IT’S DIFFICULT to know where to start with Sergio Mendes.
The veteran Brazilian pianist and arranger has released around 50 albums since he made his name freestyling bossa nova tunes with the cream of Copacabana’s jazz and samba players in tiny after-hours dives in the late Fifties and early Sixties.
As John Peel once said:
“A lot of people write to me and say: ‘I heard Sergio Mendes, which record should I get?’ And I never have any hesitation in telling them, you must get them all. Apart from the one he did with will.i.am.”
If people have any kind of view on Sergio Mendes these days it often involves a vague impression of the exotic king of elevator muzak, effervescent, catchy but kitsch covers of mainstream pop, and Mas Que Nada.
The truth is, Sergio Mendes has produced an awful lot of effervescent and catchy covers of commercial pop hits over the years – none of which are remotely kitsch, thank you very much – but he’s done a lot more besides.
His albums have majored on pop, jazz, bossa nova, Afro-Brazilian samba fusion, jazz-funk and even hip hop. He’s done instrumental albums, live albums, Portuguese and English-language albums – and animated movie soundtracks.
His output is ridiculously diverse (easily as diverse as that of noted re-inventors of themselves like Madonna, Kylie and MES) but, somehow, all of his albums manage to sound like Sergio Mendes albums.
Plus, he’s toured with Sinatra and played at the White House – even if it was for Nixon and Reagan.
So, ahead of the Maestro’s 78th birthday on February 11 – feliz aniversário! – here are my own personal highlights of Sergio Mendes’ long, varied and illustrious career to date, drawn from a treasured collection painstakingly sourced from dusty charity shops and secondhand vinyl emporia the length and breadth of Europe.
Wherever I am in the world, if I ever have the opportunity to buy a Sergio Mendes album, I always make a point of doing so – I’ve not been disappointed yet – and I suggest you do the same.
The good news is that, sooner or later, you’ll find most of the albums below in the bargain bins at the PDSA, Sue Ryder or Oxfam for a quid.
Let’s not dwell on how and why those records got there.
The bad news is, he’s done more than 50 albums and counting.
Let’s not dwell on that either. Get involved.
Você Ainda Não Ouviu Nada! by Sergio Mendes & Bossa Rio (Phillips)
Mendes has said that bossa nova was the “door to modernity” for Brazilian music, and both his debut album Dance Moderno and its follow up Você Ainda Não Ouviu Nada! (You Still Have Not Heard Anything! in English) combined instrumental jazz standards like Love for Sale and newer songs such as Desafinado by bossa nova innovator Tom Jobim, who was a mentor to the younger musician and also arranged the album.
“I’m an interpreter, and I love great songs,” Mendes has explained.
While 1960’s Dance Moderno majors on the mad skills of the then 19-year-old hotshot pianist and arranger, showcasing an effortless light and breezy style that would eventually become recognised as the classic bossa nova sound, Mendes’s second album under his own name, Você Ainda Não Ouviu Nada!, which was released in 1963, seems to be less about him than its predecessor.
Despite his status as the eponymous headliner throughout his career, Mendes seems to have made a point of performing as part of an ensemble. It seems to be a bit of a running joke among online aficionados that their favourite Sergio Mendes albums are the ones where you can actually hear him. I’m going to take that as an indicator of an unusually healthy lack of ego.
Either way, the album places decidedly more emphasis on the shit-kicking licks of trombonists Raul de Souza and Edson Maciel, saxophonist Aurino Ferreira and clarinetist Hector Bisignani than anything else, including Mendes.
The whole thing is underpinned by the stark, no-nonsense rhythms of Tião Neto on bass and Edison Machado on drums – the latter already famous for inventing the samba o prato style of drumming, essentially playing a samba rhythm on the cymbals rather than the snare (thanks to a busted snare) and inadvertently creating one of the defining characteristics of bossa nova.
“I was, as a piano player and a musician, very influenced by jazz, which I still love, but all of a sudden, we had these great melodies that we could play and improvise,” Mendes has said.
“My first band the Sexteto Bossa Rio was a samba jazz kind of thing. It had jazz influences, like the improvisations, but the melody was very Brazilian and the harmonies were very Antonio Carlos Jobim.
“I think that was what made that music so unique because you know it belonged there, it was not something that was borrowed from this or that.”
Latin America is a place where tradition, modernity and postmodernity collide and combine in new, interesting and often disruptive ways.
The theory of ‘musicality friction’ is a rather patronising belief that the influences and musical elements adopted by Brazilian musicians from American jazz are a symptom of “a conflictive relationship of acceptance and negation”, basically meaning that even while Brazilian musicians want to learn the expressive elements of American jazz, they also have to distance themselves itself from it by drawing on indigenous music.
To my huge, uncultured Yorkshire ears, Você Ainda Não Ouviu Nada! sounds more jazz than bossa nova – even when they’re delivering a great take on ‘Ipanema Girl’ and just about the definitive version of Nana.
But who really cares what you call it when it sounds this great?
Você Ainda Não Ouviu Nada! was to be the last album Mendes recorded in Brazil for some years. In 1964, a year after its release, a military dictatorship took over the country, working to what was essentially a fascist agenda – and one which is not so dissimilar to that of current Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.
