Trumpeter Herb Alpert

Alpert, who picked up another Grammy this year for “Steppin’ Out” (best pop instrumental album), reflects on his 50+ years in the music business.

Legendary trumpeter Herb Alpert is a nine-time Grammy winner, who’s also made a name for himself as a Broadway producer, visual artist, philanthropist and industry exec—helping to make A&M Records one of the most successful independent labels in history and responsible for some of the most iconic releases of all time. He started his career as a songwriter and released his first single in 1962 on A&M, which he co-founded. A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee (for his work at the label), Alpert's latest release is "Steppin' Out," an exploration of American Songbook standards, and features his wife, Grammy-winning vocalist Lani Hall, on several tracks.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Herb Alpert made music history with the release of “The Lonely Bull,” the debut album of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass that quickly dominated the airways back in 1962 and of course introduced Latin-infused jazz to the pop charts.

Some 72 million album sales later, he’s just released his latest. It’s called “Steppin’ Out.” Let’s take a look at a video of Alpert’s rendition of the great Irving Berlin song, “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

[Clip of "Puttin' on the Ritz" by Herb Alpert]

Tavis: Your corpus is deep enough already, (laughter) and you still working. Why don’t you go sit down somewhere?

Herb Alpert: Oh, I’m having a great time. (Laughter) It gives me energy to do this.

Tavis: Yeah.

Alpert: Yeah. I’ve been playing since I was eight, and not stopping.

Tavis: Still practicing every day?

Alpert: Every day. It’s like a habit for me now. I just, if I don’t play, I kind of miss – something’s off.

Tavis: I read recently – and let me back up and say when I was saying go sit down I was just teasing you. I hope that you don’t sit down, because I love your music, obviously.

Alpert: Okay.

Tavis: So please don’t stop playing. (Laughter) That was my way of saying you have earned the right to go rest if you want to. It was said so inelegantly, but I think you take my point.

I read somewhere recently, Herb, where you said, which I just found laughable, but again, I know your humble spirit, so I know what you meant by it, that you don’t think you will ever master the horn.

Alpert: Oh, no, no, no. You never get to that. Dizzy Gillespie, I was friends with Dizzy. Dizzy once told me, he says, “The closer I get, the farther it looks.” (Laughter)

Tavis: I like that. I like that. But you have, if not mastered it, you have certainly, you’ve tamed this thing, you’ve tamed this beast.

Alpert: I don’t know if I’ve tamed it, but I’m looking for my own voice, and I was trying to find my own voice, and when I did, I feel satisfied with the way I play, but there’s lots more to accomplish.

Tavis: So what do you think is – and maybe you don’t know the answer because you haven’t found it yet – but what do you think is still out there for you to discover? How much better can you get?

Alpert: The more I get in touch with myself and the more I can relax – there is this book written by this famous flutist, and he said that there’s a formula for playing.

It’s P=p-I, and the large P is Performance, the small p is your potential, what you have. The minus is how you get in the way of yourself, and that minus is deducted from the performance.

So if you can get to the place where you just totally relax, totally experiencing your gift, then you can really create.

Tavis: Are there nights, though, on stage, Herb, after all these years, where you feel that sort of bliss, where you feel like it doesn’t get much better than the moment that I’m in right now with -

Alpert: I think that’s why I’m seduced by the arts in general. Arts is like the power of now. When you’re performing, when you’re playing, when you’re sculpting, painting, it’s that moment. I’m in the moment of my life, and that’s what I love to do.

Tavis: When did this – I love the way you phrase it, how you’ve been seduced by the arts. When did this seduction begin?

Alpert: Well I guess – I started playing when I was eight. I was lucky enough to have an elementary school that had a music appreciation class, and it had a room filled with instruments. It was a table filled with instruments.

I picked up the trumpet. I was super-shy. I was a kid that really couldn’t communicate my feelings. I made this sound out of the horn. It took me a while to make some sense out of it, but once I did, the horn was speaking for me.

I just over the years have had a tremendous run, and I feel like I need to return it. I feel like it’s important for me. I think to have a meaningful life you have to be of service to others as well.

Tavis: Tell me about “Steppin’ Out.”

Alpert: Well, it started with this “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” but what I like to do is take songs that are familiar to people and try to put a little spin on it, so it’s heard in a way that it hasn’t been heard before.

So every now and then I find myself whistling a song, and then I say, “Hm, why am I whistling that song? Must be for a reason. That melody sticks.” So I try to find a way to arrange it or do something that makes it an unusual listen.

Tavis: You’ve done that. How did you figure out the question that you knew I was going to ask you – how’d you figure out what was going to make the record, these 16 tracks?

Alpert: I just kept going until – I actually had more than 16.

Tavis: I figured.

Alpert: I had 20, 22.

Tavis: You whittled down from what, 22?

Alpert: Yeah, we whittled it down. But I just go with the ones – I’m like a right-brain guy, so when it feels good I stop, when it doesn’t feel good I continue, or toss it.

So that was the criteria for that. But “The Lonely Bull,” there’s a version of “The Lonely Bull.”

Tavis: All these years later, yeah.

Alpert: Well, it was A&M’s 50th anniversary, and I did a re-take of “The Lonely Bull” with orchestra, so it’s completely different than the original record that was recorded in 1962.

