Sérgio Mendes, the king of bossa nova, plays the Abu Dhabi Festival
Sérgio Mendes hasn’t even arrived in the UAE yet – where the Brazilian bossa nova legend will make his regional debut at the Abu Dhabi Festival On Friday, March 20 – but he’s already gearing up for a return visit next year.
“I was having dinner with John Legend the other night,” he says nonchalantly, “and he said he was going over to play the Dubai Jazz Festival – that’s something I’d like to do next year”.
And that’s a dinner table we’d like to be sitting at.
Legend – who headlined this year’s Jazz Festival on February 27 – is one of a legion of contemporary stars, including will.i.am and Justin Timberlake, who have lined up to pay tribute to the 74-year-old master by appearing on his recent records.
It wasn’t always that way. Mendes was reportedly America’s best-selling Brazilian artist in the 1960s, scoring a run of hits kick-started by his 1966 cover of Jorge Ben’s now-standard Mas Que Nada.
But by the end of the 20th century, his output had slowed considerably. He won a Grammy with 1992’s Brasileiro, but a barren decade followed 1996’s Oceano, a gap many assumed was a well-earned retirement after close to four decades in the business.
Mendes has a crystal clear memory of the moment, in the early 2000s, when it all changed. “I received a phone call from a record company saying one of their artists would like to meet me,” he remembers. “It was will.i.am, who I barely knew because The Black Eyed Peas were starting out.”
A few days later, the outlandishly dressed rapper/producer turned up at Mendes’s home.
“When I opened the door he was holding a stack of my old vinyls,” he says. “We sat down and started talking, and he told me he’d grown up with all my music, which was very startling to hear from a young kid from the United States.”
Mendes was invited to play piano on one song from the Peas’ 2003 LP Elephunk. Sensing an opportunity, Mendes hit on an idea.
“I hadn’t made a record for about 10 years,” he says. “So I called Will and said: ‘Would you like to make an album together?’ and he said: ‘That’s like the dream of my life.’ It was very organic and natural.”
The result was Timeless, which was released on Valentine’s Day in 2006. Nearly every song featured a different guest star, including Erykah Badu, Q-Tip, Timberlake, Legend and Stevie Wonder. Produced by will.i.am and Mendes, it was a compelling fusion of the two talents – seductive Latin rhythms and melodies coupled with hip-hop beats and raps.
The genre-blurring hit not only rebooted Mendes’s touring schedule, but also put Brazilian rhythms back in the mainstream.
Mendes has followed Timeless with three more well-received LPs, and was also called on to score the films Rio and Rio 2, Blue Sky Studios’ animated odes to his hometown.
“Timeless was wonderful. I knew we were going to do something different, but I didn’t expect to suddenly have a whole new audience,” says Mendes. “I’m very curious and I believe in the magic of the encounter. All my life has been like that.”
Mendes is a big believer in fate. He draws parallels between Timeless and another magicical encounter, with the great jazz saxophonist and Miles Davis sideman, Cannonball Adderley.
In late 1962, when Mendes was 21, Adderley recruited the Brazilian’s Sexteto Bossa Rio to back his experimental crossover LP Cannonball’s Bossa Nova. Less than two years later, Mendes moved to Los Angeles, where he has lived ever since.
“There was the same generational difference and the same cultural difference,” says Mendes, speaking of his two collaborations. “But at the end of the day, it’s the creative curiosity from all sides, knowing that complicity, that wonderful feeling of two people coming together to create something new, something fresh. I loved that.”
But it was more than fate than led Mendes to Cannonball. By his teens, the Rio resident had made a name on his home city’s thriving music circuit. And he learnt from the best – Antônio Carlos Jobim, the master composer/arranger/performer credited with defining and popularising the cool bossa nova style that got the world dancing in the 1960s. The jewel in his peerless songbook of standards is The Girl from Ipanema, reportedly the second most-recorded song in pop history (after The Beatles’ Yesterday).
Jobim, who died in 1994, is commonly described as being Mendes’ “mentor”, a tag he doesn’t dispute. The pair played together in the late 1950, and Jobim provided many of the arrangements for Mendes’ early work. Today when he composes, Mendes admits he’s still “always thinking about” how Jobim would work.
“Absolutely, he was a friend, a mentor and a genius,” he says.
“I learnt many things from Jobim – just being around him and seeing how he approached harmony and melody. He was a master of that. Just watching him play, hearing him tell you the story of the song, he was just so fascinating. A true teacher.”
Jobim and Mendes broke out internationally in the same wave. They both played at 1962’s influential Bossa Nova Carnegie Hall concert in New York, which is credited with kick-starting the Brazilian chart invasion.
Following Mendes’s move to the US two years later, he led his own influential Brasil ’65 and Brasil ’66 bands. He scored chart hits with bossa nova versions of The Look of Love and Fool on the Hill, and has continued to explore Jobim’s repertoire to this day.
But while those are the hits most concertgoers are hoping to hear, 21st-century Mendes refuses to be defined by his classic work of yesteryear. His most recent album, last year’s Magic, again updated the bossa sound with Brazilian stars Milton Nascimento and Seu Jorge, fresh collaborations with will.i.am and Legend, and work with new stars such as Cody Wise.
When Mendes says work is already under way on a follow-up, it’s tantalising to think who he might call on next.
He grabbed headlines when he appeared in Pharrell’s 24 Hours of Happy video, which featured scores of celebrities dancing to the song.
“Oh man, I would love to work with Pharrell,” says Mendes. “I think he is one of the most brilliant musicians I have ever met, and that’s why I did that thing for him. He’s somebody I would love to do something with – absolutely.”
With tours of Europe, North America and Asia set for later this year, there is no sign of any let-up in Mendes’s ambitions or workload. And, as we already know, a return to the UAE in the next 12 months doesn’t seem out of the question. Let us not forget, though, that he is 74 years old – yet it seems almost foolish to ask whether he has any plans to slow down.
“The celebration of life is learning,” he says. “For me, to go to a new place is fascinating. Travelling, learning a new language, trying a new food – those are the things that make me alive. To listen to a great song, to play with a great musician – that for me is the joy of life.
“Curiosity and passion – if you want two words to describe what I do, it would be those,” says Mendes with a chuckle. “I’m not the type to stay at home and watch the roses grow.”
Sérgio Mendes performs as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival at Emirates Palace on Friday, March 20. The concert is sold out. Standby tickets might be available up to one hour before the show from the box office