Herb Alpert: On The Record

Telly Davidson By

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It was no less than Miles Davis who once opined, "You don't have to hear but three notes before you know it's Herb Alpert." True enough, while Alpert's name isn't often mentioned in the same sentence as the other icons of West Coast jazz (many of whom appeared on records produced by his and Jerry Moss' A&M label), his trumpet has one of the most recognizable and iconic voices in postwar instrumental performance. While Latin rhythms had already gotten their foot in America's door, thanks to artists like Tito Puente and Desi Arnaz, as founder and star of The Tijuana Brass in the 1960s, Alpert introduced a whole new sound based in upbeat Mexican mariachi and banda rhythms, crossed with romantic balladry and vibraphonic vocabularies.

On Feb. 7th, 2011, Alpert and his highly accomplished wife, vocalist Lani Hall, released their latest CD on the Concord Records label, I Feel You.The album, driven by Hall's sultry and drivingly authoritative vocal stylings in counterpoint to Herb's mellow yet trenchant horn, feature their reimaginings of vocal jazz standards like "Fever," "There Will Never Be Another You,"and "'Till There Was You," along with pop classics that parallel A&M's golden era.

Before the '60s went psychedelic, Alpert's sound defined the decade, from swinging spy movies to jazz bars and bachelor pads across the country. No self-respecting "Mad Man" in the Don Draper era would have been without an album or two from the TJB, or their equally iconic covers. To this day, perhaps no album cover is as well- remembered—or parodied—as 1965's Whipped Cream and Other Delights (A&M, 1965). Using the TJB's success to build A&M Records into a powerhouse perhaps second only to Motown among the major indie labels of the era, Alpert watched A&M's revenue go from $500,000 in 1964 to nearly $30 million just three years later. The performers who called A&M home during the late 1960s and '70s read like a veritable Who's Who of rock, pop and jazz royalty. From Karen Carpenter, Supertramp, The Police, The We Five, Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, Billy Preston, the Captain and Tennille, and Peter Frampton to straight-ahead and Latin legends like Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Gato Barbieri, Chuck Mangione, George Benson, Sergio Mendes, and Burt Bacharach—all recorded at A&M's historic studios on La Brea in Hollywood, the former site of Charlie Chaplin's studio lot.

Following a spring mini-tour in support of I Feel You, Alpert returns to his West Coast Habitat in May, with dates scheduled in Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Monica and Orange County.

AAJ: Your wife, Lani Hall, said that she can see her music in pictures, in a very visual, cinematic sense, and that helps her with her interpretations. Is that the same way with you? When you hear a song in your mind, can you see the sort of music-video imagery that goes along with it?

HA: I don't know if mine is as exact as her's—she's pretty specific of what she sees; she can describe it in minute detail. The first record I recorded for A&M was The Lonely Bull, based on experiences I had in Tijuana in 1962. And when that record became a big hit, I was getting letters from people from every part of the world thanking me for this vicarious trip to Tijuana, which I found very fascinating. And from that point on, I realized that I needed to make visual music, that I needed to make music that stirs or conjures up images, and that's what I always tried to do.

AAJ: A surprising number of singers and musicians also seem to be gifted in painting, drawing, and sculpting. How long have you painted and sculpted, and what led you to transition into visual arts recently?

HA: Well, I transitioned after traveling around the world, playing concerts with the Brass. I'd go to museums and I'd get inspired, and I started painting around 1970, so I've been at it around 40 years. I think there's a connection in all the arts. I've kind of been blessed in that I don't think too hard about it, I don't over-analyze what I'm doing and how I'm doing it. When I paint or sculpt, it's just something that comes out of me, it's just a feel, and when I feel like I'm finished I stop. And if someone likes it, great, but if they don't then, that's all right, too.

AAJ: That sounds an awful lot like the philosophy of jazz improv, of free-form jazz.

HA: Well, that's what jazz is all about. It's all about the moment, and I think that's the thrill of it. The thing that makes it so much fun for me now, with what I'm doing with my wife and this great trio behind us is that every night it's something different. Basically, Lani establishes the song, and then everything that's happening behind her is just pure improv. Given that we know the chord changes and the general plan, everything that the musicians play is just very spontaneous. Night after night, it's a new experience.

AAJ: A&M Records was known for its perfectionism in recording its acts, and for using up-to-the-minute recording technology and special effects. That said, when you're outside the studio and performing live, even if it is funkier and messier, there's that feedback from the performer to the audience, like a stage actor. Do you prefer one to the other? What does each one mean to you?

HA: I actually think there's a little bit of a danger with the technology the way it is today. There's umpteen tracks you can record on, and there's umpteen ways that you can clean up a recording, cleaning up the intonation, cleaning up every little detail, cleaning up whatever you want to. And to me, that sort of takes the heart and soul away from music. Music should be people bouncing off of each other and taking the good with the bad, and that's what we were consciously try to do.

For me, some of the recordings that I hear nowadays are just a little too worked-over, too "perfect." Everything's in just the "right" place. I had this experience with a rock and roll band back at A&M recording at one of our studios, and it was time for them to mix the record for the final stages, and I remember talking to one of the musicians, and I said, "Well, this should be rather easy—you just have four pieces in the group," and he said "Yeah, man, but we have the drums on 30 tracks!" And I said, "What the hell are you gonna do with 30 tracks of drums?" [Laughs] I mean, they had every possibility covered! But in the final analysis, that just makes confusion—you kind of lose perspective if you have that many options.

AAJ: One of the things that the old TV game show and variety/talk show people used to say when the trend went over to pre-taped shows from live, is that you could do a lot more with a show taped in advance—but you lost your spontanaity. Is it sort of like that?
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