STILL SWINGING – Sergio Mendes Talks Cheltenham, Sinatra … and Pele.

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We live in an age where the words ‘legendary’ and ‘iconic’ are overused and bandied about my mainstream media commentators with indiscriminate abandon to describe anyone who’s been in the public eye for more than a couple of years. But in an era of ephemeral celebrity, SERGIO MENDES is someone who lives up to the true definition of ‘legendary’ and ‘iconic’. A noted pianist and bandleader, he’s a bonafide legend of Brazilian music who rose to fame in the mid to late 1960s when he and his group Brazil 66 took the alluring music of his homeland to a wider audience with big US pop hits like ‘The Look Of Love,’ ‘Fool On The Hill,’  and ‘Scarborough Fair.’  Fifty years on and Sergio Mendes, who recently celebrated his 78th birthday, is still going strong. He’s the subject of a forthcoming documentary, In The Key Of Joy, which is due for release soon and is working on a new album, the 43rd of his career.

Sergio is due to fly in and do a handful of concert dates in the UK later this year and his short itinerary includes a stopover at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, where he and his band are due to perform a 75-minute set on Saturday, May 4th at 2.00 pm. Ahead of his Cheltenham gig, the Rio-born maestro talked exclusively to SJF’s Charles Waring about his forthcoming trip to the UK and his long and storied career…

Sergio Mendes is a man who seems to radiate joy. He’s rarely seen without a beaming, beatific smile etched on his face and his music – bright, colourful, and vibrant – transmits feelings of love, elation and harmony. It’s no surprise, then, that a forthcoming documentary on him, which is due at the end of April,  is called In The Key Of Joy. It’s a title that encapsulates the euphoric essence of both Mendes’ personality and the uplifting effect of his music. And at 78, it’s that sense of joy – as both a giver and receiver of it – that continues to drive him.

Sergio, who’s talking to me from his home in Los Angeles, where’s he lived for half-a-century, reveals that he’s bringing a full band with him to the Cheltenham Jazz Festival in May: “In my band right now, I have two singers. One is my wife, Gracinha Leporace, the other one is Katie Hampton. Then I have drums, bass, guitar, a percussionist, saxophonist and flute and a rapper.”

With a huge repertoire of songs at his disposal, it might seem a difficult task to whittle his repertoire down to a 75-minute set. “I have so many songs to choose from,” states Sergio, “but I like to call my concerts a musical journey. Coming to England, I know a lot of people like the classics – ‘Mas Que Nada,’  ‘Fool On The Hill,’ and  ‘The Look of Love’ –  and great songs from the bossa nova period. So that’s what we’ll play and we’re looking forward to it.”

The last time Sergio Mendes was in Britain was at the 2013 Glastonbury Festival. “A lot of people told me it was going to be complicated,” laughs the pianist, “but we had a wonderful time.”

Despite being popular in the UK during the 1960s, his first trip to the UK wasn’t until 1980. “I remember opening for Frank Sinatra,” reveals Sergio. “We toured with him and did two weeks at the Royal Albert Hall.”  The Brazilian pianist remembers ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’ with much affection. “We became very close friends,” he reveals. “He lived in Los Angeles and I saw him many other times. We did a tour in the United States. He loved Brazilian music. He was fantastic and every night I had the chance to watch his show and be in awe of him and his beautiful voice. It was just an amazing experience for me to have had that opportunity to work with him.”

A doctor’s son from Niteroi, a municipality of Rio de Janeiro, Sergio Mendes began playing the piano early on in his life. “I started learning classical music when I was seven years old,” he says, though it wasn’t an activity that he was especially passionate about at that age and it was more a case of doing his parents’ bidding. But a musical epiphany five years later changed his attitude. “When I was 12 years old, I had a jazz record by Dave Brubeck, and that was really like a wake-up call for me,” he discloses. “I said wow, this is beautiful, and I started listening to jazz and all the great pianists like Horace Silver, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk.”

Inspired by his American jazz heroes, Sergio led some local groups in Rio, and then in the late 1950s, he was caught up in the Brazilian bossa nova explosion that was spearheaded by Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim (Pictured with Sergio left). “I was working in a little club in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, and I met Antonio Carlos Jobim, the great Brazilian composer,” remembers Mendes. “We worked together and that was a wonderful period of my life.”

Sergio regarded the older Jobim as a major influence on him. “He was my mentor, friend, and teacher,” he says. “I learned a lot with him. He was a great composer and just like the Gershwin or Cole Porter of Brazil. Everybody recorded his songs, from Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, the great singers of our times. And he was very funny, very intelligent, and I have great memories with him. And I miss him.”

