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In the documentary Herb Alpert Is…, which was released in theaters and on Watch @ Home platforms on October 1, drummer Questlove of The Roots describes the artistry of the film's titular trumpet player as "The happiest music in existence." That's certainly an apt description for Alpert's signature brand of instrumental pop music, and it might even explain how, in 1966, he managed to surpass The Beatles in terms of recordings sold. There's no denying that the musician who gave us such iconic albums as The Lonely Bull, Whipped Cream &Other Delights and South of the Border has tapped into a signature sound that appeals the world over.
The origins of that signature sound -- and the subsequent triumphs it achieved -- are thoughtfully and vividly considered in the new documentary, which traces Alpert's evolution from the son of a Russian immigrant in Los Angeles to one of the best-selling recording artists of all time and the founder of A&M Records. The film was directed by John Scheinfeld, who made a splash in the jazz world in 2016 with the release of Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary. Scheinfeld's filmic approach is wide-ranging yet intimate, and the documentary makes compelling use of unseen film footage, concert recordings and commentary from Alpert and the musicians who knew him best to tell the story of an artist who, through every vicissitude of his career, managed to stay true to himself.
JAZZIZ spoke to Alpert from his home in Los Angeles in advance of the documentary's release. Below is an excerpt of the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Hi Herb, how have you been? How have you been holding up during quarantine?
I’m a lucky guy, man. I paint, I sculpt, I blow the horn. I consider myself very fortunate to be in the situation that I’m in. I’ve been making music, recording a lot of songs. When it’s on the computer, when it’s with the zeros and ones, you can do it. I could work with people in Afghanistan who are doing the same thing. So, you know, I’m having a good time, trying to work some things out with Jeff Lorber at the moment, new songs and standards.
The horn is never far from you, is it? You play every day?
It’s right here by my side (picks up the trumpet and plays a few notes). Every day, my friend.
Well, obviously, I’d love to start out by talking about the documentary, Herb Alpert Is…, which is kind of a retrospective on your life to this point. I imagine that it must have been surreal to be sorting through all this archived material – old photographs, film footage, recordings. What was it like?
It was something that I really was not thinking about doing. I've been approached through the years by many different directors who wanted to do a documentary on me. But when I met John Schofield and I saw the work he did know with the John Coltrane documentary, he seemed like a -- I don't know – a regular guy. I try to hang out with people I feel comfortable with. I'm an introvert. And he was very comfortable. He was approaching it a bit like a jazz musician. He didn't have a storyboard in mind or anything. He wanted to interview me and my wife, Lani, and then build the story around it. So I liked that approach and I just felt he might be the right guy. So we took a chance and I was very happy with the results.
How did the distance of time affect your perspective on things? For example, outselling The Beatles in 1966. That means one thing in 1966, when they were known as a certain kind of group. But how about knowing what would become of The Beatles, and how they would change music?
I never even thought about it, really. It didn’t change my perspective now. I was on my own path, you know. I had The Lonely Bull, which pretty much started A&M Records in 1966. And I had my choice of doing The Lonely Bull sideways and upside down and in every variation, but I had this sound, which I knew was a good sound, and which I wanted to push forward. And that's what I decided to do. And from my point of view, it's all about timing. You know, I was at the right place at the right time and I was prepared. So that was the thing that swung the door wide open for me. And I was able to walk through it.
I learned a lot from the great Sam Cooke. Not that he was aware I was learning from him. But he was a mentor. He was a guy that I was curious about because he was so natural, so easy to be with. He could take a song that seemed a bit tired at the time and, when he picked up, with just a little bit of guitar it suddenly took on a new meeting. And that's when it struck me that art isn’t anything but feel. I think the feel is the whole game in art, whether you're a painter, sculptor, musician, poet – doesn't really matter. It's all about the feel, and the feel is subjective. It’s not one thing for everyone. That’s always been my perspective.
Your “feel” has inspired millions of people. In a lot of ways, it defined the sound of instrumental pop in the 1960s.
But I never tried to make a hit record. I mean, I was aware that I could make an album that would get played on the radio. But I was taking chances with all sorts of things. I mean, I wanted to play in a Tijuana-style brass group. Who in jazz was doing that? But that’s what I heard. And I heard my own version of “Taste of Honey,” and again, I wasn’t trying to make a hit record. That was just the music I had in my head. But when that thing hit, it just opened the doors real wide for me.
