Sounds and Colours of Brazil: Interview with Sergio Mendes

By - 25 June, 2012

The last few years have proven something of a comeback for Sergio Mendes. After 10 years without stepping into a studio he suddenly surfaced in 2006 with Timeless, a collaboration with will.i.am that brought a huge single in the Black Eyed Peas-assisted reworking of “Mas Que Nada.” Since then he has recorded two more albums Encanto and Bom Tempo (incredibly his 38th studio album) and will soon be in London with his new band Brasil 2012. We had the chance to talk to Sergio about his recent revival as well as his extremely eventful career.

Let’s start with Timeless. How did this album come about?

The Timeless album started when I met will.i.am here – he lives in Los Angeles – and he asked me to play on his album Elephunk. So we met and he had all my old records, the Brasil 66 records, and he told me that he grew up with my music and he actually knew so much about specific songs. I was amazed by how much he knew about my work, and I hadn’t made a record in about 10 years. So he asked me to play on his record, and I did, and it happened to be a Brazilian song I knew [he played on "Sexy" which sampled Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Insensatez"]. And I really enjoyed working with him, it was a different approach musically, totally different to what I’m used to.

So after that I called him the following week and I asked him “how do you feel about producing an album for me?” So he told me he’d love to do that, it would be a dream to work with you. And that’s how it started. We went to the studio and we started selecting material and we made the record which was a lot of fun.

So was he making the arrangements as well as producing the album?

The ideas were his, the song selection we decided together, but he was the producer of the album. Then he brought friends of his, like John Legend and India.Aire and Justin Timberlake, and I was surprised how much these people loved Brazilian music, that new generation that I was not that familiar with. So for me it was a great adventure and a great surprise and a wonderful moment to work with Will and all those people.

And all of a sudden because of that record and the song “Mas Que Nada” which I did 40 years later [he originally released it in 1966], a lot of people who had never heard my music or my name they started to come to the shows.

So did the success of these new albums surpass your expectations?

Absolutely, in a very nice way though, it really surprised me. When I was making the record I loved the process and the whole experience but I had no idea if it was going to be well received or not, so it was a great experience for me.

Why do you think these old Brazilian songs keep finding new audiences?

I think they are great songs to begin with, great melodies, all the Antonio Carlos Jobim songs, those songs are timeless. You see singers like Rod Stewart or Michael Bublé recording those classics, the George Gershwins, the Cole Porters, the Irving Berlins, and it’s the same thing with Brazilian music. It has that same kind of appeal. It’s a very sensual music, very happy and sunny. I think people relate to that all over the world. I’ve just come from Asia and it’s amazing how much they love Brazilian music.

Did you think it was an organic process to then add hip-hop and r’n’b influences to these songs?

Will is such a fan, and he’s a melody guy like I am. And so I think that brought us closer together because he loves melody and I love melody. So to do bossa nova and Brazilian songs and mix them with hip-hop. It just worked because the melodies are there, it’s not just like putting loops together and things like that. It was a very organic bossa nova meets hip-hop kind of thing. And rap is great, it acted like a percussion instrument. It’s not like rap from beginning to end. In the middle you put a rap like you could have put a percussion solo or a flute solo, or something like that. So it just worked perfectly. Now in my band I have a rapper for when we do those songs.

And this new band is Brasil 2012, the band you’ll be bringing to London soon?

Yeah, Brasil 2012. The original one was Brasil 66 and then it was Brasil 77 and so forth and for a while it became a little redundant. But I thought maybe it’s time to come back with Brasil 2012 because Brazilian music is very popular. Brazil is very hot at the moment. We’re going to have the World Cup there, we’re going to have the Olympics. It’s a good name and it’s my country too, it’s where I was born and where I grew up.

Can we step back for a minute to when you first started playing music in Brazil. How did this bossa nova movement start and when did people start to fuse it with jazz?

The bossa nova movement started in Rio de Janeiro, Copacabana, and Antonio Carlos Jobim was the most important, he was really responsible for bringing those kinds of songs and harmonies and just changed the whole scenario of Brazilian music. It was very sophisticated, very romantic, very beautiful. And I must say that Jobim’s music was not influenced by jazz whatsover. I think it was the opposite. I think the musicians Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd they became fascinated when they heard those songs. So when you hear Jobim I hear Villa-Lobos, I might hear Ravel or Debussy, but there’s no jazz in that. So I want to make that clear from the beginning.

