Smokin' Herb

"I try not to repeat myself," says trumpeter Herb Alpert. "I don't want to play another version of 'Rise' or 'The Lonely Bull' sideways."
Unfortunately, the above comment is the closest Alpert comes to discussing his past with the Tijuana Brass, even though his ultra-lucrative career is built on the backs of Brass tunes like "The Lonely Bull," "Taste of Honey," "Tijuana Taxi" and the immortal "Spanish Flea"--better known to the singles of the world as the theme song from TV's The Dating Game. In fact, if it weren't for Alpert's seven Grammys, five number-one hits and fourteen platinum albums, most of which were recorded with the Brass, the term "mariachi" might be completely absent from our vocabulary. But by the late Sixties, Alpert was feeling hemmed in by his persona and by close to a decade spent wearing Spanish boots, skintight trousers and shiny bullfighter jackets. As a result, he cast off the Brass and moved on, with nary a glance over his shoulder. Even today, his publicist warns interviewers: "Herb doesn't like it when people ask about the Tijuana Brass!"

Instead, Alpert asks reporters to focus on Second Wind, a new album (on Almo/ Geffen) that looks to the future rather than enshrining the past. Don't buy the disc expecting to be transported backward in time; the funk beats offered by drummer John "J.R." Robinson and the electronic-keyboard playing of producer Jeff Lorber give the CD a decidedly modern sheen.

"I hooked up with Jeff for the Special Olympics last June," Alpert reveals. "It was for a Christmas album called Winter Wonderland. I loved working with Jeff, because it really felt good together. So we took that next step, and we started writing songs and jamming together. Lorber is one of those left-brain/right-brain people. He's very talented and creative, but he's also got that side that works with computers and electronic toys.

"Second Wind is more funky," he goes on. "Not too tight. Rhythmically, I think it's quite different. It's much more involved and unique. I tried not to overthink. It's a lot more spontaneous. I wouldn't say it's more honest, because I always approach the horn with honesty. I want to try and impress myself and others."

Alpert's always been the ambitious type. Born in Los Angeles in 1935, he began playing trumpet at age eight--but his first real successes took place behind the scenes. While still in his early twenties, he served as an A&R representative for Keen Records and was the first producer to work in the studio with the surf duo Jan & Dean. He also became a tunesmith worthy of note; Sam Cooke made a smash of Alpert's best-known pop composition, "Wonderful World," in 1960. Two years later, he and cohort Jerry Moss formed A&M Records. The home of artists ranging from Joe Cocker to the Police, the company soon grew to major-imprint status--and when it was sold to Polygram in 1989, it left the already wealthy Alpert even richer. This deal didn't spell the end of Alpert's involvement in the music business, though. He's the "Al" (and Moss is the "mo") in Almo, his current label and the releaser of new offerings by Garbage and other contemporary acts.

Clearly, Alpert could sit in his recliner and count his cash if he wished, but he remains engaged in making his own music--music that, on Second Wind, has an unexpectedly seductive edge. The 1920s-style sex appeal of Alpert's muted Chicago Benge horn pops up on several new songs, including the appropriately titled "Flirtation" and "Rendezvous." These steamy passages make the platter an appropriate one to spin while spending sweaty moments on the couch with a significant other.

That's fine by Alpert. Still, he prefers to fly solo. "I try to turn myself on musically," he explains. "I try to make music that's coming through me."

So strongly does Alpert feel about Second Wind that he's promoting it via an eight-week tour of intimate venues in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas, Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.--his first such jaunt this decade. Notes Alpert, "I just want to support this album. I think there is something special there, and I want people to hear it. I recognize it's not a matter of just recording and putting it out. It's hard to find your audience. So I want to get out and play and have people hear it. Either they'll say 'I know why he's doing this' or 'He shouldn't have done that.'"

No matter what the audience decrees, however, Alpert's opinion of his music remains the most important one to him. "I play and record for myself," he says, adding, "Inspiration comes from inside myself. There's a void on the radio. I was missing something. A lot of the music doesn't have a melodic structure in it. I draw a melody to jazz music. It gives a sense of freedom and improvisation."

But what about mariachi? With the Beach Boys recording together for the first time in years and the surviving Beatles conducting seances with the late John Lennon, shouldn't Alpert be willing to slip on those Spanish boots again? In a word, no. And more's the pity.

Herb Alpert, with Jeff Lorber. 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $27.50, 322-2308.


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