Well before artists thought of themselves as brands, the name Sergio Mendes was synonymous with Brazilian music for many people around the world.
He made global hits of songs such as Mas que nada and Upa, Neguinho by then-unknown Brazilian songwriters Jorge Ben and Edu Lobo and reinterpreted mainstream pop fare such as Fool on the Hill and Scarborough Fair with a Brazilian flair. And in a business in which careers are often measured in months, Mendes, who plays Miami on Friday, has managed to remain relevant for more than five decades.
In recent years, he has associated himself with artists such as Brazilian percussionist, composer and producer Carlinhos Brown (leading to the Grammy-winning 1992 album Brasileiro) and rapper, songwriter and producer will.i.am, of The Black Eyed Peas, who produced Mendes’ impressive 2006 Timeless. He also found success with lively 2010 Bom Tempo, which was nominated for a Grammy, and his soundtrack for the animated 2011 film Rio, which received an Academy Award nomination.
Fans and critics alike may point to a smart commercial touch, but Mendes says none of his successes were born of such considerations.
“No, never. It doesn’t work that way for me. I’m very curious, I love to learn, I love to try different things,” says the 71-year-old, speaking in softly accented English from his home in Los Angeles. “My nature is to learn new things, work with different people from different generations and different cultures. That’s the beauty of music. It was never ‘We’re going to do this so we can be popular.’ It’s never been that way.”
Leading a nine-piece group, Mendes revisits his remarkable career in A Night in Rio, the closing concert of the 2011-2012 Jazz Roots series at the Adrienne Arsht Center on Friday night. Brazilian-born Eliane Elias, an exceptional jazz pianist turned chanteuse, completes the bill.
“We play the whole songbook,” Mendes says of the show. “It’s a musical journey back to bossa nova.”
It would be hard to find a better guide.
Classically trained in piano from an early age, Mendes “fell in love” with jazz at 13 after hearing a recording by Dave Brubeck. In time, he formed a trio, recorded his first album (1960’s Dance Moderno, featuring bossa novas and jazz standards) and made a name for himself in the fabled Becos das Garrafas, a small-club circuit in Rio de Janeiro where musicians were developing samba-jazz, a smooth but potent hybrid.
Bossa nova was exploding in Brazil, “so instead of playing jazz standards, we would play the great bossa nova songs but with a jazz attitude, meaning we would improvise on them,” he says.
Mendes’ Bossa Rio sextet “was the instrumental band during the bossa nova time,” he says without false modesty.
In November 1962, Mendes and his band were part of the historic concert at Carnegie Hall that introduced to American audiences major figures of bossa nova including Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Gilberto, Oscar Castro Neves, Roberto Menescal and Luiz Bonfá.
Some critics judged the concert a fiasco (mainly because of sound problems and disorganization), and years later Jobim would recall it as “total madness,” but it was nonetheless a key moment for bossa nova. (The wave would crest four months later when Jobim, Gilberto, saxophonist Stan Getz and singer Astrud Gilberto recorded Getz/Gilberto and The Girl from Ipanema.)
“Each one of us had our own style,” recalls Mendes. “Bossa Rio was a bit like the Jazz Messengers of Brazilian samba. Joao Gilberto was the minimalist: a small voice and a guitar — but singing the great songs of Jobim, because at the end of the day, Antonio Carlos Jobim is responsible for the whole thing. He’s the father and godfather of us all. Without those songs, nothing would’ve ever happened.”
The Carnegie Hall concert also marked a before-and-after for Mendes.
While in New York, he sat in, and later recorded, with alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley ( Cannonball’s Bossa Nova, 1962). And after his return to Brazil, Mendes would record Você ainda não ouviu nada! (You haven’t heard anything yet!), which still stands as a classic of samba-jazz.
He moved to the United States in 1964 and over the next two years recorded three strong albums featuring talent such as Jobim, Art Farmer, Hubert Laws and Bud Shank, but without much commercial success. In 1966 he hit on a winning formula: smooth, easy-on-the-ear arrangements of bossa novas and well-known American and British pop songs performed by a group with two female vocalists over a tight, discrete rhythm section.
“In Brazil I used to accompany a lot of singers,” Mendes says. “But here it was just chance. I met a singer, Lani Hall, and I thought of adding vocals to my band so I could have words, not just instrumental music. It wasn’t something planned.”
Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 was a best-selling success.
It was a hit in Brazil, too, notes Brazilian critic and author Antonio Carlos Miguel, “although it elicited contradictory feelings. On the one hand there was a great pride for the success of a Brazilian in the United States and the world — but also many accused him of being ‘Americanized,’” Miguel said via email.
But 46 years later, he adds, “ Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 is, without a doubt, a classic in Brazilian music: it has a Brazilian essence in a pop packaging.”
Mendes’ albums have consistently showcased Brazilian musicians and songwriters, from Joao Donato and Carlinhos Brown to Marcelo D2, Guinga and Vanessa Da Mata, many of whom were not previously well known outside the country.
“Even his critics can’t deny what he has done for Brazilian music and the fact that he continues to put Brazilian music before a wider audience,” says Gene de Souza, host of WDNA-FM’s long-running Café Brasil.
His collaboration with will.i.am is a case in point.
“Someone at the record company called me to tell me the guy from a band called The Black Eyed Peas wanted to meet me,” Mendes recalls. Again, my curiosity [got me], and I said ‘Sure, have him come to my house.’
“And when he came, I opened the door and he was standing there holding a bunch of my old records — Brasil ’66, the instrumental albums I did for Atlantic — and he says: ‘I grew up listening to your music. I’m a big fan.’ ”