Herb Alpert is a giant in the music business. He
was a ground-breaking musician with his band the Tijuana Brass (and solo
from 1968 on) who wed jazz with Mexican rhythms and opened the door to an
entire style of music. He was also the co-founder (with partner Jerry
Moss) of A&M Records, the label which released his music, but also
introduced the world to his protégée Sergio Mendes, the Carpenters, Cat
Frampton, Styx, Supertramp, Bryan Adams and Janet Jackson (who sang on Alpert's last top-ten
single, the 1987 hit "Diamonds").
Since Alpert sold his labor of love in the early 90s,
he saw his label get shuffled into other imprints and essentially disappear.
Alpert and Moss started a new company, Almo Sounds (who fared best with the
band Garbage.) However, as far as his reach has gone as an exec, it
was always his music that mattered most to him.
He held on to the rights to his old albums, so though
there have been a few anthologies out over the years, the actual records
have been hard to come by on disk. This is the first wave of Alpert & the Tijuana Brass'
original albums being released on remastered CDs on Shout! Factory
(a label made up of former execs from Rhino Records, before that imprint also
got swallowed up by a major).
Alpert's first album was the 1962 record The Lonely
Bull, which set the template for the Brass' sound; a series of swinging
jazzy (mostly) instrumental Mexican cantina band takes on Alpert's
originals and favorites of the day.
The solemn title track, with its exotic feel of a
bullfight, became a huge hit. Other interesting tracks are the peppy "Struttin'
With Maria" and the oddly titled "Tijuana Sauerkraut" with its oompah horns
and ya-ya-ya-ya vocals. The best covers here are a lovely version of
Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova classic "Desafinado" and a surprisingly
funky take on Chubby Checker's "Limbo Rock."
The 1965 album South of the Border was a
mixture of Mexican standards, more pop hits and a few originals written by
long-time Alpert collaborator Sol Lake.
It is obvious from the swinging opener, the title
track, that the band was even more comfortable with their sound, with a
sure, steady beat that feels like a TJ street festival. They also have
a gorgeous, strutting cover of "The Girl From Ipanema" and the wonderful "Up
Cherry Street." You can even forgive the odd experience of hearing
strong Mexican accents singing the chorus to "Hello Dolly."
Probably the most intriguing music for fans is on the
last CD, Lost Treasures. This is a series of 22 original
recordings which were never officially released which have been pulled out
of the obscurity. This CD is, like his actual albums, an intriguing
blend of original compositions and horn-laced covers of then-current pop
Undoubtedly the most exciting lost treasure was a
cover of an obscure Dionne Warwick song (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal
David) that Alpert pictured as the follow-up single to his 1968 solo hit
"This Guy's In Love With You" (his only number one single and one of few
songs that he actually sang). The song was called "(They Long To Be)
Close To You," but Alpert decided not to release the song, instead giving it
to a new A&M group, The Carpenters.
Listening to the finished product, this was probably
the right move. Alpert's vocal limitations are more blatant on this
tune than on "This Guy...", and the perky marimba beat doesn't really feel
appropriate to the lyrics. Looking back at the recording three decades
later, it is an interesting curio, but Alpert's version would have never
been the classic that the Carpenters' version was.
Other songs work better. There are lovely covers
of Spanky & Our Gang's "Lazy Day" and Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly."
Alpert's version of "Popcorn" is even better than the proto-synthesizer hit
version of the song by the one-hit-wonder group Hot Butter. Originals
like "I Can't Go On Living, Baby (Without You)" and "Flowers on the Wall"
are much too good to deserve their obscurity.
A few of the covers do seem a little inappropriate.
The happy horns don't seem to fit James Taylor's mopey ballad "Fire & Rain"
(though, oddly, the same tonal contradiction works splendidly on the cover
of Gilbert O'Sullivan's even more downbeat "Alone Again [Naturally]").
"The Tennessee Waltz" is just such an overdone old song that Alpert can add
nothing to revive it.
Ironically, many of the songs, in particular the
originals like "Tradewinds" and "Up Cherry Street," sound like templates for
today's Smooth Jazz radio. You could slip these in between Boney
James, Sade and Candy Dulfer and they'd feel right at home. However,
that is more a statement on the current state of radio and Alpert's
influence than it is on his actual music.