SERGIO MENDES: THE BOY FROM BRAZIL
He may be the most internationally-successful Brazilian artist of all time and the man famed for introducing samba and bossa nova to the USA, Europe and Asia back in the mid-Sixties.
Even so, few could have predicted iconic pianist/arranger Sergio Mendes`spectacular return - after an eight-year recording break - to international chart status back in 2006 with a new album boasting high-profile input from the cream of modern-day urban music talent.
Nevertheless, the appropriately-titled 'Timeless' - which saw the then-65-year-old, Grammy-winning Brazilian collaborating throughout with today`s chart-topping Black Eyed Peas rapper/producer/writer will.i.am - impressively boasted guests ranging from contemporary soul vocalists Erykah Badu and John Legend to the legendary Stevie Wonder and even-pop/R&B megastar Justin Timberlake, on a musically-groundbreaking set that mixed updates of old Mendes classics with totally new material.
Meanwhile, the ensuing summer 2006 international Top Three success of its kick-off single 'Mas Que Nada' (an update of Sergio`s signature tune, which in 1966 became the first Portuguese-sung song to hit the US Top Five) has ultimately in turn led to this month`s release of a new, follow-up LP 'Encanto'. Which once more finds the globally-renowned Mr. Mendes teaming up with will.i.am. This time on a more Brazilian-flavoured set pioneered by a cover of Sergio`s 1967 US Number One 'The Look Of Love', featuring the rapping and singing talents of Black Eyed Peas` sexy front woman Fergie.
“The story behind me and will first getting together actually began around four/five years ago, when I received a phonecall from the president of A&M Records”, begins an affable Sergio, relaxing over afternoon drinks in the lounge of central London`s plush Landmark Hotel: “He told me that he had a band I hadn`t heard of called The Black Eyed Peas, and the leader would like to come to my house and talk to me. I agreed, and the next day I opened my front-door to find will standing there with a bunch of old vinyl records of mine - including some really old instrumental piano things I`d done for Atlantic Records! As I was kinda surprised, he explained how - as a 16-years old - he`d gone to a record store, discovered my records, and been my biggest fan ever since! And, because he really did seem very sincere in his passion for the music, when he then asked if I`d come and play on one song for his group`s new album, I agreed.”
“So, a couple days later, I met Will in the studio,” he continues in warm Brazilian/American tones: “The song he wanted me to play on was a beautiful Brazilian song I`d recorded before. I did a piano solo, he put a rap on it, and called it 'Sexy'! And, because I`d really enjoyed the whole experience, when I got home I told my wife that I`d finally decided to make another record. I immediately called will and suggested "How about if we do something where I bring all the classic melodies from Brazil, you bring the hip hop world, and we put it together?". He told me for him that would be fulfilling a lifetime dream, And so that`s exactly how our working relationship started! The idea was to try and get the new kids into these great old melodies. Because, with both samba and hip hop/R&B rhythmically-speaking harking back to Africa and both being urban music from the streets, I think the marriage is a natural one. It`s nothing forced. You know, in carnival - Brazil`s biggest celebration - we have millions of people all over the country dancing and singing on the streets, and nothing is more urban than that! It`s the biggest urban celebration on EARTH, if you think about it!”
Indeed, 'Encanto' finds Sergio taking listeners even deeper into Brazil, having recorded all the basic tracks in Rio and Bahia before finally finishing up in Los Angeles. While its enchantingly diverse array of guest musicians range from Colombian superstar vocalist Juanes and Brazilian talents Carlinhos Brown and Vanessa Da Mata; to Japanese popsters Dreams Come True and Italian chart-topping rapper Jovanotti. Its international cast being completed by American stars like the aforementioned Fergie; legendary soul diva Natalie Cole; plus trumpeter supreme Herb Alpert accompanied by his wife Lani Hall, who was the original lead-singer in Sergio`s chart-topping Sixties combo Brasil `66. Meanwhile, Mendes` unique ear for enticing melodies and contagious rhythms is reflected in his updates of four seminal (legendary Brazilian songwriter) Antonio Carlos Jobim compositions. Which include a hip hop version of 'Agua De Beber' complete with will.i.am rap; plus a cover of 'Waters Of March', which features Grammy-nominated contemporary soulstress Ledisi while later being reprised in French by Afro-Belgian vocal ensemble Zap Mama.
“'Encanto' is a beautiful word in Portuguese, which in Brazil means `enchantment` or `charm`”, explains Sergio: “And I think it pretty much describes the music that`s in the album - the beautiful melodies, the sensuality, the rhythms, the diversity... You know, going to Brazil to make this record, because I hadn`t recorded there in a long time, brought a whole new vibe that`s very different from the last album. Because, while will at first went to Brazil with me - I felt taking him back to my roots was very important - he ended up having to go back to The States before we`d finished recording. So, with me then producing the rest of the album myself down there, it did bring a fresh, more Brazilian-oriented flavour to the party. You know, there`s a very special, musically-creative environment in Brazil which does inspire me tremendously.”
