Sergio Mendes found fame as part of an era, symbolized in the name of his first band, Brasil 66, inventing a smooth, jazzy bossa nova pop sound that’s the very essence of the cooled-out `60s. Later versions of the group in subsequent decades - Brasil 77, Brasil 88 - didn’t have nearly the same impact.
But 40 years after he first became a star, Mendes has found new success by leaving dates behind. “Timeless,” released in 2006 and produced by Black Eyed Peas leader will.i.am, was chockfull of young urban stars like Justin Timberlake, John Legend, Erykah Badu and India.arie guesting on updates of Mendes classics like “Mas que nada.” It was a surprise hit that brought the 67-year-old musical legend back to life for a new generation of fans.
No wonder Mendes called his follow-up, due out in June, “Encanto” (“Enchanted”). Pop life is looking good again for the artist who still incarnates Brazilian music for millions.
“The success of `Timeless’ all over the world was a wonderful thing for me and my career,” Mendes said by phone from Hawaii on a recent morning, after playing with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra.
“I feel blessed to be working, making music, to be collaborating with some very great artists, guests from all over the world.”
The most important of those guests was will.i.am, lead singer/rapper and producer of the Black Eyed Peas, and an ardent, longtime Mendes fan. “It was always a dream for me to work with Sergio Mendes,” will.i.am wrote in “Timeless’” album notes.
In 2002, the hip-hop musician had his record company call Mendes to ask if he could visit. The Brazilian veteran had never heard of the Peas, but his teenage son assured him they were hot. Mendes was astonished when will.i.am showed up on his doorstep in Los Angeles with a crate full of the older artist’s vinyl albums. `He told me he grew up listening to my music, how influential it had been on his music, and invited me to play on his album `Elephunk’ (the Peas’ breakout hit),” Mendes recalls.
Mendes, who hadn’t done an album for close to a decade, accepted. He enjoyed recording with the Peas so much that he proposed that he and will.i.am do an album together. “I always wanted to work with musicians from different backgrounds and countries,” Mendes says. “He was a fan and it clicked - we came up with something different.”
“Sergio planted a seed and people picked the fruit, and now we replanted it for people to come and enjoy the same tree that was there, just in a different shape than in 1966,” will.i.am told Mix magazine in 2006.
Despite the difference in their ages and musical styles, they found common ground.
“He loves melody and I love melody,” Mendes says. “He loves Brazilian music and all the rhythms of Brazil. It was a natural encounter of different cultures. My idea was to do classics of the bossa nova days, the great songs of Brazil, and to introduce that music to a new generation.”
Mendes needed a new introduction to his native Brazil as much as to his adopted home of the United States, where he has lived since 1964. A classically trained pianist who fell in love with jazz and bossa nova as a teenager in Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s, Mendes came to the States in 1962 to play Carnegie Hall with a group of other bossa nova stars, a concert that helped launch the music in North America. He returned two years later, moved to L.A., signed with Herb Alpert’s A&M Records in 1966, and hit it big with Brasil 66.
His hits of the `60s had as much to do with the United States as they did with Brazil, combining a pop-jazz gloss and slick production values with Brazilian samba and bossa nova melodies and rhythms, producing a sound that’s an integral part of the decade. He covered songs by Burt Bacharach (“The Look of Love,” for the James Bond comedy spoof “Casino Royale”), the Beatles (“Day Tripper”) and Cole Porter (“Night and Day”).
“Mas que nada,” Mendes’ first U.S. success, was actually written by Jorge Ben Jor, whose funky, Afro-Brazilian style has made him one of the leading stars in Brazil for decades.
Mendes has been criticized for not making more authentic Brazilian music, and he was never the star in Brazil that he has been in the United States.
“In Brazil he’s not well known at all,” says Gene de Souza, host of “Cafe Brasil” on Miami radio station WDNA-FM.
But Souza says Mendes deserves credit, then and now, for bringing Brazilian music to a wider audience. “He broke barriers for media and sales that other Brazilian artists haven’t,” Souza says. “I really think his credit is, for lack of a better term, ambassador of Brazilian music.”
After his success in the `60s, Mendes largely disappeared in the `70s. He had a hit in 1983 with the song “Never Gonna Let You Go,” and his 1992 album “Brasileiro” was nominated for a Grammy for Best World Music Album.
But the visibility that “Timeless” has brought him, and the growing popularity of music that fuses national styles with electronica, pop and sophisticated production, puts Mendes in a more relevant position than he has had for decades.
“Encanto” has a much more Brazilian and mellow, melodic feel than its heavily hip-hop predecessor. Mendes co-produced it with will.i.am, and most of the album was recorded in Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, Brazil. There are four songs by bossa nova founder Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Afro-Brazilian funk master Carlinhos Brown guests on the swinging samba “Odo-Ya.” Natalie Cole sings on “Somewhere in the Hills,” very much in classic Brasil 66 mode. Lani Hall, the original Brasil 66 singer, joins husband Herb Alpert on “Dreamer.” Other guests include Juanes, the international rock star from Colombia, and Jovanatti, a popular Italian singer.
Artists are still drawn by the chance to work with Mendes. “It was an incredible pleasure to explore the ocean of Brazilian harmony with Sergio,” says Juanes, who sings the lovely ballad “Y vamos ya” (”... let’s go”). “He gave me great artistic freedom and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to record with him.”
And Mendes is grateful and exhilarated by his collaborators’ interest.
“Young musicians like them, they tune into the world, and Brazilian music is very appealing to them,” he says. “‘Encanto’ is all about working with people of different cultures and generations. At the end of the day it’s about celebrating music. I feel great about that.”
Next month he even returns to Carnegie Hall, 46 years after he first arrived. “It’s a full circle experience,” Mendes says. “It’s just a lot of fun.”
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