Fashion 88 : For Herb Alpert, There’s More Than Music in the Air

Who would have known? Herb Alpert has a passion for fragrance that borders on obsession.

Yes, Herb Alpert the trumpet player. Herb Alpert the record-company executive.

“Fragrances are very important to people,” he rhapsodized recently. “They’re very romantic and memorable. Now and then I pass by someone with a fragrance that reminds me of a girl I used to date in high school.”

Indeed, a few years ago, Alpert’s captivation began to take shape when he started mixing scents from bottles of perfume and cologne in his bathroom--or rather, as he put it, “my chemistry lab at home.”

He wanted to create a unisex fragrance, he said, and “I came up with one, but it didn’t quite materialize. I actually took the fragrance to a lab in L.A. and they tried to synthesize it.” But something was lost in the translation.


During an interview in his suite at A & M Records, during which he gravitated not behind his desk but behind a piano and let his fingers wander on the keys as he talked, Alpert described his rather incongruous metamorphosis into fragrance-company executive.

Two years ago he set up H. Alpert & Co., and now its first products, a women’s-fragrance line called Listen, debuted Monday at Nordstrom. A half-ounce of perfume retails for $85; 1.7 ounces of eau de parfum, $36; soap, $18.50. (Alpert said he became “turned off” with the idea of producing an androgynous scent.)

“I saw fragrances as beautiful songs. When they’re right, they can last forever. It’s like a great album,” he said turning to musical metaphors, a dominant theme in his conversation. “I like Joy, it’s a perennial that lives on. I like L’Air du Temps. I could write a song for Chanel No. 5,” he added, grinning, “if they paid me enough money.”

Alpert said what really draws him to the world of fragrance is that they have notes--"low end, mid-range, high and low"--just like music. “That’s what intrigued me. The idea that I could communicate to perfumers, that they speak a similar language as I do when I’m making a record.”

In fact, when Alpert and his partner Miriam Novalle (who describes herself as a “self-taught nose” and who at one time owned custom fragrance shops in upstate New York) went to Roure Inc., one of the world’s largest perfumers, with their venture, they requested that, while working on Listen, noses, or perfumers, would listen to Alpert’s albums--from “Tijuana Brass” on.

“That was Miriam’s idea,” Alpert said with a smile. “It was a stroke of genius.” Consequently, scents-in-progress bore not numbers but working titles, such as “Brass,” “Trumpet,” “Cello” and “Flute.”

Emphasizing that his association is not in name only (“I’m not endorsing it; I’m part of the company”), Alpert said proudly he was involved in every decision. “In fact, the last description I gave the perfumers was that I wanted the sound of a good Frank Sinatra record, where his voice was the distinctive personality, yet it was surrounded by complementary players--horns, guitars, base, etc. Sometimes you hear a record and there’s a confused arrangement, no one personality leading it. It becomes a very crowded listen. That seemed to spark an idea from Roure.”

The result--ostensibly an uncrowded listen--is “musical, sensual, lyrical and romantic. It has its own identity, its own scent-sound,” he continued. “When I smell Listen it brings certain romantic, lovely, sensual memories to mind.”

Appropriately, Alpert composed and performs the score for Listen’s television commercials. Although Alpert is never mentioned by name (only “H. Alpert and Co.”), he is shown in silhouette playing the trumpet.

“It’s not really me. It’s Chuck Mangione--just kidding,” Alpert said.