That must have liberated you to be the head of your own record label, back when that was relatively rare for a jazz musician.
It was a great lesson for me. It was where I turned a lemon into lemonade. I was recording for a major record company before A&M records and they treated me like a number. And I didn't like the feeling of the studios. Everything felt cold. Didn't feel like they were respecting the artist. I remember an engineer slapping my hand when I tried to raise the bass in the EQ. So yeah, I filed all that and I'd use all that information with A&M. It was an artist-led label. We loved the artists. And we especially loved the artists that were onto something that was a little different than the beat of the week. We like those artists that had a little something left of center. So that's how we survived.
And how did you give artists their creative space?
Well, it was just the two of us, my partner, Jerry Moss. And our whole philosophy was just to treat people fairly. I had an experience with Jerry in 1964. We discovered Waylon Jennings. And I used to go to Phoenix and record Waylon. And I did this one song with him called “Four Strong Winds” that was written by Bobby Barrett. When Chet Atkins heard that song, he made a couple of remarks to Waylon that whenever he got out of his contract with A&M, he'd love to talk to him. Chet Atkins was head of RCA at the time. Waylon told me about the conversation, and how he felt that RCA would allow him to really take his career in a more country direction.
[caption id="attachment_34628" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Herb Alpert (left) and Jerry Moss, founders of A&R Records[/caption]
And so we decided to let him out of his contract. We had another three years on him. But he wanted to go with Chet, so we let him go with Chet. And I remember Jerry said to me, “You know, that guy's going to be a big artist.” And I said, “I know. And that’s the point. If he’s going to be the artist he wants o be, we’ve got to let him go.” So that was the whole deal, to be honest and straight with artists. I knew if I could do that we’d be a huge success. And that's what happened.
The label was so diverse. You signed everyone from Carole King to Janet Jackson. Was there a commonality to the kinds of artists you liked to work with?
Sergio Mendez, Kansas, Cat Stevens, The Carpenters – I mean, it's all over the board. But all good artists have one thing in common: They're authentic. They're real. When I met the carpenters in 1969 there was something about the music they were making. It was like coming out of them naturally. They were affecting us. It wasn't the type of music I would normally listen to. But when I heard her voice, I said, Hmm, that's nice. That's an interesting sound there. And she didn't know she was the singer. Yet. She played drums. Then I signed them without me having to go to a board of directors and walked into my partner's office. And I said, Jerry, I'm starting this group called The Carpenters. He said, "Oh, great." So, I mean, that was how we operated.
[caption id="attachment_34630" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Richard Carpenter (left) with Karen Carpenter and Herb Alpert. (Photo: Courtesy A&R Records)[/caption]
What’s been happening with the Herb Alpert Foundation during quarantine? Any new projects?
We just renovated the Harlem School of the Arts, which I'm so happy we're involved in. I remember back in 2010 I saw an article in the New York Times that said the school was closing due to lack of funds. And I had a knee jerk reaction to that, a little research into it and, and just got involved. We put some money on the table there and reopened the center and it is thriving, man. It's doing fantastic. I'm very proud of it. I'm proud of all the things we do. Last year we supported around 95 different organizations that help kids.
What’s next for you, Herb?
I don’t know. It's a crazy time right now. I mean, we had to cancel concerts through Canada and the United States. Then we were going to play at Ronnie Scott's in London. I canceled that. We, we postponed it to 2021 and hopefully we can do it then, but even at this moment in history, that sounds like it may not be possible.
There are so many great musicians that are playing that people never heard of. So it's all a matter of being at the right place at the right time, the musicians that have good understanding of the internet, social media – they’ll have a better shot than the people that are just being practicing alone in their room or hoping that somebody's going to call them for a gig. I think if those days are over, you gotta. Right now, you gotta get out there and show your wares. Whatever that means these days.
As for me, I’m just recording all the time. I love the process. I have a setup at home and I love keeping my brain active, manipulating all these sounds that come my way.. It's fun for me. And I like making records. And I know it sounds corny but I like to make music to make myself feel good. And if I can do that, then maybe another person might enjoy it. And that's about how I approached it, all the music I made. If it feels good to me, maybe it’ll speak to you, too.