Sergio Mendes is the most internationally successful Brazilian artist of all time. From the mid 1960s to the late ‘70s, Mendes established his legend by taking numerous albums and singles, such as “Brasil 66,” “Mas Que Nada,” and “The Look of Love,” to the top of the pop charts.
It was those Sergio classics that won the heart and mind of evolving musical legend will.i.am, chief producer and songwriter of the Black Eyed Peas. One of the most successful rap acts of this decade, the band’s 2005 album, Monkey Business, is the urban pop crossover phenomenon of the year. Will collaborates with Sergio on the iconic pianist’s upcoming Concord Records/Starbucks Hear Music album, Timeless, Mendes’ first new release in eight years. For Will (who claims Mendes’ “Slow Hot Wind,” reworked on Timeless as “That Heat,” is the first song he ever sampled while still an East L.A. teen), working with Sergio Mendes has been a dream come true. As Will states: “This album has been fourteen years in the making.”
Things began rolling when Will invited Sergio to play piano on the cut “Sexy” from the Peas’ multi-platinum Elephunk album. Much to his amazement, Will discovered A&M Record’s President could arrange a meeting with his idol. The seed was planted. And the rest, as they say, is history.
“He came to my house with a lot of old vinyl that I recorded many years ago,” remembers Sergio. “And I was so surprised. It was like, ‘Wow!’ He knew every song. He knows every Brazilian riff. I could just feel his passion for the music. We talked and I said, ‘You know what? You love Brazilian music. Why don’t we bring the Brazilian music and melodies to the hip-hop urban world and put them together? I think we can make something really different.’”
“It turned into a wonderful marriage of rhythms,” Sergio continues, “because it’s all African rhythms and haunting melodies. It’s all about the same beats that we inherited from Africa. It’s that same common denominator that brought the samba to Brazil and brought jazz to America. We had a ball.”
“Hip-hop is urban to America,” adds Will, “but samba and bossa nova are urban to Brazil. It’s two urban cultures clashing and fusing together beautifully, because they all share a lot of the same qualities.”
Putting together the project, Will and Sergio, of course, brought in the Black Eyed Peas. They also recruited some of the biggest urban-pop artists of the last several decades, each a Sergio fan, to contribute to various tracks. Featured artists include Erykah Badu, Justin Timberlake, India.Arie, Q-Tip, John Legend, Jill Scott, Stevie Wonder, and members of The Roots and Jurassic 5.
The involvement of Wonder (Mendes wrote Portuguese lyrics to one of Wonder’s songs many years ago) was fortuitous.
“Perfect timing,” says Will. “Me and Sergio had just finished in the studio at the Record Plant. Sergio left, and I was working on stuff until four o’clock in the morning. Then Venus, my partner, says ‘Hey, Stevie Wonder’s in the next hallway!’ So we went over and I said, ‘Mr. Wonder, I’m working on the new Sergio Mendes project.’ Oh, I love Sergio!’ he says. ‘I haven’t seen Sergio in about 15 or 20 years.’ So I was like, ‘we’d love, love to have you play harmonica or sing on one of the songs.’ He said, ‘Let me hear what you guys got cooking up.’ So we walked over to the room, played him ‘Consolacao.’ He says, ‘Let me get a copy of that so I can take it home and learn the melody.’ And, then he came by two days later...”
“And it was magic,” interjects Sergio.
“Pure magic!” agrees Will.
It’s hardly surprising, though, that Mendes should also attract the affection of younger superstars as well. You see, over the last decade, despite his absence from the recording studio, Sergio Mendes has recently become hip all over again. DJs have been sampling his classic tracks in clubs. Japanese group Pizzicato Five have consistently named him a major influence; same with Chicago hipsters, the Aluminum Group.
But perhaps a little history is in order.
Sergio Mendes has been recording since 1961, and he was playing the legendary NYC jazz club, Birdland, with his band by 1962. After signing to A&M Records in 1966, he immediately became the biggest Brazilian artist of the decade—which is really saying something when you consider that it was also the decade of the bossa nova and the huge hit, “Girl From Ipanema,” both phenomenons. Sort of a Brazilian counterpart to A&M label head Herb Alpert’s own Tijuana Brass, Mendes’ Brasil ‘66?featuring two of the sexiest, most beautiful female vocalist of the era, including Lain Hall (who later married Herb Alpert)—reached the top of the Billboard singles charts with smashes like “The Look of Love” (which immediately became a perennial standard upon release), covers of “Scarborough Fair,” and “The Fool on the Hill,” and, probably their signature song, “Mas Que Nada.” Mendes’ albums kept charting throughout the ‘70s. In 1983, he scored one of the biggest hits of his career with the amazing “Never Going to Let You Go,” which reached the top of the AC, Pop and Black Singles charts. In 1993 Mendes won a GRAMMY® Award for his album Brasileiro.