Sergio performed with Jobim and many other of his compatriots at a special showcase for Brazilian music at Carnegie Hall on November 21st 1962. That was where the touch paper for the bossa nova phenomenon was lit. “Great melodies, great harmonies.. it was a wonderful musical time,” exclaims the pianist, recalling the rise of bossa nova. As for the appeal of Brazilian music in general, Sergio believes that it’s down to three things: “I think it’s very sensual, it’s very romantic, and you can also dance to it. Those three components make it very, very beautiful. And it has great melodies, melodies that you can remember. Brazilian music is also very joyful. If you go back to the classics of Brazilian music, they all have these characteristics.”

Sergio Mendes’ debut album, ‘Dance Moderno,’ was released by Philips in Brazil in 1961 but in 1965 (by which time he was working in the USA), the pianist signed a recording deal with Atlantic Records in New York, which resulted in the instrumental LPs, ‘The Swinger From Rio’ and ‘Great Arrival.’  “My friend (producer) Nesuhi Ertegun signed me,” recalls Sergio. “He came to Brazil in 1959 to do an album with Herbie Mann and he saw me play in this club in Rio called The Bottles Bar. He asked me if I would come to the studio and play on the whole album, and then he said, if you ever come to New York, come and see me, which I did later on. So I made records for him, playing piano with different people and different guests. He was a dear friend of mine.”

During the same period, Sergio appeared on a highly-regarded Brazilian-tinged jazz album called ‘Cannonball’s Bossa Nova,’ by revered alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. “It was after the Carnegie Hall concert,” remembers Sergio. “I went to Birdland to hear Cannonball and he said why don’t you come and jam with us here, which I did, but I was shaking and scared. Then he said, why don’t you stay for two weeks and let’s make an album together, and we did. He was amazing. I remember that very well. Cannonball was a wonderful guy – very nice, very warm and very funny. I had a great time working with him.”

1966 was a pivotal year in Sergio Mendes life when he signed to Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’s newly-formed A&M label leading a six-piece group called Brasil 66: “We were auditioning here in LA for record companies and one day Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss came in and introduced themselves to us. They were just starting A & M, and asked us if I’d like to join them.”

The unique sound of Brasil 66 (pictured above) was defined by the twin, siren-like, voices of female singers Lani Hall and Bibi Vogel, who gave the music – a seamless meld of pop, easy listening and bossa nova flavours – an immediately recognisable sonic identity. “I love the sounds of the two girls singing and that’s what I still use,” says Sergio. “It was experimentation. It wasn’t planned and when I heard that I said ‘what a beautiful sound,’ and that became a trademark.”

The group’s debut album, ‘Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66,’ spawned the sextet’s first US hit, a breezy, infectious, samba groove called  ‘Mas Que Nada.’ “It’s a  beautiful song,” enthuses Sergio. “We had a hit with it in 1966, and then again in 2006, 40 years later, with and the Black Eyed Peas on the album ‘Timeless.'”                     

Even bigger hits followed, their biggest being a version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s ‘The Look Of Love,’ in 1968. “We did that with a different interpretation,” explains Sergio. “It was my version of their melody. Burt liked it very much. I had the original Dusty Springfield record, which was a hit here (in the US), and I said ‘what a beautiful melody, I’m going to do that song’ and I did the arrangement, which was very different from her arrangement. It was very big all over the world. We did a TV programme with Fred Astaire dancing to ‘The Look Of Love,’ and the song was nominated for an Oscar, but it didn’t win. I see Burt from time to time here in LA. He’s a great composer.”

Another big US hit was Brasil ’66’s take on The Beatles’ ‘Fool On The Hill,’ which was one of many Fab Four songs they recorded for A&M. “They wrote such great melodies,” says Sergio a propos The Beatles. “When I heard their record, ‘Magical Mystery Tour,’ I heard ‘Fool On The Hill’ and though it was what a beautiful melody but I could do it with a different arrangement and give it a Brazilian feeling. We recorded the song and it was a big success.” Sergio also reveals that the song’s co-composer was enamoured with Brasil ’66’s rendition of his song: “I got a letter from Paul McCartney saying it was his favourite version of the song.”

In 1970, Lani Hall left Sergio’s group to marry his record company boss, but there was no bad feeling. She was replaced by Gracinha Leperato, who became Sergio’s spouse and still sings with him today. “Lani became Herb’s wife but we’re very good friends,” says Sergio. “We have them both in my new documentary. It tells about my whole life story and the people that I’ve worked with. It’s very exciting. And we’re working on finishing a new album as well.”

Also featured in the new documentary, In The Key Of Joy, is an unlikely former collaborator of Sergio’s –  Brazilian soccer legend, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as the much-garlanded, triple World Cup winner, Pele. In 1977, Sergio wrote and produced the soundtrack music for a documentary called Pele, in which the footballer also sang. “He’s a genius and a dear friend,” Sergio declares. “I love soccer. I met Pele in 1970 at the World Cup in Mexico and then he came to play for the New York Cosmos. He was invited by Nesuhi Ertegun. So our connection was through Nesuhi and then we became friends. We did this documentary and he asked me to write the music, which I did. He sings and still does. You’ll see him on my documentary.”

