Sergio Mendes Is Jazzed to Be Back With a Sound Part Brazil and Part Bronx
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
WOODLAND HILLS, Calif - At home on a warm winter day, Sergio Mendes is a model of jazzy cool as he stands over a black Schimmel concert piano, his hands gliding across the keys.
A broad, toothy grin swallows Mendes's face as the haunting chords of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Surfboard" fill the sprawling house, the one that has bold Brazilian paintings hanging from the walls and Portuguese texts about music and poetry scattered about.
And why not smile? Mendes is making a harmonically complicated composition sound like the easiest thing in the world to play. He's also somehow making Southern California feel like . . . Brazil.
But Mendes quickly interrupts the illusion.
"You know, Dr. Dre lives up the street!" he says. He laughs, then adds this about his rapper-producer of a neighbor: "I haven't met him yet."
Still, this is Sergio Mendes's world now. The pianist and arranger who brought bossa nova to the mainstream in the 1960s -- and who for years was the top-selling Brazilian artist in the United States, if not the world -- suddenly finds himself knocking on strange new doors, with hip-hop-style welcome mats out front.
Forty years after his group, Brasil '66, crashed the charts with "Mas Que Nada" and a full, fairly quiet decade since the release of his last studio project, Mendes is attempting a career resurrection of sorts with the help of some unlikely new friends. His new album, "Timeless," features a hip-hop and R&B guest list that includes John Legend, Justin Timberlake, India.Arie and the Black Eyed Peas. The Peas' leader, Will "will.i.am" Adams, produced the project, which includes a few new songs but plenty of Brazilian classics that have been given a hip-hop makeover complete with samples and drum loops.
Or, as Adams raps (yes, raps ) at one point over Mendes's piano lines: "This new genre, hip-hop samba . . . bossa nova, urban classical."
If that concept does not sound at least somewhat outrageous, then you almost certainly missed the Swinging Sixties, when the smooth, styling sounds of Mendes were heard regularly on U.S. radio, and the young, doe-eyed artist from Niteroi, just across the mouth of Guanabara Bay from Rio de Janeiro, was touring with Frank Sinatra, and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Rap, of course, wasn't even a gleam in its mother's eye then. In the decades since, hip-hop producers from Pharrell Williams to Adams have cited Mendes's music as an influence, and Adams even sampled some of it before inviting Mendes to appear on a Black Eyed Peas album. But still.
"It's a project that on its face seems a little odd and unusual," says Glen Barros, president of Concord Records, the storied jazz label that partnered with Starbucks/Hear Music to release "Timeless." Stylistically, Barros says, the album "doesn't fit into a box. It's a blend of so many different elements and it's not easy to describe. But I think it works really well."
Says Adams, who wasn't yet born when Mendes first began appearing on the Billboard charts: "We didn't make it for a specific group. We just made beautiful music. When we were in the studio, Sergio never said, 'Well, Will, my audience is not going to whatever.' And I didn't say, 'Well, Sergio, the [hip-hop] heads are checking for whatever.' We just did it."
Mendes, who last week turned 65, admits that he wasn't familiar with some of the young artists before he collaborated with them. For instance, when Adams suggested using the New York rapper Q-Tip on a remake of "The Frog," Mendes responded: " Who ?" (His 19-year-old son, Gustavo, had to bring Mendes up to speed. "I'm an old bebopper," he says. "I like to listen to old jazz records.")
Mendes, however, insists that he was excited about the experiment, which was conceived not by some Clive Davis-like figure hoping to engineer a Carlos Santana-style comeback, but by Adams and Mendes themselves after the producer invited the pianist to play on the Black Eyed Peas album "Elephunk."
"I haven't made a record in 10 years because I had no interest," says Mendes, speaking in a sonorous baritone with a lilting accent. "I was touring all over the world with a great band, but I had no motivation to make another album. But I like meeting young people and I like new things. When I met Will, he was really the motivation for me doing this."
The idea, Mendes says, was to introduce Brazilian melodies to a young audience that typically subsists on a diet of hip-hop and contemporary soul. "It's a wonderful encounter with two cultures. It doesn't sound like anything else out there. And at the same time, it has all the simple components of what I think people want to hear. They want to hear great songs and melodies. And, there's a beat they can dance to and a rap they can say the words to. I hope they embrace it."
Satisfied, Mendes claps three times.
He is sitting in his living room now, sipping a frothy espresso drink made by his wife of 33 years, Gracinha Leporace, who sings in Mendes's band. He's wearing a red Polo shirt, pressed and cuffed khakis, black slip-ons and blue socks that match the color of his watchband. His hair has been dyed black and he has a faint goatee. He has a bit of a belly, too, suggesting that Mendes has been living the good life. (Other clues include the Mercedes-Benz parked out front of the well-appointed home in a swanky gated community -- and the house itself.)
"Sergio is a good liver," says Alpert, his old friend.
Forty years ago, Alpert and Jerry Moss signed Mendes and Brasil '66 to A&M Records. Mendes was a classically trained pianist who got turned on to jazz when, at age 13, he heard Dave Brubeck. He'd moved to California in 1964, after a military coup in Brazil, and released several U.S. albums without much success. But with A&M, he struck pay dirt, recording a string of such global hits "Mas Que Nada" (a crossover hit with Portuguese lyrics) and Brazilianized, easy-listening covers of Western pop songs, including Burt Bacharach's "The Look of Love" and the Beatles' "The Fool on the Hill."
"When the bossa-nova craze hit the U.S., I said, 'This is the coolest thing I've ever heard,' " says Ken Smith, who frequently sneaks Mendes's music onto the '50s-centric channel he programs for XM Satellite Radio. "Sergio was really a bridge between what was strictly Brazilian or jazz and mainstream pop acceptance. I fell in love with his music."
Says Alpert: "Sergio walked through the door that Stan Getz had opened with 'Girl From Ipanema.' His music was very engaging and unique. He turned people on to a whole new form of music."
Much, as it turns out, to the artist's surprise. "I became a big success," Mendes says. "It surprised everybody, including myself. But it was a good surprise, having a worldwide-accepted sound. Meeting Herb and Jerry was the best thing that happened to my career." (It worked out well for Alpert, too: He wound up marrying the Brasil '66 singer Lani Hall.)
Mendes continued to enjoy success on and off over the next two decades, before beginning a gradual fade from the spotlight. He toured regularly and even won a Grammy in the early '90s, but the hits weren't there.
His legacy, though, was squarely in place: Last year, Mendes was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Latin Grammys. He half-jokingly says he expects to be invited to the regular Grammys in 2007. As a nominee.
So, will "Timeless" do great things for his profile and popularity, a la Johnny Cash's late-career comeback? Will it be a multi-platinum smash, a la Santana's? Mendes simply shrugs and smiles and notes that he's just happy that his 12- and 19-year old sons now think that their father is cool. He appears otherwise unimpressed by his own place in the pantheon. (To wit: That Lifetime Achievement Award sits on the floor of Mendes's upstairs studio, where the mantel belongs to a rare, unopened bottle of birth-year Bordeaux: the 1941 Chateau Latour.)
"He's a true artist," Alpert says. "He likes to make wonderful music that touches him. I think he feels like this album is a unique concept, and he's satisfied with that. He's not thinking in terms of his popularity or what the album is going to do for his legacy."
Barros, the Concord president, however, has a slightly different view.
"Sergio will be forever famous as a result of the Brasil '66 project," Barros says. "He did great things to bring Brazilian music to American popular culture. But when you have large gaps between records, people tend to forget a little bit.
"We're hoping this is the next phase of his career and will bring him even greater notoriety. He deserves it."