August 4, 2006

An Interview with Sergio Mendes

By Francisco H. Ciriza

Sergio Mendes is a living musical legend. His musical career having spanned from the mid 1960’s to the present has not only brought music fans and Brazilian sounds together, but has also served to make Mendes the most internationally successful Brazilian artist of all time. Often, it was Mendes’ ability to mix pop and traditional musical elements into an infectiously cool blend of exotic songs that has kept both him and his music close to the hearts of music fans worldwide for 40 years.

After honing his skills among Brazil’s musical elite which included guitarist Antonio Carlos Jobim and singer João Gilberto, Sergio Mendes left for New York City, began recording in 1961, and by 1962 was playing the legendary NYC jazz club, Birdland, with his band.

In 1966, Mendes was signed to A&M Records almost immediately becoming the biggest Brazilian artist of the decade. Against a backdrop of racial tension and protests against the Vietnam War, Mendes began his recording.

La Prensa San Diego recently had the honor of speaking with Sergio Mendes as he visited England on a promotional tour. Mendes recalled some of the early days and also shared some details about his most recent Concord Records/Starbucks Hear Music album, “Timeless.”

“I remember auditioning for Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert in this small studio in New York,” said Mendes. “From then on it was as if we were part of the family. We were always very close,” said Mendes of his relationship with Moss, Alpert and A&M Records.

Basically a Brazilian counterpart to Alpert’s own Tijuana Brass, Mendes’ Brasil ’66 featured one of the sexiest and most beautiful female vocalist of the era, Lain Hall, who later married Herb Alpert. Brasil 66’ reached the top of the charts with the Mendes’ penned “The Look of Love” as well as covers of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair,” The Beatles’ “The Fool on the Hill” and another Mendes original, “Mas Que Nada,” perhaps the group’s signature tune. Mendes’ albums continued charting throughout the ‘70s as he left and then later returned to A&M.

In fact, it was that stream of successful and influential hits and overall hip vibe legacy that led to Mendes’ collaboration with, chief producer and songwriter of the Black Eyed Peas, one of the most successful rap acts of this decade. Beginning with Will’s invitation to Sergio to play piano on the cut “Sexy” from the Peas’ multi-platinum “Elephunk” album and later on the BEP’s 2005 album, “Monkey Business,” the duo began a solid working and personal relationship.

While at first it may seem odd that an enduring legend with such deep roots in traditional rhythm and sounds would be able to relate to a major figure in a genre well-known for sampling rather than composition, it was their mutual love of music that made them a perfect match.

“His record company contacted me and arranged a meeting. When he arrived at my house, I opened the door and saw him standing there holding vinyl copies of my records. He said, ‘I grew up with your records.’ I was touched,” recalled Mendes.

Ultimately, the two collaborated on full plate of Mendes classics on the pianist’s first new release in eight years. In addition to demonstrating the timeless qualities of Mendes’ melodies, “Timeless,” also marks a point of intersection, a point at which two seemingly divergent genres meet.

“It turned into a wonderful marriage of rhythms,” said Mendes, “because it’s all African rhythms and haunting melodies. It’s all about the same beats that we inherited from Africa. It’s that same common denominator that brought the samba to Brazil and brought jazz to America. We had a ball.”

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