It seems like every once in a while you run into someone who can do anything. When that person seems to do it with ease, it’s another thing entirely.
“I never tried to make a hit record,” said Herb Alpert, famous trumpeter and band leader.
Still, Alpert released nine No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200. He has also sold 72 million records and picked up nine Grammys during his six-plus-decade career.
But he would probably balk at even being in relation to his awards. Sitting in front of a view of the Gros Ventre Range at the National Wildlife Museum of Art, he came across as humble, relaxed and genuine. He wasn’t there to talk about a career that saw him lead his band, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, to commercial success and fame in the ’50s and ’60s. He also wasn’t interested in talking about starting, running and selling A&M Records.
Alpert was there to talk about his art. He isn’t into the awards (“I don’t want to sound double humble, but I’m not into that,” he said.) or anything in that vein.
He’s just into doing “his thing,” which at this point in his life is a little bit of music and a little bit of visual art, including 6- to 12-or-so-foot bronze sculptures that he calls “spirit totems.”
Those pieces are on display on the sculpture trail at the museum, which will host a Mix’d Media event celebrating the installation from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday. Though Alpert won’t attend (he dropped into the museum in June for a brief talk), 12 of his totem pole-inspired works are there to look at.
Alpert doesn’t see his process of creating the sculptures as much different than writing jazz. For him it’s personal. He’s only out to make art he enjoys, and that’s the way he’s always been. If other people happen to like it, so be it.
Whether he’s sculpting or playing music Alpert is looking for what he called “the feel.”
When he was younger he would listen to different musicians, like saxophonists Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz, who were his friends, and Miles Davis. He would put on their records and listen for what made him “respond.”
“Certain artists kind of get under your skin, and I couldn’t really identify what I liked about them,” Alpert said. “I couldn’t really put it in a formula, so there ain’t no formula.
“There’s just a thing called the feel, and it’s personal.”
With jazz it was one thing: a more abstract feeling about the placement of notes. With clay, which Alpert uses to create casts for his larger sculptures, it’s tactile. But that doesn’t mean the process is any different.
Alpert doesn’t start with a goal in mind. He just starts working, molding clay — which he described as “sensual” to the Los Angeles Times in 2010 — until something starts feeling right.
Sometimes, though, it feels wrong.
“It’s not that it’s automatic — you start doing something, and it feels good and it looks great. It doesn’t work that way,” Alpert said. “Until it gets to that point I feel uneasy. I feel, like, creepy, almost like, ‘Man, what am I doing?’”
But when it starts to feel right, the musician-turned-visual artist knows it immediately.
“When it starts feeling good it’s like, ‘Ah, that’s nice. I feel better now. I can sleep. That’s part of being an artist, you know? Nothing’s perfect. And perfection, man, if you’re going for perfection you’ll never find it.”
When Alpert is working on a piece that’s not going the way he wants he stops. But he doesn’t always get rid of a half-finished product. His studio is littered with half-completed works: both paintings and sculptures. Sometimes he’ll be walking down the hall and a piece will catch his eye, and he’ll know exactly what he has to do to fix it up.
“I’ll say, ‘Wow, man, If I just did this and I tried that, it would all work out,’” Alpert said. “And a lot of the times, that’s true. It does.”
Alpert’s work will be on display at the National Museum of Wildlife Art until September. For information visit WildlifeArt.org. ￼