BY MIKE SHANLEY
Although Herb Alpert has never attempted to play serious jazz, his music shares one common trait with the best jazz musicians: he’s always moved forward, never sticking with one thing for too long. Even when he was cranking out albums with the Tijuana Brass, the best ones contained enough variety to distinguish them from one another.
By 1982, the Brass was a distant memory. Alpert hadn’t slowed down, bringing his discography count up to 27, with his most recent hit being the genuinely funky Rise (1979), one of the biggest singles of his career. With Fandango, album 28, he wanted to revisit the Latin influence that had factored into “The Lonely Bull” and his first run of hits. He recorded it in Mexico City, with half the 11 songs written by Spanish composer Juan Carlos Calderon. The album was released simultaneously by the trumpeter’s A&M label and its Latin imprint AyM Discos.
But while going for the Latin vibe, times had changed. This was an era when studios were making the crack of a snare drum sound more like boozh. The word “lite” was popping up everywhere, and was even infiltrating the funk of a bassist like Abraham Laboriel. And if orchestral strings weren’t sappy enough, even they were starting to be replaced by keyboards that tried to replicate them.
It was a slick, polished setting, a far cry from the 12-string guitar/marimba textures that made albums like Going Places so unique. All of it would be nothing more than a dated time piece if not for one thing: Alpert himself. That trumpet, with its Mariachi brashness and the clarity of a classical player, adds a plucky spark to the music, and keeps at least a few songs from becoming Latin muzak. The title track opens the album with a jagged trumpet melody and stop-start rhythm that gets a boost from some percussion and a quick break by Laboriel. “Highway 101” breezes along like a jaunt down that road, its melody sticking with you in the process. The same can be said for “Sugarloaf,” which has the most credible Latin accompaniment.
Still, a few things were bad ideas then and now. Somehow Alpert — the king of “Ameriachi” — never learned to speak Spanish. So when he sang “Quiéreme Tal Como Soy (Love Me the Way I Am)” phonetically, it came across that way. Even the sincerity of his plain voice can’t save the performance, or the song itself, which keeps threatening to turn into Barry Manilow’s “Mandy.” Throughout the album it’s honestly hard to tell whether the obtrusive strings are the real things or the synthetic ones, but either way, they detract from the arrangements. Too much of the album tries to create a smooth setting, when it would have been better off leaving in some rough edges add some extra vitality to the music.
DOWNLOAD: “Fandango,” “Highway 101.”