Herb Alpert on Tijuana Brass, Painting and Sculpting, and the New Documentary “Herb Alpert Is…” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Herb Alpert on Tijuana Brass, Painting and Sculpting, and the New Documentary “Herb Alpert Is…”

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Sep 28, 2020 Herb Alpert
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Legendary recording artist Herb Alpert is the kind of guy who gives you keen, friendly marriage advice just because he cares. He’s kind and smooth and insightful. Alpert’s Tijuana Brass sound took over the 1960s (outselling The Beatles for a stretch) and along the way he started the famed A&M record label, which worked with artists from The Carpenters to Sérgio Mendes. Alpert is also a philanthropist. When the Harlem School of the Arts was going to close, he made sure it wouldn’t with a huge financial donation.

This year, Herb Alpert Is…, a new documentary about the artist’s life, will hit streaming screens. In it, viewers see a window into his life, not only as a musician, but also as a painter and sculptor. It’s accompanied by a 63-song box set of the same name.

We caught up with the lifelong creative soul—who recently released a cover version of “Smile” (co-written by Charlie Chaplin and memorably also performed by Nat King Cole)—to ask him about his days in music, his thoughts on the importance of art, and feeling.

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): I know you were introduced to the trumpet early on in grade school. And you picked it up from a group of instruments in class one day and it spoke to you. But independent of that experience, when did first discover music in a personal way?

Herb Alpert: I did have that moment when the trumpet was talking for me. That’s only because I was starting to make noise on it. [Laughs] I wasn’t really making music. I was just making a sound and that was the sound I couldn’t really get out of my mouth. But I guess it took about three or four years before I started, you know, being able to play some songs and have some fun doing that. Then I joined the little band that was in my junior high school. And when I was in high school, I was part of a little trio. We started playing parties and weddings and it became rather successful because we were on this High Talent battle show that was new in Los Angeles in the beginnings years of television. We won this show about 12 weeks in a row. Because of that we became, like, a known quantity. People started coming up to me and saying, “Hey, I like the way you play!” So, I got encouragement but at the same time, I was insecure, you know, like most artists are. And I started trying to play a little bit like my favorite musicians and then I had the ah-ha! “Who wants to hear that? These guys have already done it.” I was looking for my own voice. That’s when the breakthrough happened.

I wonder also, in a supplementary way, when did you discover music? Not even playing or the trumpet. Just music in general. How did it first appear in your world as a young person—was it hearing records from across the room or your parents singing in the house?

Yeah, I guess it was creeping up on me. My dad came to this country from Russia when he was 16 years old. He didn’t speak the language at all. But he brought his mandolin with him. He used to play mandolin by ear. Not with his ear. [Laughs] He didn’t quite know what he was doing but he was doing it by feel. Every time I saw him and heard him play his nostrils would flare out. He’d be into it. That’s when I started to get that the feeling of music is more than just sound. It’s a feeling, you know? Once I started to get that on the trumpet, I understood how seductive it was to be able to play an instrument. The beauty of it is, you never get to the end product. You’re always searching for that next way of being able to find something to accomplish. So, I think that’s the thing that keeps me going. Because I love the process.

When you begin to write a song, does it generally start with the trumpet or can it be any inspiration, piano lick, a bird’s song?

Well, I learned how to play the piano, as well. So, I would be writing, you know, and you’d hit some chords. You hit a couple sequences of chords and all of a sudden you’ve got the start of a harmonic structure that leads you to want to write some kind of melody over the top of that. And that’s what I did. And when I met Lou Adler—he had some poetry that I put music to. And the music and the poetry kind of matched nicely, so we went into a studio and we recorded some demos. With those demos, we went around to—well, I didn’t. Lou was the one that knocked on doors. I was following. And he got us a job at Keen Records as staff writers. That’s when I met the great Sam Cooke and worked with him for a while and learned a lot from him.

There was that great moment in the documentary when you realized, thanks to Sam, that a great song isn’t necessarily dependent on technical ability but that it’s more about style or how you do something.

I think all art is the same. I think all the art forms, whether you’re a dancer, poet, actor, sculptor, painter, musician—it’s all about feel. I think it’s all about feel. I don’t think anything else matters. Of course, you have to have a good song and you have to have put in the time to learn your craft. But if you have that under control to some degree, I think it’s all about feeling. It’s not about how pretty you are. It’s not about how technical you are as a musician. I hear a lot of musicians that are just whizzes. They play fast and loud and up and down and they play all the changes and all the chords and all the modes, they know all that stuff. But you listen to them and you’re kind of staring out the window. The other guys like Miles Davis plays three notes and you go, “Whoa! Wow! Where’d you find those notes!?” It’s a different world.

