Hits So Easy
It's 9:00 a.m. in Los Angeles, and Sergio Mendes, undisputed master of jazzy bossa nova, the man who put much of the ease in easy listening, the creature who created the soundtrack for the international jet set with his cohorts Brasil 66, has just gotten through 45 minutes on his treadmill. Hard to imagine Mendes ever breaking a sweat intentionally. In old photographs he's nattily attired in crisp slacks, jacket, and tie -- as if he's about to mix a cocktail or hop the next flight down to Rio. But it's a weekday morning, and Mendes is a domestic sort. His young kids have just gone off to school. Their dad, the epitome of smooth cool, is not in the least winded from the a.m. whirl and the workout. He's ready to talk about the old days and new.
Years ago he was studying to be a classical pianist when jazz grabbed him by the ears. "The first [jazz] record I heard was a Dave Brubeck record that impressed me a lot," Mendes recalls. "I started to listen to other piano players -- Horace Silver and Bud Powell, so I got very interested in jazz. That was the beginning." He spent the early Sixties playing piano in quartets and clubs around Rio, eventually leading the Antonio Carlos Jobim-influenced Sexteto Bossa Rio. By the mid-Sixties Mendes and his cohorts (Bob Matthews on bass, Jao Palma on drums, Jose Soares on percussion, Lani Hall and Janis Hansen on vocals), cleverly dubbed Brasil 66, were signed to Herb Alpert's A&M Records and captured international attention with an eponymous album containing the huge hit "Mais Que Nada." On subsequent records Mendes and company added original songs and earned acclaim covering standards such as Cole Porter's "Night & Day" and pop tunes by the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel. ("They were great songs, and I'm a song person," he notes, explaining why he chose to cover hits.) Mendes had moved beyond the bossa nova of countrymen such as Jobim and Gilberto, producing a hybrid sound that exemplified freedom, ease, sophistication, and a certain sexy sensibility. Some called it Latin-laced Brazilian pop. Others derided it as elevator music.
In between then and now, Mendes toured as an opener for Sinatra, and worked with show-biz bigwigs like Fred Astaire, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, and Sarah Vaughan. He now divides his time between L.A. and Rio de Janeiro. His music has been revived thanks to the recent lounge craze, Mike Myers's swinging bachelor-spy-flick Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, and television commercials shilling products as varied as sneakers and convertibles. Years go by and his band's name continues to change with the times. Whether his music does will be evident when he brings Brasil 2001 to play the second show in the twelve-day Miami Beach World Music Festival.
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