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Herb Alpert: On The Record

Telly Davidson By

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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?

HA: Oh, yeah! Us old timers remember the old Milton Berle and the Sid Caesar shows, and we knew that that was just happening, it was just live, and just whatever happened at that moment was what happened, and there's something really engaging about that.

AAJ: Does performing live, improvising, working without a net still turn you on, does it still give you a thrill?

HA: Oh, it's a definite thrill. There's a feeling of wonder, actually, because sometimes you play things that you didn't even realize you were capable of playing, or you get—it's hard to put it into words, but I get the same feeling when I'm painting and sculpting, sometimes, something happens that's just totally out of my control, and it's really beautiful, and I'm not even sure how I did it, but it's there—and it's to be appreciated, at least by me.

AAJ: Political-incorrectness time. How did a nice Jewish guy from the southern California suburbs become so identified with introducing with bringing iconic Mexican and Latin rhythms like mariachi and banda into the Kennedy-era American mainstream?

HA: I think there was a progression there. I had a great experience working with Sam Cooke in the early days, just watching him, listening to him. He taught me some things when he didn't even really realize he was teaching me anything, but his way of thinking about making music and making records really rubbed off on me. Then, after I left that situation, I recorded for a major company for about a year, and I saw up-close how I was mishandled by them. There was an inhuman aspect to it—the recording studio was very stark, very cold, and they wouldn't even call me "Herb Alpert"—they'd call me "Number 875437A" or whatever. It was like something out of The Prisoner. Those experiences let me know what I didn't want to do if I ever had the chance to own my own record company.

As an escape, I used to go to these bullfights regularly in Tijuana in the springtime. And I was enamored of these little brass bands in the stands that would sort of "announce" the action of each event of the bullfight. People would scream and yell "!Ole!" and so forth, and I got interested in that feeling, and what I tried to do is interpret that feeling. I had never really listened to mariachi before, but I was just trying to interpret the feelings that I felt there and put it onto a record—which was The Lonely Bull, our first hit record.

AAJ: What made you decide, before you were even 30 years old, to strike out with Jerry Moss and form your own record label? How did that come about?

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