Twilight Delight

Legendary trumpeter Herb Alpert and his partner Lani Hall play the National this week.

Trumpeter Herb Alpert built a musical legacy based on pleasantly jazzy instrumental music, and a business legend as one of the great recording executives and entrepreneurs of the 20th century. It is in the former capacity that he appears this Thursday, May 16 at the National. At 89-years-old, Alpert is an unusual match for the venue’s demographic. But it is a more intimate space to see the man whose records briefly outsold the Beatles, Sinatra, and the Stones. The tour, and his new record “Wish Upon a Star,” are a twilight victory lap. He’s definitely earned it, even if he won the race more than a half-century ago.

Alpert’s trumpet sound is immediately identifiable on “Eastbound and Down,” the country music opener of “Wish Upon a Star.” The song is cheerfully forgettable; the rhythm guitar might as well be a loop as Alpert and a pedal steel guitar weave melodically through. The most memorable part is a brief, stunningly on-the-nose police siren, making explicit the connection to the song’s origin in the 1977 movie, “Smokey and The Bandit.” It is both promise and fair warning for what follows, an expertly-crafted reimagining of retro, lightly jazzy, easy listening pop music.

 

Nothing sounds as early 1960s as Herb Alpert’s bright, precise pop trumpet lines. His band, the Tijuana Brass, had hit album after hit album. Their chart highpoint was “Whipped Cream & Other Delights,” which displaced the Beatles, Sinatra, and the Stones with a set of sunny instrumentals including the number one hit “A Taste of Honey.” That album, with its iconic cover featuring a sexy model covered in desert topping, resulted in a tour which forced Alpert to actually form a band. Earlier releases were just the trumpeter multitracking over the Wrecking Crew, the studio musician ringers who actually played on most of the hit recordings of the era. It was one of the last popular highpoints for middle-of-the-road music. For a brief time, the musical tastes of the baby boom generation and their parents overlapped. But the guitar-driven aggression, angst, and psychedelic sound of the late ’60s made easy listening instrumentals sound dated. Alpert’s final top 10 hit of the decade was a vocal version of Burt Bacharach’s “This Guy’s in Love,” and that was almost an afterthought, a quick 45 rpm single of a number from a TV special.

Alpert and his longtime partner Lani Hall, who is also on the bill this tour. Photo by Dewey Nicks

But if Alpert’s albums weren’t selling to the younger demographic, they continued to sell and rack up Grammys in the contemporary and pop instrumental performance categories. He had a disco-lite hit, “Rise,” in the late ’70s. He collaborated with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and especially with Lani Hall, former lead singer for Brazil 66 and Alpert’s wife for the last 50 years. Hall shares the bill with Alpert on this tour.

But by that time, Alpert’s major impact was as the cofounder (with Jerry Moss) of A&M Records, one of the most successful labels of the era. The label, and its sub-labels, released a wide range of music from Antonio Carlos Jobim to Cat Stevens, the Carpenters to the Police. They were behind artist labels like Beatle George Harrison’s “Dark Horse,” and the New Age noodlings of Windham Hill. They even signed the Sex Pistols, dropping them for outrageous behavior a week later. Ultimately, A&M become the largest independent record company in the world before being sold to PolyGram in 1989 for $500 million dollars, or roughly $1.3 billion today.

A number of top songs from the label appear on “Wish Up Upon a Star.” Alpert’s distinctive sound is, if anything, more subtle, nuanced, and improvisatory than the tightly produced tracks of the 1960s. Thursday’s event may be the last chance to see an artist who shaped the music of his era. You already know the tunes, and at this point in the trumpeter’s life, every performance is valedictory.

Herb Alpert and Lani Hall play at the National on Thursday, May 16. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available, ranging from $33-43. 

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