Graded on a Curve: Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass,
Whipped Cream & Other Delights

Herb Alpert is often praised as a veteran bigwig of the record industry who possessed a measure of taste alongside his business acumen. He’s even more notable for his trumpet playing and leadership of a crucial if not necessarily hip 1960s outfit; Whipped Cream & Other Delights is the most popular LP from Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass; it’s also their best.

Let’s get it out of the way right up front; nobody in the Tijuana Brass was from Mexico. They were in fact a purely studio concoction at the outset with Alpert overdubbing his trumpet for increased vibrancy. Naturally, these realities have led many to rashly assume the (largely) instrumental venture effectively putting A&M Records (stands for Alpert and Moss, as in executive Jerry Moss) on the map was an exercise in total squaresville.

The theory ain’t necessarily wrong, as the Tijuana Brass albums remain amongst the highest profile artifacts produced in the Easy Listening era. Make no mistake; beginning with 1962’s The Lonely Bull and continuing well into the ‘70s, Herb Alpert strenuously avoided grating upon even a single human nerve. The objective was to sell a ton of records, which he and A&M did by undertaking a generationally inclusive approach and by appropriating a neighboring culture in a manner that, while surely dated today, was far less contemporaneously niche-driven than Alpert’s stylistic relatives in the Exotica field.

But like Les Baxter, Martin Denny and their ilk, there seemed to be a point where the consumers of Alpert’s records arrived at the conclusion that his stuff was either old hat or all of a sudden utterly out of step with their lives. The abovementioned heap of records was unloaded, though not necessarily into the bins of used record stores; instead, the Tijuana Brass was a staple of the antique shop, the consignment store, the Goodwill, the flea market, the yard/garage sale, and the Salvation Army.

They were always pretty inexpensive (the condition of course varied), but what one learned by picking up a few was that Alpert’s endeavor didn’t immediately emerge in peak form. The Lonely Bull doesn’t really suffer from the inauthentic however; the mariachi meets Ventures with lounge fringe vibe of the title cut remains likable as does “Let It Be Me,” a track foreshadowing a similarity to the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.”

Additionally, proto sunshine pop surfaces in “Acapulco 1922,” brass band mingles with bossa nova on “Desafinado” and “Crawfish,” and a cover of dance-craze novelty “Limbo Rock” makes Alpert’s intentions abundantly clear. Those goals faltered (at least initially) on ‘63’s Volume 2, with much of the album, specifically the opening title track, “Surfin’ Señorita,” and “Marching through Madrid” insinuating formula.

Highpoints include an enjoyable take on “Spanish Harlem” and a few tasty pop bits, particularly the Sol Lake composition “Winds of Barcelona.” Even with the striptease number “Swinger from Seville” on hand, Volume 2 inhabits the Middle of the Road; this isn’t a problem in itself, but the context leans toward idling rather than cruising down the lane. Though it ends with a nifty faux-live excursion into “Milord” (a tune made famous by Edith Piaf), Volume 2 is not Alpert and the Brass’s finest hour.

1964’s South of the Border got things back on track; increasingly less reliant on the mariachi approach, “Girl From Ipanema” should please Esquivel fans, “Up Cherry Street” brandishes their soon to be trademark loping sense of swing, and “Mexican Shuffle” captures the svelte tunefulness that made them a prime incidental music source (The Dating Game, Personality, adverts). Plus, “All My Loving” wields taste in its alteration of The Beatles and “Angelito” sports a deft arrangement. One problem; “Hello Dolly” actually energizes an uninspired choice only to weaken it with a needless and corny vocal section.

No such issues thwart Whipped Cream & Other Delights, the first of two ’65 efforts; after half a century it remains the defining LP for Alpert’s Brass. A switch of personnel introduced members of The Wrecking Crew and a pair of musicians (guitarist John Pisano and trombonist Bob Edmondson) soon to help comprise the touring Brass, and it makes an immediate difference. The sense of verve, range, and assurance is increased as they turn a frequently recorded song into the LP’s signature tune.

“A Taste of Honey” was a smash single, though reportedly the Brass’s albums outsold their 45s. Part of the reason for the extensive cross format success was consistent tinkering and recalibration in favor of hastily scrapping scenarios in a desperate hope for better results. For instance, the writing of Sol Lake; an Alpert resource since The Lonely Bull, he’s featured twice on Whipped Cream’s first side, “Green Peppers” and “Bittersweet Samba” reinforcing the Brass’s sound as the latter broadens their stylistic reach.

Between them an investigation into the pop standard “Tangerine” locates a swell intersection of jazz, lounge, and Latin and rides it out for the concise duration, the setting complementing the smartly conceived mariachi transfusion of the contempo folk ditty “Lemon Tree.” And the first side closes even more dynamically than it began, as Allen Toussaint’s “Whipped Cream” (written under the pseudonym Naomi Neville, his mother’s maiden name, don’tcha know) is subject to a tightly-wound, rhythmically-lively and almost ludicrously melodic handling.

Leiber and Stoller’s “Love Potion No. 9” opens side two as stripper’s accompaniment with some Ye Olde West saloon pianner thrown in for good measure. Next is a spirited dive into Sol Lake’s “El Garbanzo” followed by “Ladyfingers,” a solid piece of songwriting from jazz whistler and harmonica man Toots Thielemans; where the mariachi angle could previously connect as a little forced (though for the most part it safely avoided blatant shtick), on these entries the motif is more subtly utilized.

This development gets well-integrated with the slightly more nuanced bump-and-grind aspect detailed above. “Butterball” could’ve easily been slowed down and adjusted for the purpose of randy gyration, but the urge is resisted in favor of another excursion into crisp melodicism. A minor hitch materializes in penultimate track “Peanuts,” which brings both polkas and circuses to mind (a frankly dreadful combo), though the uptempo “Lollipops and Roses” ends the disc on a strong note.

Is this record a mindblower? Nope, but to make an obvious point, expecting such an outcome mislays the appeal of Easy Listening. At their best, Alpert and his various sidemen were masters of the melody; to this day just thinking about “A Taste of Honey” can lodge it in the cranium for hours. In the wrong hands, this aptitude can plummet one into a quagmire of relentlessly trite catchiness; circa Whipped Cream & Other Delights Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass sidestepped this hazard with aplomb.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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