Listening to your music—like Whipped Cream & Other Delights, for example—there is so much nuance and also so much whimsy. Did you think about that balance as a way of creating a genuine, authentic joy in your music?

I didn’t think about it. But you said the magic word: authentic. That’s what I’ve always tried to be. If you can be authentic and do whimsy, do serious, do whatever. But as long as it’s authentic, that’s what resonates with people. That’s what I learned from Sam Cooke. He was a great gospel singer and he was authentic. Whatever he was singing, whether it was a corny song or a deep song, it was authentic.

What is your relationship with self-doubt when you’re being creative? There’s a great moment in the documentary when you talk about getting that calm feeling, that’s when you know a project is done. But what about during the process, do you self-analyze often?

Oh, yeah, man. I met some great musicians in my day that all have that. That’s all part of the game. You never think you got it covered totally—at least, I’ve never met anyone that has. And I’ve met the great ones. Yeah, they’re all wondering if the next note is going to come out right. It’s fun, though! I think that’s the thing that keeps you going.

Do you have the same feeling when you’re sculpting or painting that you have with music?

Absolutely, I do. I try to be as authentic as I can. I try to rise up to my own water level, whatever that happens to be. And I try not to judge myself with others. I went through that and it doesn’t work. Am I as good as Miles Davis? Can I play like Louis Armstrong? And all these other, you know, favorites of mine. When I finally came to the realization that, “No I can’t. And they can’t do what I do. So, let’s leave it at that!” It’s an easier way to approach it.

Comparison is the thief of joy.

It’s a tough road because when I played in Italy and Rome and I went to the Sistine Chapel one day and coming out the other end, I was like, I couldn’t believe what Michelangelo accomplished as a painter, as a sculptor. You think to yourself, “Man, what am I doing sculpting? What am I doing painting?” You get trapped in that and then you say—you got to get beyond that, is what I’m trying to say. You can’t compare yourself to others.

What is it like for you to have a documentary now about your life?

You know, it was kind of frightening and it was a lot of things I learned on the route. I wasn’t eager to do a documentary. I honestly—I’ve had my time in the sun. I feel great about that. I feel like things that happen in my life could be helpful to others. The idea that I had the American dream come true, at least I thought I did. I thought I had the brass ring. I was rich, I was famous. But I wasn’t happy. There’s something wrong with that equation. I had to work through that and I think just putting that out there in the documentary, for the most part, I think is a helpful experience for others, maybe.

It was great seeing the relationship you and your wife have. The moment where you really break down emotionally in the movie and you talk about how important she is to you, how she sees you as a person not as a commodity. That was a really deep moment.

I really met somebody who was totally honest. She didn’t pull any punches. She didn’t do anything in a mean way, she was just being herself and real. We’ve been married for 47 years now and together for probably 50. But she’s an angel. She changed my life. She actually changed my life.

I was recently married and having been through some not great relationships and now landing in an incredible one, I think I have an idea what you mean.

Well, I was married before. I was too young. I wasn’t mature enough to really understand the relationship. But love is lovelier the second time around! I really believe that, you know?

You’ve very good at combining things, genres, people, music groups. Where do you think that skill comes from?

I think I’m a real sensitive guy, you know? I’m 85-percent in the right side of my brain. And I don’t think real hard about all this stuff. I kind of try to just let it be a feel and I can—I have a jazz, well not a jazz background. I have a classical background, actually. Then I transferred over into that jazz feeling that I have. And I respond to things. I was the first one to record Waylon Jennings. I did his first record. Because I liked Waylon’s voice. And not because he was a “country artist,” or whatever. I just liked his voice. And when I heard The Carpenters in 1969—and everybody in Los Angeles, all the record companies, had rejected them. I heard that voice of Karen’s and I thought, “Hmm, Wow! That’s an interesting voice!” It reminded me of Patti Paige, when I was going to high school. But it had a ring to it. And then when I met them and Karen actually didn’t even know she was a singer. She thought she was a drummer. But when I met them and I realized that what they were doing was reflecting exactly how they feel musically. They weren’t affecting it. They weren’t trying to, you know, score any points by doing something that you think people might like. They were just being themselves and that’s what I’ve always responded to. Artists that are special in their own way. When we auditioned Sérgio Mendes in Brazil, it was the same thing. I heard that sound. That was a new thing for me because I remember the record Stan Getz had with “The Girl From Ipanema” but that was, you know, 1962. And then when I heard Sergio in 1966, that was, like, a flashback to that bossa nova-type of feeling. I don’t know, it just touched me.

