ed. note: This story by jazz writer, Kirk Silsbee, was commissioned by The Soraya in advance of “A Golden Anniversary,” in the upcoming Jazz at Naz Festival January 27. It is published with permission.
Few trumpet voices in history generate the kind of instant recognition as that of Herb Alpert. His short, pungent phrasing and continuous melodic invention have delighted listeners around the world since his first hit record, “The Lonely Bull” (1962). Likewise, singer Lani Hall’s lead vocals for Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 on the music charts of the 1960s and ‘70s gave an American imprint to authentic Brazilian music. He was the debonair leader of a tight instrumental combo that could do no wrong in the marketplace, and she was the coy, cool singer with the waterfall hair in a sexy mini-dress. They’ve been sharing international stages together now for many years, spurring each other to new creative heights.
And now, to A Golden Anniversary, a special celebration of their marriage and musical collaboration, as Alpert and Hall open the third annual Jazz at Naz Festival at The Soraya on Saturday, January 27.
Music took hold of Alpert early. A Boyle Heights youngster who became Fairfax High School’s most famous alum, he caught the Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker band at The Haig on Wilshire Boulevard. Chet’s lyrical trumpet is undeniably one of Herb’s instrumental antecedents. Miles Davis, whose playing kept paring down to a Morse Code of notes, is another. The care and choice that Alpert gives to every note is evident in the way “Lonely Bull” evokes a Tijuana bullfight without the singular sound of mariachi. Of late, Alpert’s playing indicates an awareness of the punchy “boxing” style, a Miles innovation of the late ‘50s.
Then as now, Hollywood was teeming with fine musicians, and for his Tijuana Brass, Alpert stocked his band with excellent local musicians. Arrangement was integral to the TJB modus. It was peppy, bright pop instrumental music, often to a shuffle rhythm. “The breakthrough record for us,” said Alpert on a pre-holiday phone interview, “was Bobby Scott’s ‘A Taste of Honey,’ I sat in my living room and tried to phrase the theme every way I could think of, in all of the keys. When I got it, I knew I had it.”
Alpert’s success is inextricably entwined with the rise of A&M Records, the label he shared with the late Jerry Moss (1935-2023). Their partnership began in ‘62, and Moss’s business acumen allowed Alpert to concentrate on musical creativity—as trumpeter, bandleader and producer. The TJB was the label’s flagship act, and in 1965, the band accounted for a larger share of world record sales than The Beatles. A&M enjoyed an elite reputation under Alpert’s creative control, carrying a fun and classy cachet. The cover of “Whipped Cream,” with the alluring model Dolores Erickson swathed in the album’s namesake caught eyes around the world.
In 1966, the TJB scored four albums in the Top 10 (“Going Places,” “Whipped Cream and Other Delights,” “South of the Border” and “The Lonely Bull”). To date, Taylor Swift is the only artist to meet that standard. When she did, Alpert was the first to congratulate her.
A&M soared further on the runaway success of Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66. The great Brazilian composer and arranger had found it tough sledding in the United States music market, and was on the brink of heading home. He heard 19-year-old singer Lani Hall in Chicago and asked her to take a chance on his new, unsigned band in Los Angeles.
Mendes knew that Hall could handle the harmonic complexities and rhythms of Brazilian music. The honey-voiced Hall became integral to the band’s sound—a captivating blend of bossa nova, jazz, Brazilian musical forms, folk and sophisticated pop. The Mendes chart on Jorge Ben’s “Mas Que Nada” for Brasil 66 was the first record to bring authentic Portuguese language music to pop charts. Lani’s vocal on “The Look of Love”—moving from sylph-like hesitance to womanly verve—provided a counterpoint to Dusty Springfield’s hit of the tune.
The Hollywood rock renaissance exploded all around Alpert & Moss, but A&M was not a rock imprint; it became a beacon for intelligent pop music for adults by artists like Quincy Jones, Carole King, The Carpenters, Peter Frampton, Peter Allen, and The Police. “I recorded the people who made music that made me feel good,” Alpert said. “It just happened that the public agreed with me.”
“I think of myself as a jazz musician,” Alpert declares. He’s an improviser in continual search of melodic angles. His musical structures have opened up and use of space is integral to his playing. Hall has also embraced the freedom of their configuration—allowing her phrasing to soar and bank off the song’s contours.
Alpert and Hall have kept up a judicious performing schedule with the stable personnel of pianist Bill Cantos, bassist Hussein Jiffry and drummer Tiki Pasillas. “The band has been together—unchanged—for fifteen years,” Alpert points out. “We’re all friends, and you always get the best results when you make music with your friends.”
A Golden Anniversary | Jazz at Naz | The Soraya | Saturday, January 27
Kirk Silsbee is a veteran Los Angeles journalist who writes about jazz and culture for artsmeme and more.