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Alpert’s Big Payoff Is Playing the Music

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Herb Alpert--trumpet player, record producer and one of the most successful entertainment moguls of the last three decades--has the look of a happy man.

At 61, he seems 10 years younger--slender, with good cheekbones and the laid-back demeanor of a performer who has had a long familiarity with the ups and downs of the music business.

And why not? In Alpert’s case, it’s mostly been ups. A&M;, the company he founded in the early ‘60s with longtime partner Jerry Moss, and the largest independently owned record company in the world, was sold to PolyGram several years ago for a reported half-billion dollars. He and Moss have created a new record company--Almo Sounds--but Alpert now spends most of his time focused on his music and the abstract painting he has been producing since the ‘70s.

He sprawls across a couch in the glistening control room of his state-of-the-art Santa Monica studio, relaxed, casual and very much in his own milieu. Surrounded on all sides by what he describes as his rhythm paintings and sculpture, he tries to put his career in context, eager to define himself, not as a businessman but as a musician.

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“Money was never my pursuit,” Alpert says. “Never. I just love to make music.”

This from a guy who had not one, but two, Tijuana Brass albums on Billboard’s Top 40 charts longer than anything by the Beatles?

But Alpert, despite his soft-spoken manner, is deadly serious. And he may be one of the few multi-zillionaire entertainment world achievers who manage to be convincing when they assert a belief that the work is more important than the payoff.

And these days, the work for Alpert seems to be taking on a distinctively jazz flavor. Tonight, Alpert appears at the House of Blues to kick off an eight-city tour (with appearances later this summer at several European jazz festivals) in support of his new Almo album, “Second Wind.” It is his first release in nearly four years, and his first club tour with a band in nearly a decade.

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The album is brisk and melodic, with the chugging rhythm tracks generated by keyboardist Jeff Lorber adding a propulsive jazz undercurrent. The sound is hip, updated, ‘90s Tijuana Brass, bubbling with danceable rhythms and (aside from two standards, “Flamingo” and “My Funny Valentine”) catchy originals. But what is different, and new, for an Alpert recording, is the loose, improvisational quality of the music. Perhaps, more than ever before, Alpert has taken his music into the jazz orbit that is so close to his heart.

But is it really enough to get him back into the performing trenches once again? Why is an artist with 15 gold albums and seven Grammy Awards spending three months in the studio instead of resting on his laurels in Malibu, blowing riffs at the sunset and happily turning out new paintings?

Alpert’s answer is simple and to the point:

“Well, I’m a musician,” he says. “I used to do an album a year and I always looked forward to it. It’s always been fun for me. The only reason I’ve waited four years to do another album is because I needed to take a couple of beats after we closed up shop with A&M.; There won’t be that much time before the next album.”

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Then, pausing thoughtfully for a moment, he adds, “And, you know, I’d be doing this even if I hadn’t been successful.”

Alpert also stresses the importance of sustaining his long-term connection to jazz. In the intervening years since 1992’s “Midnight Sun,” he notes that “I didn’t pay much attention to the pop charts, but listened to jazz instead. . . . I’m committed to spontaneity. I like the adventure of going with flows that feel right.”

And, although Alpert’s playing has been generally disregarded by the jazz community, his recordings--from the Tijuana Brass albums of the ‘60s through his late-'70s dance-R&B; hit “Rise” and his more recent albums--have always included first-rate jazz players in the backup groups. Pianist-songwriter Dave Frishberg, for one, worked with Alpert for two years, and Jeff Lorber is part of his current band.

Alpert, in fact, insists that even his most commercially viable outings were originally generated and performed from the spontaneous perspective of a jazz sensibility.

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“I think I’ve always done that, instinctively,” he says. “So maybe that was one of my secrets, that the jazz spirit was always in me.”

Whether or not the presence of the jazz spirit was the cause, there’s no denying the achievements of Alpert and the Tijuana Brass in the mid-'60s. In 1966, for example, Brass recordings were in the No. 1 position in Billboard’s pop album chart for 18 weeks. In April of that year, the band had four albums in the Top 10 simultaneously, and Alpert’s interpretation of “A Taste of Honey” won four Grammy Awards and was named record of the year.

Reminded of his cornucopia of triumphs from the period, Alpert, characteristically reticent, shrugs.

“I had a nice run, and I had lots of pats on the back,” he says. “But I can’t be analytical about making music, or, for that matter, painting.”

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Although Alpert is trying to detach himself from the new Almo Sounds--as he tried to do with A&M--from; the day-to-day running of the operation, it’s apparent that he would like to see Almo as a kind of revival of the early A&M; days, of a period when the goal was to “put out records we’d buy ourselves.”

But it’s also apparent that Alpert will be content to function primarily as “an artist on the label,” focusing on his music and his painting. And the only subject that appears to trigger his interest to do more with music than perform on his own is, predictably, jazz.

“I’d like to see us do more with jazz,” he says. “And that’s definitely in the back of my head someplace. And I keep thinking if I could get this studio here to have its own identity, it would be terrific to have some great jazz musicians come in and do their stuff.”

That, too, would harken back to A&M;, to the unusually diverse collection of albums released on its subsidiary jazz label, Horizon, featuring such artists as Ornette Coleman, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, as well as Alpert-produced albums by Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan.

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Alpert leans back, looks around proudly at the facility and sighs contentedly.

”. . . I love to play the horn. I just love it. I play every day, and it’s definitely a part of me. I guess what it all comes down to is that musicians are in search of the truth. And as you get older and you get wiser, the truth gets a little cleaner and the line gets a little straighter.”

* The Herb Alpert Quartet appears tonight at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd.,West Hollywood at 9p.m. $27.50. (213) 650-1451.


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