Mendes’ music is so representative of his native Brazil, in fact, that the aforementioned “Mas Que Nada,” his first hit, has become synonymous with the country throughout the world. You’d almost have to be a hermit to have never heard the track...and to not immediately think of Brazil when you do. So it’s only fitting that a new version of the song should be the song Sergio and Will agreed upon to kickoff Timeless.
“From the beginning, Will and I decided to revisit many of the classics of the Brazilian songbook which I had recorded in the past,” says Sergio. “The combination of those great melodies and Will’s urban vision inspired me to bring those classics to a new dimension and to the streets of the world. It was very challenging, and I had a lot of fun with it.”
Among the album’s 15 tracks—which were recorded both in Brazil and at House of Blues Studios in Encino, CA—is another rerecording of a classic Mendes track, “The Frog,” featuring rapper Q-Tip. Will notes that he had sampled jazzy, Latin samba rhythms as far back as the early ‘90s on albums like Midnight Marauder, “so we thought it would be a perfect match to hook him up with Sergio.”
Romantic R&B crooner John Legend contributed vocals to a new song, “Please Baby Don’t,” which Sergio recorded in Manhattan with a band of New York-based Brazilian musicians, offering the same type of classic melody here (and elsewhere throughout the entire album) that made the pianist famous decades ago.
“It’s good for young people—and also for musicians—to hear Sergio Mendes,” notes Will. “Because a lot of young music today, it’s like there’s no melody. There is a big old beat, which is cool. But at the end of the day, it makes me look at my generation and think it’s sad because we’re really not taking time to create beautiful melodies that will last forever. You know? Because a beat’s a beat. But a melody lasts for decades. I’m melody driven and it’s been refreshing to work with someone who is a master at it. When you get to the Sergio Mendes’ level, it’s like you can create these simple, haunting melodies that just, boom, make you melt. And it’s an inspiration for me to try to get to that level. Because that is dope.”
The respect, however, is mutual on both sides. “For me, it was like a learning process all the way through,” says Sergio. “Because he’s not only melodic, but Will has wonderful rhythmic instincts and ideas as well. And the way he organized the beats with the organic Brazilian instruments, and integrated the Protools beats with it all, was just fascinating because I’ve never done it before. And it just sounds great. The other thing I found fascinating was his structuring of the song. Will would get to the meat of the song, the essence of the song, getting rid of things that were unnecessary.”
In many ways, the guest vocalists’ involvement seemed to snowball as the project evolved.
“I kept wondering how I was going to get someone like Justin Timberlake to like Brazilian music as much as I do,” explains Will. “But then, lo and behold, all the things started to fall together. We were making music and towards the end, Justin heard the India.Arie song (which, incidentally, happened to be the album’s title track). From that point on, he was like. ‘Yo! You gotta put me on that Sergio Mendes project. That India.Arie track is just crazy!’ And he ended up writing a song for Sergio and me. So it just happened like, Woosh!’ That’s how a lot of it actually came together.”
The young with the legendary. Latin and African polyrhythms merged with American urban music. More than 20 years after his last phenomenal hit, Sergio Mendes has returned with an album that promises to be just as phenomenal but even more revolutionary than his past smash accomplishments.
Will explains: “In the ‘60s, there was hippie music and, you know, soul music and rock, blues, jazz. And, then here comes Sergio Mendes saying, ‘Hey, have you heard Brazilian music?’ And he brought it to America. He imported it. You know what I mean? I’ve worked with James Brown, and he’s the one who brought funk to America. And now I’ve worked with Sergio Mendes, and he’s also responsible for bringing a whole genre of music to the United States. It’s like, you know, Earth, Wind & Fire wouldn’t be Earth, Wind & Fire if Sergio Mendes hadn’t brought samba and bossa nova to America.”
“But the only reason that you can call Timeless a ‘Brazilian record’ is because of Sergio Mendes’ blood. He comes from Brazil so therefore it’s a Brazilian record,” he adds.
“And most of the melodies are Brazilian,” says Sergio.
“The melodies are of Brazilian descent,” agrees Will. “But this album is a universal album.”
“The melody is always there,” says Sergio. “It comes in and makes you dream. You can dance. And it’s a romantic thing. I think people are going to find melodies to take home, to remember, to get romantic to, to dance to, to drive to, and to dream to.
“But, overall, yes, this is very universal.”
And, of course, timeless.