Herb Alpert Delivers Funky, Freewheeling Set at New York’s Café Carlyle (SHOW REVIEW)

Herb Alpert promised a “very informal” show Tuesday night at New York’s Café Carlyle, and spent the next 90 minutes delivering a funky, freewheeling set with his wife, the singer Lani Hall, and the couple’s longtime jazz trio.

The show opened the band’s fourth Carlyle residency, which runs through June 11, and unfolded as an extended medley of pop classics and fresh takes on Tijuana Brass hits, including “The Lonely Bull,” complete with its signature crowd-cheering intro.

The mood felt looser and more agile than Alpert’s Carlyle kickoff last year, and there was reason to celebrate: 2016 marks 50 years since he signed Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, featuring Hall on lead vocal, to A&M Records. Maybe that’s why Alpert seemed content with surrendering much of the spotlight Tuesday to his partner. Her spin on “Fever” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz” put the feel of Broadway onto a stage so small that Alpert joked would have wall-to-wall carpeting if one’s toupee fell to the floor.

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By hanging back a bit, Alpert allowed his live band of 10 years to reveal itself in stages. Hussain Jiffry, from Sri Lanka, and his six-string bass are Grammy winners in their own right, and proved as much. But it was pianist Bill Cantos who claimed the night’s most memorable moment halfway through “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” He began to scat, in sync with his own finger improvisation, matching voice to keys note-for-note, and accelerated over the next couple of minutes to the point of near breathlessness. Following the house applause, Alpert quipped, “Would you play it just like that again?” Cantos could barely get his response out: “Couldn’t do it if my life depended on it.”

It is these bursts of improvisation that underscore the band’s ability to play with as much ease as discipline. And they’re just as present when they go quiet, re-entering the picture only as Alpert shifts from his graceful solo on The Beatles’s “Something” to the group’s funky take on “Come Fly With Me,” from Alpert’s  2015 album of the same name.

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Alpert declined song requests—his catalog is too big, he explained in his soft-spoken way—though he did engage the full house several times between songs, sharing familiar anecdotes with guests who included his sister, Mimi, and Robert Redford. (Alpert recalled a fan in 1965 praising him for the famous Tijuana Brass album cover featuring a model covered in mounds of whipped cream; the man hadn’t yet listened to the record.)

At 81, Alpert is as committed a showman as ever, and arguably the finest trumpet player alive. There’s music even in his brief rests, in those simple band cues he gives with eyes closed and his raised hand open wide. He may be directing, but they already know where he’s going.

Photos by David Andranko

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