Sergio Mendes and Friends
Jazz Meets Samba
Friday, Nov. 8, 8pm
By Ed Morales
Back in his Los Angeles home after recharging his batteries in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian bandleader Sérgio Mendes is busily reinventing himself in the way he knows best.
“I’m working on my new album for 2014,” he says excitedly. “I’ve been spending time working with Carlinhos Brown, Milton Nascimento and Toninho Horta to do a tribute to different styles of music from Brazil. I also want to include some American musicians as well, but I can’t tell you who yet.”
Mendes, who has released more than 50 albums and who is celebrating 50 years touring the U.S. and the world, will be appearing along with a group of jazz all-stars, including Joe Lovano, Marivaldo Dos Santos, Lee Ritenour and Eliane Elias, at NJPAC on Nov. 8 in a program called Jazz Meets Samba. “My band and the jazz trio will be playing separate sets presenting our vision of Brazilian music,” says Mendes.
“We do what I call a musical journey, which consists of songs from the bossa nova days to our new albums. We have three lead singers, bass, drums, percussion, guitar, another keyboard player who also plays saxophone and flute and sings,” he adds.
“Then we have a rapper, his name is H2O, he’s from Oakland. We play a lot of songs from the Timeless and Encanto albums, which have old hits like ‘Mais Que Nada’ and ‘The Look of Love,’ and he brings in the rap, which I think is a fresh way of performing Brazilian classics, with a little bit of rap and hip-hop.”
The septuagenarian pianist and composer has long been at the vanguard of Brazilian musicians who successfully collaborate with American musicians, fusing the musical traditions of both countries. His first big break came in 1962 when he played at the legendary Bossa Nova festival at Carnegie Hall, sharing the stage with Brazilian giants João Gilberto, Antônio Carlos Jobim and American jazz musicians Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd. While in New York he went to the classic jazz club Birdland and heard for the first time, in person, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley.
“Cannonball invited me to make a record with him and I was only 21 years old,” says Mendes. “I was part of that whole bridge between great American music and Brazilian music. You have Getz/Gilberto, Sinatra/Jobim, Wayne Shorter/Milton Nascimento. It’s a wonderful thing.”
In just a few years, Mendes moved on from his Bossa Rio Sextet to form Brasil 66, adding a female vocal chorus and teaming up with producer Herb Alpert to record a string of bossa nova hits, like Jorge Ben’s “Mais Que Nada.”
American audiences became even more familiar with Mendes’ music when he recorded songs in English, like the Burt Bacharach/Hal David hit “The Look of Love” and the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill.” “The Beatles’ song had melodies I loved so we played it as a samba in 3/4 time, which was kind of a revolutionary thing to do.” This was natural for Mendes, since bossa nova was a vanguard sound created by musicians who slowed down the frenetic samba beat and mixed in influences from American jazz and European classical composers.
“The root of bossa nova is the samba, which is our musical language,” says Mendes. “It’s African music, but Africans made great contributions not only rhythmically but melodically. Then you had composers like Jobim, who was very sophisticated harmonically. When you hear some of these songs you can hear composers like Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky.”
While Mendes won a 1992 Grammy Award for Brasileiro, as Best World Music Album, he didn’t release an album for almost 10 years after 1996’s Oceano. But he staged a successful comeback in 2006 with Timeless, an album featuring Black Eyed Peas lead singer will.i.am. The Latin Grammy-winning album also featured guest stars like John Legend, Eryka Badu, Jill Scott, India.Arie, Q Tip, Justin Timberlake and Stevie Wonder.
“When I played the songs and listened to Will rap to them, I felt the same excitement I did when I made the album with Cannonball and watched him improvise on saxophone,” says Mendes. Encanto, the follow-up to Timeless, included such collaborators as Fergie and classics like “Agua de Beber.”
After winning another Best Contemporary Brazilian Pop Album Latin Grammy in 2010 for Tempo, Mendes received an Oscar nomination for a song he contributed to the animated feature Rio, which featured voiceovers from stars like Jamie Foxx and Anne Hathaway.
But what most excites Mendes these days is how he will mix the work he has recently done with different Brazilian musicians and genres and whatever American collaborator he hopes to work with in the near future. He still finds fresh developments in R&B, funk and dance music fascinating. “I find it very interesting what Daft Punk is doing by using real musicians to bring organic elements to music that was often done with computers and synthesizers,” says Mendes. “I also love what Pharrell Williams is doing; he’s a very creative producer.
“I’m very curious and open-minded and I love the process of recording with different artists because there’s always a great exchange of ideas and experiences,” Mendes continues.
He seemed to pause to think for a second, then suddenly blurts out, “I’d love to do something with Prince. He’s so creative. What do you think? I’ll leave you with that.”
Ed Morales is a former staff writer at The Village Voice and columnist at Newsday. He is currently a professor at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.
Oct. 7, 2013