By Rebecca Bulnes
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Of all the many musical exports Brazil has unleashed upon the world, no single piano player has done more for popularizing that country's music than Sergio Mendes. In the Sixties, with his group Brasil '66, he helped bring bossa nova into nearly every American home. That disc scored a radio hit with "Mais Que Nada." But Mendes also broke out on the boob tube, too, when he played a tricked-out version of Burt Bacharach's "The Look of Love" at the Oscars and then saw it crack this country's top five.
In other words, his work has been heard here, there, and everywhere. Among the earlier standouts: his jazzy-cool breakout with Antonio Carlos Jobim (The Swinger from Rio in 1964) and the breezy Pais Tropical (with an outfit he redubbed Brasil '77). Later on, there was the theme for the 1984 Summer Olympics ("Olympia") and his 1992 Grammy-winning back-to-roots blowout Brasileiro. That's not to mention any of the other thirtysomething albums he's released over his four-decade-plus career.
But don't think for a second that Mendes's mark belongs in yesterday's sand. In 2006 came another smash, Timeless, which was coproduced by the Black Eyed Peas' Will.i.am and featured the likes of Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, India.Arie, Justin Timberlake, and Stevie Wonder. It not only brought the man back to 21st-century beaches, but also made a reworked version of his classic "Mais Que Nada" a hit all over again. The just-released Encante — which has Will.i.am back by his side and leads off with Fergie sexing up "The Look of Love" — promises to equal, if not beat, even that so-called comeback.
New Times caught up with the ever-swinging gentleman in advance of his upcoming appearance at Bayfront Park as part of the JVC Jazz Festival.
New Times: You've played with Cannonball Adderly, Herbie Mann, and Antonio Carlos Jobim (among many others). Are there any jazz legends with whom you would have liked to perform but never got the chance?
Sergio Mendes: Oh, so many [laughs]. I wish I would've done some work with Dizzy Gillespie. I never worked with Stan Getz — I was a big fan. I did produce an album for Sarah Vaughan, which was a wonderful experience. But off the top of my head, I would think about Dizzy and Stan. I have worked with many great musicians and entertainers. I traveled with Frank Sinatra. I did a special with Fred Astaire. I worked with people like Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis. Oh, and by the way, I've got Herb Alpert playing flugelhorn and trumpet and his wife, Lani Hall, singing on my new album.
I was going to ask you what it was like having Lani Hall back after all these years. It's the first time since the Sixties that you two played together, right?
That's correct. And it's the first time that Herb played with me. Herb was a dear friend, and he was very, very instrumental in helping me at the beginning of my career. But we never played together. I'm so happy that he participated on this album.
But you toured together, right?
Yes, many times.
And he stole your girl?
[Laughs] No. That's a wonderful thing that [he and Lani Hall] became husband and wife. She was a great singer and she really was the sound of Brasil '66, so to have her and Herb on my album in 2008 is very beautiful.
Back in those days, say, during the recording of The Swinger from Rio, were you at all influenced by the all-Jobim album Getz/Gilberto?
You know, Nestor Ertegun came to Brazil to do an album with Herbie Mann and then he invited me to record, and I had Jobim playing guitar, but that was after Getz/Gilberto....
But you had a few Jobim compositions on Swinger, right?
Oh yeah. He's my favorite composer. He's the most important composer of Brazilian music of all time. I keep recording his songs. He wrote some of the most beautiful songs ever.
Yeah, I see on Encanto you have a couple more.
More than that. I think I have three: I have "Agua de Beber," I have "Waters of March," and I have "Somewhere in the Hills." [He also has "Dreamer."]
Speaking of composers, you're very famous for your recording of "The Look of Love," of course, but is there another Bacharach/David song that really does it for you?
Well, "The Look of Love," which I had a big hit with in '68 and hopefully again now in 2008, is my favorite. But [Bacharach] wrote many, many other beautiful songs. "A House Is Not a Home," I love. He was great, great songwriter.
Besides Bacharach/David, Jobim, and Lennon/McCartney — whom you've also extensively covered — what other composers do you count among your favorites?
Did you ever get to play with Mancini?
I did, I did. I did a tour with him — a couple of tours. We played the Hollywood Bowl together. He's one of my favorite composers, one of my favorite arrangers as well. I recorded a song of his called "Slow Hot Wind" [off Herb Alpert Presents ...] — a beautiful song.
How'd you connect with Will.i.am?
His record company called me and said he wanted to meet me, so he came to my house with all the old Brasil '66 records — he even had The Swinger from Rio — and told me how much he liked Brazilian music. Then he invited me to play on his album Elephunk. After that, I had the idea to bring him in to coproduce some of the Brazilian classics and we did Timeless, which became a big, big success all over the world. We had a hit with "Mais Que Nada" again 40 years later.