You mentioned your father. He was an immigrant who came to the U.S. at 16. For you to live your dream, he had to be successful and did it with flying colors. When you think of that as the backdrop, what does the idea of America mean to you today?

Oh man, it means there’s that amazing potential that we have as a society. It’s called freedom—freedom of expression and freedom of idea, which we all have. That’s what we should always strive for. I think musicians are the heart and soul of our democracy. Artists, in general, are the heart and soul of our democracy. That’s something that we have to nurture. Also, I think, especially musicians but artists, as well—musicians are the second responders. We all want to feel something, that we are not alone and we are okay. And musicians can do that. They’re certainly not the first responders—we need them desperately and they do an amazing job. But we need that also, that other thing—I think when you’re listening to music or when you’re watching a good movie or seeing a good piece of sculpture or panting, you’re kind of in a meditation that let’s you stop analyzing and thinking for a while. You become—it’s a meditation, to some degree. And I think that’s what the artists bring to the world. A meditation that’s, I think, something that’s super necessary. Especially in the world as we know it now.

What made you want to record the song, “Smile”? I believe Charlie Chaplain had a hand in the original version, which has some symmetry given that the A&M offices used to be on an old Charlie Chaplain lot?

I’ve always liked the song. Charlie Chaplain supposedly wrote the melody, he didn’t write the lyric. But I wanted to do something that was uplifting, something that was positive. Obviously, I’m not a politician. But if I could put something out there that makes people think and feel and feel good about what they see and hear. Because I think people—that song has lasted for years and years and years. It was sung in a movie in the ’20s, I believe. The late ’20s or early ’30s and that melody lingers on. I’ve always liked it. I’ve played it before. But that lyric is fabulous. And the combination and trying to put something visual together—I think people, for the most part, they don’t listen with their ears or their eyes. They listen with their heart and when you hear a song that touches you—it’s moving you. And you can’t analyze what you like about it. You might say, “Well, I like the melody.” “Okay, so what. Now what about that melody do you like?” “I don’t know! I like the way the chords feel when the melody hits.” You know, you can’t get to it. You can’t get to analyze jazz. You can’t analyze a Jackson Pollock painting. You stand in front of it and you try to analyze it and you’re lost, man. And you’ll never get it. It’s all about a feel, as I see it. And the art ork is a bit—not that you’re asking me this [laughs]—of smoke and mirrors, you know? Picasso nailed it, you know? I’ve been painting for 50 years and sculpting and I’ve had really great success doing it. But what he said was, you take an average painting and put it into a room with some great paintings and everyone will walk around thinking that average painting is wonderful. Because it’s in that room with that great painting. He says, you take that same painting and put it in a room with a bunch of dog paintings and they’ll think it’s terrible. “Why did that person paint that!” Do you know what I mean? It’s tricky!

What do you love most about music, or art, in general?

What I personally like about it is that it transports me. It takes me to a place that’s peaceful. When I’m making music, painting, or sculpting, I’m in another world. I’m not thinking about politics or anything else that’s happening. I’m certainly not oblivious to, you know, danger. But I just feel like it takes me to a place—it’s a meditative place that feels great. I would hope to think more people can access that. But a lot of people, they have the ability to do something creative but they think too hard about it. They think if it’s good or bad. I got beyond that. I just started painting and feeling like this is getting up to my own water level, what I can do, and leave it at that. If somebody else likes it—and I feel that way about music. This sounds, maybe, pretentious. But I never thought of making hit records. Believe it or not. “The Lonely Bull,” I worked that out. That was the first record that started A&M. After that, with the Tijuana Brass, I was trying to make records that made me feel good, you know? And explore this sound that I had. I knew I had an identifiable sound on the trumpet and I tried to make music that made me feel good. I felt that if it was making me feel good, maybe someone else might like it. But I never was desperate to try and make a hit record. That was the truth. The people that tried to copy my sound, that Tijuana Brass sound, which I sold um-teen-million records. They put it down verbatim. Note for note. But when they played it back, it was kind of like, to me, it was very stiff. And it didn’t have the feel—back to the feel word. And when I played it, I never looked at the music. I just kind of interpreted the music each time I played it. The nuances are very slight but that’s the way I approached the horn. I approached it like a jazz musician. If you try too hard to attract attention with what you’re doing or if you’re playing for musicians or if you’re playing for someone other than your own self—it has to be of the moment or else it doesn’t make any sense.


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