About two-and-a-half years ago, I had to gang up three Herb Alpert reviews in one, because he'd been putting out music faster than I could review it. Since then, he's actually released four more albums. Not bad for a guy who's 83!
I'm only reviewing three of the four at this point, but I'll catch up on the other one (a Christmas album) later in the month.
2016: Human Nature
In late 2016 Herb released Human Nature. It was originally presented as more of an EP than an album, but even with just 9 tracks, it still clocks in at a respectable 31 minutes - as long as many of the Tijuana Brass albums he did back-in-the-day.
Human Nature breaks stylistically with the previous few albums Herb had done - a little less acoustic, a little more electronic. Still centered around the same band he's had for years, there's a notable increase in keyboards, synths, and more of a pop driven feel to some of the tracks. While still owing to the previous jazz-driven albums, this album is the beginning of a departure, and stands apart from the previous albums enough to have its own identity. Herb's playing throughout is excellent and ageless. Playing this for someone unfamiliar with Herb's career, I don't think anyone could guess Herb's age, or for that matter, what year (or decade) this was recorded. Although clearly modern, it could've been recorded probably anytime in the last 30 years, and would fit in just as well as it does now. There's a great mix of up-tempo and quieter, almost melancholy tracks. From the oft-recorded Alfie, to Michael Jackson's "Human Nature", to the Tijuana Brass staple "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" (not the Elton John song), Herb chooses melodies that are timeless to him, and makes them uniquely his own. The sequencing is excellent, and everything fits together remarkably well. Of his recent work, I keep going back to this one more than most.
Human Nature gets a 7.5/10
2017: Music Volume 1
Music Volume 1 is a pretty radical departure from Herb's work of the last decade. Rather than being centered around his long-term group of musicians, it's effectively just him and synth programmer Jochem van der Saag. Herb takes a dozen classic songs from Gershwin's "Strike Up The Band" to the Beatles' "Michelle" and strips away everything except his trumpet playing and minimal accompaniment. That accompaniment ranges from synthesized strings and samples to drum machines, but it isn't used in a heavy-handed, modern approach. Rather, it's all rather subdued, and at times is "aged" sonically, with noise and equalization added to make the recordings sound artificially old. To me, the results of those effects are kind of mixed - if you're going to make something sound antique, I'd prefer it be done authentically using vintage instruments and recording equipment. But it's not obtrusive, and since it sits largely in the background, it does what it's supposed to do: supports Herb's playing and really lets him shine. If anything, Herb is actually getting better with age. His playing on this album is excellent and completely, uniquely his own. Nobody else sounds like Herb, and he's as instantly recognizable here as he was 50 years ago. Herb's intent with this album was, in his own words, "To make up-lifting music in a time when the whole world feels like it could use some." He succeeded brilliantly. This is the perfect antidote for having a bad day, and it's hard not to be put into a good mood listening to this album. The one piece that breaks from that is John Lennon's "Imagine", which closes out the album. It's performed so quietly and introspectively, that it actually ends the album more on a wistful note than a joyful one.
As a former trumpet player myself, I also have to share Herb's excellent video for "I'm Yours" from Music Volume 1:
Music Volume 1 gets a 7/10
Along that same sort of theme, earlier this year Herb released a cover of "What A Wonderful World", featuring a bevy of international musicians. I expected this to be on his next album, but it turned out to be just a one-off track. Still, it fits in nicely with Music Volume 1 as a follow-up, and proceeds from it* benefit the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, which is never a bad thing. Here's the video from it:
*Note: I have yet to figure out how to actually buy the track.
2018: Music Volume 3 - Herb Alpert Reimagines The Tijuana Brass
Most recently, Herb released Music Volume 3 - Herb Alpert Reimagines The Tijuana Brass. So, what happened to Volume 2? Well, that was released in 1963. Music Volume 3 consists entirely of reworked Tijuana Brass tracks, including "The Lonely Bull", "Spanish Flea", "A Taste of Honey", and others which would be almost instantly recognizable to any Tijuana Brass fan. But this album isn't designed to appeal so much to us original fans, but rather to introduce the TJB to a younger, modern audience. Like Volume 1, Herb works with Jochem van der Saag again, but on several tracks adds additional brass players to fill out the sound. Some of the arrangements are completely new and offer fresh takes on the originals, but a few of the tracks just sound like the original tracks were remixed with a heavy beat, and nothing really interesting was done with them. Herb did something similar with a remixed version of Whipped Cream & Other Delights about a dozen years ago, although Music Volume 3 has more in the way of newly recorded material, and is more consistent because he only worked with one producer.
This is far from the first time Herb has revisited songs he had recorded before - I counted well over a dozen others he's recorded multiple times over the years. The thing is though - usually he genuinely reimagines those songs when he re-records them. With Volume 3 - much of it sounded all-too-familiar. Yes - they had a modern twist of sorts, but much of the original arrangements, tempos and instrumentation seemed held over from the Tijuana Brass versions. There are a few notable exceptions, but for the most part, it was less reimagining than recycling. Even the crowd noises from the original recordings of "The Lonely Bull" and "El Presidente" were reused. Also, four of the tracks were already revisited once before on the aforementioned remixed Whipped Cream album, so comparisons there are inevitable. That said, there are a few tracks that really break from tradition, notably "Wade in the Water" and "America" (from West Side Story). "America" is played almost mournfully, much like "Imagine" at the end of Music Volume 1. A complete contrast from the Tijuana Brass' original joyful, celebratory version.
When I buy a new Herb Alpert album - I look forward to it because I expect something new. This is a guy who for over 50 years has never stood still. Even during the Tijuana Brass years, the sound changed and evolved. During his solo career, he rarely did the same thing twice. So Music Volume 3 is a bit disappointing in its familiarity. But still, I'd say it was certainly listenable and enjoyable enough to recommend... except for one thing...
The bass. When I listen to this on my home stereo, or in my car, or any system with speakers that have good bass response, the album becomes insufferable. The drum machine or synthesized bass, or whatever it is that's thumping away, is dull, loud, repetitive, and obnoxious. It just pounds away with a booming "thud, thud, thud, thud" that absolutely drives me up the wall. Clearly, this album was mixed for a generation of kids who have already lost most of their hearing by having earbuds endlessly jammed into their skulls. The whole album sounds like it was designed to be played on one of those overpowered car stereos that rattle your home's windows when they drive by - several blocks away. And no... it's not my stereo. I carefully calibrate all of my sound systems, and the 7,876 other songs that I play on those systems all sound just fine, thank you.
Does this make me old? No, my age makes me old. This makes me selective about the kind of music I want to listen to. And what I don't want to listen to is something so bass-heavy that it completely overwhelms any musicality that may be buried underneath. The only place I can listen to this album is on my computer, because my desktop speakers don't have very good bass. Even though this was meant to appeal to a new generation of listeners, frankly, I can't recommend this one to any generation. Herb has far too many other good albums to waste your time on this one. If you really want something of his to listen to, pick up Main Event - Live. Or Midnight Sun. Or Fandango. Or Beyond. Or Under A Spanish Moon. Or Rise. Or... well, you get the idea. Just not this one.
Because the volume has to be turned down to a 3 to listen to it, and because it's not very imaginative, Music Volume 3 - Herb Alpert Reimagines the Tijuana Brass gets a 3/10.
Sorry Herb. But I am looking forward to your next album. Just please leave the synth programmer out of it.