Starting with a zig-zagging trumpet’s blare to match the onscreen action of a canvas stroked repeatedly with colorful acrylics, John Scheinfeld’s documentary Herb Alpert Is… immediately reveals an artist in improvisational display, painstakingly but playfully at work. What drives the now 84-year-old Alpert—musician, painter, sculptor—is a mix of know-how, freedom, and doing what feels good, as portrayed both in the film and its accompanying three-CD/five-LP boxed set on Alpert’s own Herb Alpert Presents label. What you’ll see and hear goes beyond the smooth operator with south-of-the-border flair that anyone over 40 knows, the entertainer of network-television variety shows, AM radio, and A&M Records (the ultimate hit-making independent label he started with his pal Jerry Moss).
Sure, a large part of Alpert’s self-curated box and Scheinfeld’s adroitly lensed film give us what you’d expect: the snug tuxes, the Mariachi branding (from a Jewish guy from Boyle Heights, yet), the coiffed hair, and the doubled-up trumpets—a trick learned from Les Paul and Mary Ford that Alpert later applied to future wife Lani Hall’s vocals on Sérgio Mendes’ Brasil ’66 hits. Those sounds and images take up the first half of both film and box, and rightly so. Alpert, with Moss as his marketing partner and the Tijuana Brass (a shifting series of L.A. jazz session greats) as his musical enabler, was the face of ’60s pop’s soigné, intercontinental shift away from ring-a-ding swingers, harmonizing beach bums, and twanging British guitars. Along with fellow sophisticates such as Bacharach, Mendes, and Jobim, he added foreign intrigue to American pop. For this, he and his Tijuana cats won the, ahem, Brass ring: money, fame. And yet, Alpert’s voiceover tells us, “I was miserable.”
Part of his dissatisfaction came from marrying too young (Lani Hall is Alpert’s second wife, whom he met when Brasil ’66 and the Tijuana Brass toured together, as captured in handsomely hip mid-’60s footage). But the true misery in Alpert’s life stemmed, seemingly, from being silenced as a lousy reader in the second grade, only to be made shy and silent throughout most of his adult years.
Being stymied this way didn’t appear to affect how he played. Confidently holding a trumpet in one hand and a bicycle horn in the other during a live rendition of “Tijuana Taxi,” Alpert looked like James Bond with a horn, unsmiling and suave. The cool cat with the silvery, open tone was heralded by Miles Davis (“You hear three notes and you know it’s Herb Alpert—Miles said it, God love him,” Alpert exclaims) and Quincy Jones (“Herbie had a jazz propensity”). He could speak through his trumpet. But that brassy conversation became more of a struggle as the ’60s went on, and eventually it stopped, following a ’69 breakdown that left him unable to play.
Both the box and the film reflect this change, their initially colorful palette going muted and brown as they move from the cocktail cool of “Casino Royale” into the quiet storm of “The Sea Is My Soil.” It was only through therapeutic sessions with trumpet-playing troubleshooter Carmine Caruso that Alpert opened up and blossomed, becoming conversational in a way he never was before.
Footage from the subsequent decades shows Alpert laughing and smiling with Hall, jamming and hip-swaying with trumpeter Hugh Masekela on a funky “Skokiaan” (Alpert said that Masekela found kindred spirits in the Tijuana Brass’ music), lounging in the studio with A&M signees the Carpenters, and dancing to his own major comeback hits, “Rise” and “Keep Your Eye on Me.” Since the sale of A&M to PolyGram for a cool $500 million, Alpert has undertaken both epic-scale sculpting (with many exhibitions under his belt) and a return to the concert stage, with Hall and a crack band “never playing a song the same way twice.” Alpert throws real relish into that last thought; far beyond having to play Tijuana Brass hits by rote as he did during his early hitmaking tenure, he’s finally free to roam, literally and figuratively.
Director Scheinfeld follows the past and present of Alpert more fluidly than he handled the gravitas of John Coltrane in Chasing Trane, and Herb Alpert Is… winds up tastier for such freedom.