In my case it [jazz] was a big influence because I loved jazz. As a young pianist I was listening to all the great jazz pianists, Horace Silver, Bud Powell. So I was, as a piano player and a musician, very influenced by jazz, which I still love, but all of a sudden we had these great melodies that we could play and improvise. In my case, my first band the Sexteto Bossa Rio was a samba jazz kind of thing. It had jazz influences, like the improvisations. But the melody was very Brazilian and the harmonies were very Antonio Carlos Jobim. So I think that was what made that music so unique because you know it belonged there, it was not something that was borrowed from this or that.

That’s the way I look at it. And I think that opened a whole new source of inspiration for Stan Getz. I mean Stan Getz was a great jazz musician working here but he’d never had a hit record. So when he heard “The Girl from Ipanema” and recorded it with Astrud the world discovered him. Then you’ve got those songs recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett. Then last year Stevie Wonder was in Rio performing at Rock In Rio to 100,000 people and his daughter sang “The Girl From Ipanema”. His daughter was not even born when “The Girl From Ipanema” was written which I think is wonderful. And there was 100,000 people singing with her. That shows the power of the melody and the song.

You’ve worked recently with Carlinhos Brown. How was that?

I produced the soundtrack to this movie Rio. That was another great chapter in my life.

I think the people in Brazil still can’t believe you didn’t win!! [Sergio and Carlinhos just missed out on the Oscar with their song "Real In Rio"]

That’s right! And by the way, I’m starting work on Rio 2 now. It’s going to be out the year of the World Cup, 2014. March 2014.

Will Carlinhos be involved again?

I think he’s going to be there. Will.i.am’s going to be there. But this time I’m going to try to bring some different composers and songwriters and make some different sounds from the last one.

Do you go back to Brazil often?

I go every year. I usually spend December and January there, visiting the family and meeting friends. And I’m totally in contact with musicians and I get records here and go to see shows down there.

As you may know Sounds and Colours especially likes to focus on new music from South America. Could you recommend any new Brazilian artists?

There’s several. There’s a girl called Maria Gadú that I like a lot. She’s a guitar player and singer. She’s very interesting, beautiful voice, composer and great performer as well. There’s a singer called Seu Jorge who appears on my album. I like him very much too. Great voice, great singer.

There’s always new things happening in Brazil, that’s the beautufil thing about the music down there. I always make a comparison. It’s like football. There was Pele, now there’s Neymar, there’s always going to be something interesting. I think the spirit of Brazilian people, the joy, is very similar to the joy when you go to a football game or hear Brazilian music. Because there’s something very festive, very joyful about the whole experience.

Okay so I’ve got three short questions to finish off. First, is there a secret to having such a long career?

My curiosity played a big role in that from the beginning. I wanted to play with different musicians, I wanted to learn new songs. I was lucky to hang with Antonio Carlos Jobim, go to his house and hear him play piano. Then we came to that bossa nova festival at Carnegie Hall, which by the way is 50 years this November. So I think all of those things and my desire to learn, I think that’s really the drive to this whole thing. And luck of course. There’s no secret.

Out of all the people you’ve worked with who is the one that you could never have dreamed about working with?

I think Sinatra for sure. I did two tours with him. One back in 1969 and the other one in 80. We were the opening act for him but we became friends. Just watching him perform. You grow up as a kid in Brazil and you listen to those records and see the movies, and suddenly you are with the guy, it was amazing. Incredible performer. I remember playing Albert Hall with him, we toured all over the world.

And lastly, what can we expect from Brasil 2012?

It’s going to be a “musical journey.” Going back to the songs of the bossa nova then going to songs from different albums, like “Fool On The Hill”, “The Look of Love”, then I have a great percussionist from Bahia so there’s a whole section of the show dedicated to the Afro-Sambas and the great rhythms from the Northern part of Brazil. And we’re going to play “Real In Rio”. There’ll be three female singers, a new one who just joined the band, and a rapper, and I have a great saxophone/flute/synth player. It’s about the repertoire, playing some that people’ve heard or have not heard, it’s a party!

Sergio Mendes & Brasil 2012 will be playing indigO2 in London on Saturday 14th July. More details here.

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