In terms of the guests, meanwhile, Sergio found himself treading exciting new ground while also returning to work with significant figures from his illustrious past: “I`ve always dreamed of making an album with guest artists from different cultures singing in their native language, as a way to illustrate the power and magic of Brazilian melodies”, he asserts: “So, to do Brazilian music with artists who were singing in Italian, Spanish and French - and not just in Portuguese and English - has given a very international aspect to the album, as well as being something totally new and fresh for me. But then going back to Brazil and recording with old friends, as well as involving my American friends Herb Alpert and his wife Lani Hall - who were like respectively my record company boss and my first singer from 40-odd years ago - was kinda like coming full-circle! Also, what a lot of people don`t know is (one-time Michael Jackson duettist and Brand New Heavies lead vocalist) Siedah Garrett actually sang with my band for five years in the Eighties! You know, it was one of her first-ever gigs. So again, getting her to sing on 'Funky Bahia' - when she`s really more of a songwriter these days - represented a nod to part of my history too.”
Meanwhile, the fact that the many, culturally-varied guests on 'Encanto' are all genuine fans of Mendes` music is indeed a tribute to the lasting impact made by the physician`s son from Niteroi, Brazil (a small town across the bay from Rio De Janeiro), who - having discovered jazz at 15 - recorded his debut album in Brazil in 1961 with his band Bossa Rio Sextet, before first performing in New York the following year at the famous Bossa Nova Festival at Carnegie Hall. Critically acclaimed as one of the evening`s highlights (on a bill which impressively also included Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Charlie Byrd), Sergio next went on to make a record with US jazz legend Cannonball Adderley before signing with Atlantic Records, who in turn released his own first American album 'The Swinger From Rio'.
However, it was after Mendes left Brazil and moved permanently to California in 1964 and signed his then-new group Brasil `66 to Herb Alpert & Jerry Moss` A&M Records that worldwide success immediately ensued. With international smashes like 'Fool On The Hill' and the US Number One 'The Look Of Love' plus several Gold and Platinum albums making him the biggest Brazilian artist of the decade. Highlights of 1967 included his first national US tour with Frank Sinatra and appearing in Las Vegas; while in 1968 his first tour of Japan opened significant doors for Brazilian music over there. With Mendes` albums continuing to chart throughout the Seventies (a time which also saw him perform for the first time at The White House), subsequent triumphs have since included the 1983 US pop/R&B chart-topper 'Never Gonna Let You Go' and a Grammy Award for his 1993 album 'Brasileiro'.
With Sergio having lived in Brazil during the late Fifties/early Sixties when the samba-based bossa nova was born and having been one of the new genre`s first practitioners (together with composer Antonio Carlos Jobim; guitarist Joao Gilberto; and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes) he now recalls the momentous era with fond memories: “Yeah, it was a wonderful time! And today, when I look back, it almost seems to me like last WEEK! Because the songs are a fresh as they were then, and I still have the same emotion when I hear them TODAY! And I`d say that was the same for people in general. I mean, yesterday I was in Berlin - and the amount of Brazilian music you hear in the bars at night there is UNBELIEVABLE! It`s even more than you were hearing like 10 YEARS ago! And it`s all pretty much Brazilian music from that particular era. Because it`s melodic, it`s romantic, it`s sensual… You know, to me it`s like soul music. Because it comes from the heart and yet it`s also from the street - and there`s always been that attraction between North American and South American musicians. Like back in the early Sixties, when American jazz musicians like Stan Getz were discovering bossa nova. And when I did that album with Cannonball (Adderley) it was the same thing... As a young kid starting out, I was in awe of him as jazz legend. So, when he invited me to work with him, it was GREAT!”
“And when Will.i.am, as a young cat, is working with me today, it`s the same kinda thing for HIM!”, enthuses a now-animated Sergio: “You know different times, different generations, different places - but the EMOTION is the same! I mean, when I was making that music with Brasil `66 I had no IDEA how far it was gonna ago and how popular it was gonna BECOME! I was basically just playing music that I was enjoying at the time, in exactly the same way I do it NOW! You know, to me it is - and always has been - purely about having fun with what I`m doing and wanting to share with my audience some of the joy and the magic of Brazilian music. Which brings me back to the reason I chose that word 'Encanto' - to describe that magic!”
The album 'Encanto' and single 'The Look Of Love (feat. Fergie)' are both out now through Concord Records/will.i.am music group.
Words PETE LEWIS