once, hitting big with four albums in the Top 10 at the same time. He’s also the only artist to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 as a singer and a musician.
Herb Alpert’s sound changes with the times, yet remains indelibly Herb Alpert. He has an ear for catchy hooks and interesting melodies, which he plays up in a bounty on this new record — with the help of a core group of trusted musicians, including his nephew Randy Badazz Alpert, Grammy-winning singer wife Lani Hall (Sérgio Mendes & Brasil ‘66), and eight-year band, pianist Bill Cantos, bassist Hussain Jiffry (the album’s chief engineer), and drummer Mike Shapiro.
In a way, it’s as if time stood still. Alpert’s still playing on everyone’s stereo or radio. There’s still that Tijuana Brass sense of nostalgia, fun, and carefree, seaside samba in “Amy’s Tune” and “Zoo Train.”
Yet, upon closer inspection, there’s also slight advances swirling in the background, itching closer, keeping the 14 songs relevant to today’s electronic gear shift. Randy Badazz Alpert, who co-wrote his uncle’s 1979 monster hit, “Rise,” is on this new record too. He lends his considerable updating talents to the breakout hit single, “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”
If ever a cover needed an upgrade, it’s this ancient — often spoofed — slice of Americana. Of all the tunes, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” stands out as the most contemporary, edgy even. Thanks to the clever, hard-hitting use of loops by Badazz from the very beginning, it easily could stand alongside the latest techno-dance set at any L.A. or Manhattan club packed to the gills with 20-somethings. Combined with Herb Alpert’s timeless flair for pulling out the coolest repartee of melody in any song he happens to dig, this becomes a seamless fusion of old and new, techno and Tijuana Brass jazz. It’s a working, progressive integration in the driving percussive force rising out of expert electronic manipulation within melody for days.
Smooth jazz guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. swindles contemporary-funk licks to launch “Blue Moon” into another category altogether. Alpert lightly plays off those licks on his trumpet in notes smooth then succulent, never missing a melodic moment. Badazz and Alpert also arranged this edgy contemporary upgrade.
Cole Porter’s “Begin The Beguine” has always remained slightly elusive to the melodic grasp of one too many esoteric jazz experiments. Until now. Alpert swoops in, picking up on only the most beautiful, graceful, and ethereally romantic notes intrinsic to this exotic tale. Mike Shapiro modernizes the Cantos/Alpert arrangement with his looped percussive trip, marrying the richness of 1930s melodic splendor with a futuristic scope.
One of the most edgy thrusts can be found in “Don’t Cry,” a vocalese instrumental similar to the feel of a rap with a wordless Latin scat. Lani Hall and Bill Cantos provide the subdued but stirring enumeration, while Alpert holds down his familiar melodic line.
Alpert includes a nod to his early Tijuana Brass Band with the inclusion of “Spanish Harlem” and “Let It Be Me.” The lush arrangement of strings and Alpert’s haunting, wavering horn line is such a thing of beauty. Drummer Mike Shapiro, Alpert, and bassist Hussain Jiffry cast a musical net out with this one, catching lovely snippets of childhoods past, surfing in Hawaii’s North Shore, and an aching loneliness for an eternal future.
Alpert’s trumpet splash builds up to the familiar strains of “Spanish Harlem,” awakening every Baby Boomer asleep at the wheel of today’s modern, acid-washed music. His familiar but changing melody cuts through the crap, aided by the gospel chorus, lending even more sobering significance and the divine. So short (2:42) but so effective.
On “America The Beautiful,” Alpert plays the melody almost as originally written, skimming over the more formalized, militarized parts — to make it a more personal anthem of multi-cultural discovery. He, Shapiro, and Jamieson Trotter arranged the iconic piece to include indigenous drums from all over the world. Africa’s percussive safari run was the best part of all. What’s insightful here is Alpert kept a respectful distance, not overpowering the beats, keeping his melodic line fair, letting the other (percussive) voices be heard — as the perfect, gentlemanly host. Goosebumps.
Herb Alpert, his wife Lani Hall, and their band (Bill Cantos, Mike Shapiro, Hussain Jiffrey) kick off their In The Mood Tour at Hartford, CT’s Infinity Music Hall this Saturday. They’ll travel all over the U.S., including Seattle’s Jazz Alley for a number of engagements (Nov. 13-16), Maui Arts and Culture Center December 5, and Honolulu’s Blaisdell Center, December 6.