Park West, May 12
By Frank Youngwerth
Almost 30 years ago, Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass had three LPs ranked among Billboard’s top six albums. And they had 2 more in the top 20. Even as the pop music audience started to fragment more along generational lines, Alpert’s distinctive updating of the traditional mariachi style caught the ears of all ages. The amazing demand for Alpert’s sound was boosted by his hit single “A Taste of Honey,” which had previously been a hit for lounge pianist Martin Denny and singer Morgana King, and less than notably covered on the first Beatles album. Alpert’s arrangement of the tune wows the listener by approximating a roller-coaster ride. Its four-bar introduction is dragged out, slowly taking you up the initial incline, with low guitar tremolos sounding like a motor straining to lift the coaster car to the top. Then a brief silence gives way to four anticipatory drum beats and a rude blast of trombone to signal the shock of looking straight down to where you’re headed. Fast triplet brush strokes on a snare drum capture the rush of the sudden drop downward. Herb’s trumpet enters, coolly understating the melody’s leaps, twists, and turns as a marimba rumbles underneath. The cycle runs about a minute, then repeats twice, concluding as a simple piano and trumpet figure takes you back into the station on an upbeat note.
“A Taste of Honey” put Alpert into millions of middle-class homes as the easy-listening artist of choice. But the record represented the culmination of a successful string of novelty singles dating back to 1959, with Alpert variously involved as producer, writer, and arranger. With partner Lou Adler (who later nurtured the careers of Carole King and the Mamas & the Papas) he produced Jan & Dean’s first top-ten hit, the very silly “Baby Talk,” and Dante & the Evergreen’s cover version of “Alley-Oop,” the song about the cartoon caveman. Alpert and Adler also wrote “Wonderful World” with Sam Cooke, a big hit for the ungimmicky singer that nevertheless contained goofy lyrics such as “Don’t know what a slide rule is for.”
A bullring fanfare and crowd noises enliven the Tijuana Brass’s 1962 debut smash “The Lonely Bull,” a strategic move from Alpert the clever producer hungry for a hit, employing himself to play the instrumental lead. He not only got his hit, but a new career as a feature performer, not to mention a stake in a label empire (A&M Records, which Alpert and partner Jerry Moss recently sold to Polygram for a half billion dollars).
But besides making money, Alpert’s trumpet helped define the sound of American pop in the 60s. It pervaded sound-track and easy-listening styles (presently in the midst of a resurgence), sometimes crossing over into country (Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”) and even soul (R.B. Greaves’s “Take A Letter Maria”). Alpert inspired the trumpet work on “Alone Again Or,” the opening, and perhaps best, track from Love’s 1967 rock classic Forever Changes. Album coproducer Bruce Botnick also engineered for Alpert at the time. When the seminal punkers-gone-goth-rockers the Damned covered “Alone Again Or” on a 1986 album, the Alpert-esque trumpet parts remained intact.
Through the years Alpert’s tried to keep his music current. He latched onto the Minneapolis sound for part of 1987’s Keep Your Eye on Me, collaborating with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (with guest vocals by Janet Jackson). More recently he flirted with house music, enlisting remixer Bobby Konders for “North on South Street.” But these records haven’t given Alpert a new musical direction.
Now he’s recast himself as a jazz player. His newest collaborator, fusion keyboardist Jeff Lorber, led off Alpert’s recent Park West show with some pompously orchestrated electric mumbo jumbo. Lorber noodled away like a plugged-in George Winston. The band launched into a mushy yet somewhat familiar groove when Alpert strutted onstage. He motioned to bring the tempo up several much-needed notches, and the introduction to his 1979 disco-funk hit “Rise” came into focus. Alpert’s warm trumpet tone and easily recognizable phrasing excelled on the sensuous, haunting melody.
But it’s hard to take Alpert seriously as a jazz improviser. Rather than exploring the harmonic possibilities offered by a song’s chord changes or working up new melodic variations, he rarely goes beyond off-the-cuff vamping, filling up musical space with footnotes that make you wish he’d get back to the main text. This problem prevents Alpert from succeeding in the role of a Tutu-era Miles Davis played to Lorber’s Marcus Miller on the new album Second Wind, from which he drew much of the concert’s material. Still, his claim in the album’s liner notes–“I’m committed to spontaneity”–makes sense in light of how he spiritedly conducted his five-piece band, signaling for sudden changes in dynamics, coaxing solos from saxophonist Gary Meek and bassist Nate Phillips, and entering into brief back-and-forth exchanges.
Alpert was equally game for impromptu versions of old 60s favorites like “Spanish Flea,” “Tijuana Taxi,” and as much as he could remember of showpiece “Zorba the Greek,” after encouraging fans to “psychically E-mail” their requests. He had prepared a hip-hopish update of “The Lonely Bull” and encored with his only vocal of the night, Bacharach and David’s “This Guy’s in Love With You,” which called for Lorber to re-create, somewhat incongruously, the dated keyboard parts from the original recording’s arrangement.
When Alpert went to his other obligatory encore, “A Taste of Honey,” he relied on his recently recorded, much mellower “jazz” treatment of the song, which is more faithful to the melody as originally written. The audience, apparently confused, held back cheers of recognition until the last chorus, when the band swung into the faster tempo and more familiar arrangement of the hit 1965 version. Alpert, who turned 60 last year, tries to keep the act fresh, but his hard-core fans remain stuck on his illustrious past. As he fielded requests from the stage, somebody cried out “The Girl From Ipanema,” a major 60s hit for Stan Getz but covered by Alpert and virtually every other instrumental artist of that era. Alpert at first joked, “I think you’ve got the wrong guy!” Then he turned it around and quizzed the audience about which of his albums the song appeared on, acknowledging the requester’s correct answer. If just to stay up-to-date, maybe Alpert’s next project should be a lounge music edition of Trivial Pursuit.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Silverman.