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Herb Alpert thrives after 50 years of hit-making

Editor’s note: It was announced today by the Field Museum in Chicago that massive bronze totems sculpted by musician Herb Alpert will be installed on the museums South steps beginning Sept. 17, 2015, and on view through September 2016. What follows is an interview with the Grammy-winner that originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on June 12, 2011.

Nearly 50 years into his career, legendary trumpeter Herb Alpert still gets a kick out of making music. Give a listen to his latest CD, “I Feel You,” a collaborative effort with his wife of 37 years, and the cool, crisp tones emanating from the trumpet of the eight-time Grammy-winner remind you just why Alpert and his long-ago band, the Tijuana Brass, propelled smooth Brazilian jazz/funk into the pop music lexicon starting in the mid-1960s.

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The hits would pour out for decades for the group and later for Alpert as a solo artist: “The Lonely Bull,” “A Taste of Honey,” “This Guy’s in Love With You,” “Behind the Rain,” “Rise.” And then there was that whole “Whipped Cream” thing, an album cover as provocative as the music it encompassed.

Calling Alpert a trumpeter only skims the surface of his multifaceted career. Add to the mix producer, arranger, singer, record label owner (he and Jerry Moss found A&M records in 1962), sculptor and painter. Renaissance man, for short.

Alpert has navigated all these waters with his wife, the Chicago born-and-raised Lani Hall. The two met and then fell in love when he was her boss at A&M Records (where she respectfully referred to him as Mr. Alpert ) and she was recording with Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66. Her vocals on “Mas Que Nada” pretty much put that band on the charts. And yes, that’s Hall delivering the title tune from the James Bond film “Never Say Never Again.”

“I was working in a Chicago club on Wells Street in 1965 when I went to another club after our show to hear some singers,” Mendes recalls of his first meeting with Hall. (Mendes and the Alperts would go on to become lifelong friends.) “Lani was singing, and she had this beautiful, distinct voice — very sensual, very soulful. I asked her to join my band and she did. I went back to L.A. and she went with us.”

In L.A., they soon were signed to the A&M label that was just starting out. Alpert , the label’s main producer, fell in love with Hall’s unique sound, and with her.

“They were obviously in love,” says Mendes, who most recently wrote songs for the score of the animated feature “Rio.” “They had a passion for the music and each other.”

On “I Feel You,” Alpert and Hall are playful, sexy, sultry and potent, navigating and reinterpreting a collection of jazz and pop classics.

They’ve embarked on a club tour, playing intimate rooms across the country to best frame the album’s intent. After a Saturday concert at Viper-Alley in Lincolnshire, the couple headlines an Old Town School of Folk Music tonight.

“I just love to play,” Alpert says with a chuckle. “I don’t stop to think about what I’m interpreting or how I’m interpreting what I’m feeling. It just comes out. I used to ask [jazz saxophonist] Stan Getz, ‘What does it feel like when you make the music?’ And he would tell me, ‘It feels like I’m standing in front of the Wailing Wall and bowing.’ For me, I feel like I’m the back seat of a Ferrari and the rhythm section is in the front seat responding. I stopped being afraid to just be myself on the horn.”

Still, the distinctive sound of the TJB was not without some outside influences.

“I got lucky when I heard Les Paul when he was recording and overlaying guitar on ‘How High the Moon,’ ” Alpert admits. “So I tried overlaying the horn and came up with this sound that was the genesis of the Tijuana Brass. It was just fun. If music is fun to play, it’s going to be fun to listen to.”

Alpert , who is of Jewish descent — and not Latino, as most folks assume — found his musical calling in the sounds of the bull rings in Mexico, where he says he was inspired by the feeling of the crowd. “They played mariachi music there, but I wasn’t spinning off of that. I was spinning off the feeling of the arena, the cheers, the sighs and the little brass section that would introduce the next fight.”

The new album, Alpert says, is a throwback to those earliest days, just discovering the feelings in the notes.

“This album if filled with a lot of young energy,” he says. “We recorded it exactly the way we wanted to. We wanted to present songs in a way they haven’t been heard before. You can’t trample on the Beatles [on ‘Blackbird’], for example, because their renditions are the ones to listen to. But you can add a little something here or there and make it just a little different that it becomes something new.”

Working with Hall is a relationship he calls the greatest collaboration in his life. Her voice, he says, breathes life into the music in ways no one else’s can. “She’s extremely honest and vulnerable as a singer, as an interpreter of the song. She’s not gonna sing a song she doesn’t feel.”

Says Hall, “We respect each other. We accept each other. In the beginning of a relationship it’s very natural to say, ‘What can I change in this person?’ If he just didn’t do this or that. [Laughs] We got over that pretty quickly and just appreciated each other and still do. We’re best friends and we want the best for each other.

“This album is more about our generation, singing Beatles songs and [Van Morrison’s] ‘Moondance’ and ‘Fever’ and those songs that are not in the Great American Songbook but they are beautiful songs. They are grown-up songs, they’re deeply expressive and poetically beautiful.”

When the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is not making music, Alpert is finding almost greater enjoyment in his painting and sculpture — and supporting the arts, something he has passionately championed for years. He and Hall donated $30 million to UCLA in 2007 for the endowment of the Herb Alpert School of Music, putting his money where his mouth is when it comes to arts and music education in the schools. He also established the Herb Alpert Foundation a few years back, which has already awarded nearly $100 million in arts education funding and scholarships.

“I’m a right-brainer,” Alpert says. “I live 85 percent on that side of my head. I paint and sculpt every day of my life. It’s all about waiting for the moment to strike, and something always strikes.”

His biggest artistic expression to date is a series of 18-foot black bronze totems that were recently shown in Los Angeles.

“I walked in with the gallery curator after they were all set up, and I was like ‘Holy s—, this is really good!’ ” Alpert says, laughing.

“If I had to start out today, I wouldn’t make it,” Alpert says matter-of-factly. “Radio is not the same as it used to be when I started in the business. Music is not the same. Labels are not the same. At A&M we were all about letting the artists make music how they wanted to make it. I don’t know if that’s even part of the business anymore these days. One of the things I’m very blessed with in my career is timing. I was in the right place at the right time, and bingo!”

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