We gave that away as a thank you to the folks that supported A&M through the years.

Tavis: What for you at least makes a good song? I ask that because when you do something like “The Lonely Bull” so many years ago and you can come back and cover it again and make it sound different, there’s something there, obviously. What makes a good song for you?

Alpert: I think it’s all about the melody. It has to be a good melody. You can have a great lyric and a so-so melody; it’s going to be a tough sell. But if you have a great melody and a really good lyric, that’s a good one. So it’s melody for me first.

Tavis: The one thing that we seem to be lacking in our music today – melody.

Alpert: Amen. I think so, yeah. On this thing I feel like I’m on to something that’s a little bit different than what other artists are doing.

I might be off on this one, but I think I’m bridging. It’s not be-bop, it’s not progressive jazz, but there’s a looseness to what I’m doing that is not fusion music. It’s not that continual beat that kind of floats over everything.

A lot of these fusion musicians, there are so many tracks that they deal with that they clean it and clean it so much that it doesn’t have the heart, as I’d like to – when I think of a recording, I think it has to have that spontaneity, and that’s – Lani and I have this group that we’ve been playing with for the last seven years, and it’s very spontaneous.

Everything that’s happening is impromptu for the most part. We have the charts, we have the chord structure, but within that, we’re all just kind of playing whatever feels right at the moment. That’s what makes it fun for me to do night after night.

Tavis: That kind of innovation, that kind of creativity, that kind of free spirit allows for what?

Alpert: It allows for that good feeling inside. (Laughter)

Tavis: It helps.

Alpert: It’s like I used to play golf when we were traveling with the Tijuana Brass, and I remember one day I hit a three wood off the carpet or whatever it’s called in the fairway. It was perfect, man.

It went like 200 yards straight; it went exactly where it was supposed to go. That was the last time I ever did that. (Laughter) But that was a good feeling. When you’re blowing the horn, sometimes it’s just – everything works, and it’s a tremendous feeling.

Especially I think jazz is a phenomenal creative force, because it’s one man, one vote as you’re playing, but it’s a collective thing, what you’re doing. You’re listening to all the musicians around you and you’re working within that structure.

I think we need more of that as human beings. We need to be able to appreciate each other’s differences and I think jazz really takes us in that direction.

Tavis: Lani’s still sounding good.

Alpert: Lani’s a world-class singer. We’ve had people coming backstage sobbing when she’s – she’s the most honest singer I know, outside of maybe Billie Holiday.

Tavis: That’s high cotton, as they say.

Alpert: Yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: High cotton. How cool is it, though, after all these years of you and Lani being together that you guys still get a chance to work together, to play together – literally play together – travel together, just -

Alpert: Oh, yeah, we play, we do that, and in December we’re celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary.

Tavis: Is it 40 years already?

Alpert: Yeah. I met Lani in 1966 when she was the lead singer with Brazil 66. She called me Mr. Alpert for a couple of years, and of course she still does. (Laughter)

Tavis: That’s such a great story, though. You guys are so cool together. I was saying when you walked in that the Vibrato, the jazz club, I love it.

Alpert: Yeah, we have a jazz club. Yeah, it’s been going for the last 10 years. What I wanted to do was have a space in L.A. where all the great musicians can play, feel good, feel comfortable.

We created the studio with Vincent Van Hough, who was our acoustician at A&M Records at the A&M studios. He was with me every step of the way as we were developing the insides of it, so the sound is beautiful.

Tavis: It’s amazing.

Alpert: Yeah, all through the venue, if you go upstairs, downstairs, left, right, it’s just, it stays. I think it’s a great place for great musicians to do their thing.

Tavis: It’s a great location. I felt stupid that it took me as long as it did to discover it, but when I did, I was there for – the Bergmans invited me, Alan Bergman, great songwriter, of course -

Alpert: Yeah. I saw something really spectacular happen one night. Dave Brubeck played there, and he was, at the time, he was about 80 years old. He waked onto the stage like oh man, I thought I was going to have to catch him.

He was just kind of like getting there slowly but surely. Sat down at the piano, and played like a kid. He was, like, into it, bam, bam, his thing. Then he finished and got up, and -

Tavis: Went back to -

Alpert: Yeah, creeped back to the green room. But it was enlightening for me. Just the power of music, the power of art, that just made him feel like a kid again, and it was beautiful to watch.

Tavis: To see, for me, the very – I’ve been there many times since then, but the very first time I went to see Alan Bergman sing his own stuff was a rare thing, and we had -

Alpert: Yeah.

Tavis: It was a beautiful – and the food ain’t bad either.

Alpert: Food is darn good.

Tavis: The food was delicious. I loved it.

Alpert: Yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: So if you get a chance, go to Vibrato. Check it out. It’s a wonderful spot. In the meantime, whether you are in L.A. or not, you can pick this up. It’s Herb Alpert’s latest. It’s called “Steppin’ Out,” featuring the delightful Lani Hall. You’ll want to add it to your collection.

Herb, after all these years you’re still doing it and you’re still sounding good, man.

Alpert: Thank you so much.

Tavis: And looking handsome, too.

Alpert: (Laughter) Thanks.

Tavis: It’s good to have you on. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: March 5, 2014 at 12:22 am