Sergio is highly regarded in North America: the extent of his popularity and esteem is reflected by the fact that he has performed at the White House for two different presidents. The first was for Richard Nixon in 1971, a night that he recalls vividly. “I was invited for the visit of Prince Juan Carlos of Spain,” remembers Sergio. “We had dinner with him and then we did a concert. When President Nixon introduced us. He said ‘ladies and gentleman, tonight I have with us my friend from Brazil, Sergio Mendes, and I would like to dedicate his first song to the senate.” Sergio says that all the assembled guests fell silent at that point, wondering what the president was going to say next. He was, in fact attempting to make a joke to add levity to the proceedings, as Sergio recalls: “Then he said, the name of the song is ‘The Fools On The Hill’ (sic). He had a big laugh from that, of course, because they call the senate “The Hill” here in the US.  It broke the ice as well as my fear and then we did a concert.”  

By the time he was next summoned to the Whitehouse, it was during the tenure of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. “It was the visit of the Brazilian President at the time,” recalls Sergio. “It was very nice, we had dinner and performed.” But like his first trip to The Whitehouse, something remarkable happened that night. “We were doing a soundcheck and then I saw a hand behind me fixing my microphone,” explains Sergio. “I looked around and it was Frank Sinatra. I said Frank, what are you doing here? He said ‘Nancy (Reagan) asked me to come to the soundcheck be sure that you’re happy and everything is right.'” Sergio laughs at the recollection. “I started pinching myself,” he says. “My whole band, everybody, was in awe. I said, are you staying for the concert? He said, no, I’m going back to New York, I just came to the soundcheck.”

Sergio Mendes has been releasing albums at regular intervals since the early 1960s but in 2006 reached a younger audience by collaborating with hip-hop group, Black Eyed Peas, on his album ‘Timeless.’ Sergio says that the group, and in particular their leader, producer/rapper, (pictured left) were cognisant of his musical history. “Will knew everything about me,” Sergio reveals. “He knew all those Atlantic records and was very aware. He is very musical, very intelligent and loves Brazilian music. The idea was to reinterpret those great songs in a different way. He invited some of his friends, like Justin Timberlake and John Legend, to reinterpret those great classics and people loved it. After that, we had a whole new younger audience. A lot of young kids never heard me before but because of that version of ‘Mas Que Nada’ they became introduced to my music.”

The great Stevie Wonder (pictured right with Sergio and Antonio Carlos Jobim) also featured on ‘Timeless,’ appearing on the song “Berimbau/ Consolação.” The pair had also collaborated before, with Wonder contributing the song, ‘The Real Thing’ to the album that Sergio recorded on the 1977 Elektra LP, ‘Sergio Mendes & The New Brasil ’77.’ “He’s amazing – he wrote ‘The Real Thing’ for me,” states Sergio, who says that he collaborated with Wonder earlier, on his 1974 Motown album, ‘Fulfillingness’ First Finale’: He told me I want to sing something in Portuguese, can you write me some words?  So I wrote some words in Portuguese for a song that is called ‘Bird Of Beauty.'”  

Like ‘Timeless,’ the new, as yet untitled album – which Sergio says might end up with the same name as the documentary, ‘In The Key Of Joy’ –  features several collaborators.  “I have some young singers on there and the rapper Common,” he tells me. “Working with him was a great experience. He’s so musical. He came in and did a very free thing. He asked me what the was song about, and he just improvised a beautiful rap and story. I was very impressed with his talent.”

Sergio’s audience widened further via his musical association with the 2011 animated film, Rio, and its 2014 sequel Rio 2: “It was a great experience working with Carlos Saldanha, a Brazilian producer and writer, and also with John Powell. He’s from England and a composer. I had a great time making the two movies and I was nominated for an Oscar.”

Surveying his long and winding career, Sergio Mendes says that he wouldn’t do anything differently. He’s enjoyed many highlights – “from Sinatra to Fred Astaire to Stevie Wonder, they’re all part of my history,” he says – and attributes his path in life down to good fortune. “On my documentary, I use the word serendipity and I think it applies a lot to my life,” he says, agreeing with me that he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. “My encounter with people was in a magical way and I never thought it would happen, so I’ve been very blessed…and very lucky too, to have met people and to have had the chances that I did.”

With his vast experience, what advice would he give to a newbie in the music business? Without a pause, he says: “Embrace your passion and go with it. You’re going to fall, you’re going to stand up but stay with the passion. That’s really the most important thing. Don’t give up.”

Passion, in fact, is an important word in Sergio Mendes’ vocabulary. And, he says, it’s what continues to motivate him as he gets nearer to 80: “The passion and the joy are what keeps me going…and the joy we give to people and vice versa. And that’s a wonderful experience. To travel, to play all over the world, to make records, it’s a great thing… I love it.”

Catch Sergio Mendes At The Cheltenham Jazz Festival on Saturday, May 4th 2019