Mendes moved permanently to Los Angeles a short time after and who can blame him?
Crystal Illusions by Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66 (A&M)
Fast forward to 1969 and Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66 are signed to Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’s A&M label. They’d scored the first ever Portuguese-language US top 10 hit with Mas Que Nada a few years earlier, and despite just having had another big hit with a spine-tingling cover of Bacharach and David’s The Look of Love, God bless them, they’re still singing in Portuguese on the next album, Crystal Illusions.
This can’t have been the easiest sell in the US at that point in time.
If the album’s cover is anything to go by, Mendes and co were at least trying to keep up with the zeitgeist, with art that features each member of the band contained within individual see-through building blocks – or are they, as their shadows seem to suggest, imprisoned within crystal illusions?
Their joyful take on Pretty World is an obvious and immediate highlight:
“Nothing else to make apart from breakfast and love … We’ll hang up a little sign that says Paradise: Population two …”
It is simply the definitive Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66 jam, no arguments.
The album’s sole cover of a US pop hit is a typically quirky and novel but charming take on the Drifters’ Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, with a similarly lovely version of You Stepped Out of a Dream from Singin’ in the Rain.
Mendes fills the gap with a couple of new compositions and by dialling up the contemporary Brazilian influence with a thrilling version of Milton Nascimento’s Vera Cruz (with an English lyric ‘translated’ into a totally new song called Empty Faces sung by Lani Hall, soon to become Mrs Alpert) and an incredible cover of Edu Lobo’s Memorias de Marta Sare.
Memorias de Marta Sare was originally written by Brazilian playwright and telenovela actor Gianfrancesco Guarnieri for his play examining the nullification of female desire, sexual violence, prostitution, prejudice and feminism in the poverty-stricken northeast of Brazil.
It’s not really the kind of thing you expect to hear from Sergio Mendes and I’m not sure how much of the original intent comes out in a lyric once again translated and sung by Lani Hall, retitled as Crystal Illusions.
Am I just imaging a series of sly digs at late Sixties California’s prevailing fascination with gurus and auras and mysticism and the resulting fetishisation of minerals? I probably am.
Either way, it’s a monster. Clocking in at just under eight minutes long, Crystal Illusions is haunting, hypnotic and, in the parlance of the times, happening.
A brooding, sprawling opus that stops, starts, slows and quickens so that you’re never really sure where you are, it is built around a terrific vocal by Hall (in a duet with Mendes) and lush, hugely expansive and, apparently, Stravinsky-inspired orchestration by Dave Grusin that suddenly spirals down into nothing before returning you where it all began in the first place once again.
Sergio, on electric piano, really kicks out the jams and it all gets just a little bit psychedelic. I love it.
I think I bought this utterly amazing record from Oxfam for two quid.
Introducing Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66 (A&M)
This compilation was my Sergio Mendes gateway drug.
As the sleeve has it:
“The Sound of the Sixties. The Sound of the Seventies. The Sound of the CENTURY! The eminently satisfying sound that mixes subtlety with excitement, that links the sensuous strains of the Bossa Nova with the firm beat of the best in rock.
“The music of SERGIO MENDES & BRASIL 66 is the music of yesterday, today and tomorrow all wrapped neatly and professionally together in the most delightful manner.
“And here, in superb stereo, are ten tracks of musical magic. The musical magic of SERGIO MENDES & BRASIL 66!”
They’re not wrong.
Drawing from Mendes’s first five A&M albums, the album showcases the talents of some of the fantastic singers Mendes worked with during the mid-Sixties, including Bibi Vogel and Janis Hansen, and the dream team of Lani Hall and Karen Philipp.
Like an unstoppable groovy juggernaut, it just flattens the listener with a string of straight up bossa bangers (Mas Que Nada, Pretty World and The Look of Love), a brace of ace Beatles covers (The Fool on the Hill and With a Little Help From My Friends), and even a cover of Scarborough Fair.
There are a number of standards, including a couple by Tom Jobim – one of the more louche versions of Agua de Beber you’re ever likely to hear plus a deft take on Triste featuring an ebullient piano line from your man Mendes – alongside a giddily irresistible update of João Gilberto’s Bim-Bom.
“I think that great songs are the key of music,” the Maestro once explained. “You want to hear those melodies that you don’t forget.”
Pensive, brooding and moody as much as it is sparkly and bright and upbeat, Introducing Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66 is just about the perfect Sunday morning album.
If you’re just going to buy one of these records, it’d be very obvious to get this one, but do yourself a favour and make an effort to search out the next one instead…
Primal Roots by Sergio Mendes & Brasil 77 (A&M)
Primal Roots, released in 1972, removes the glossy, big-budget production sheen of previous A&M albums in an attempt to get back to the origins of Brazilian music – before bossa nova, before jazz, before samba – to the acoustic music of the African diaspora, sung entirely in Portuguese and with an expanded percussion section.
By this time, Lani Hall had departed the band for a solo career and Karen Philipp left to act in M*A*S*H (no shit), to be replaced by Geri Stevens and Gracinha Leporace (who ended up marrying Mendes).
The album opens with Premosa de un Pescador (A Fisherman’s Promise), built around a very sparse and modern-sounding percussive pulse worthy of Villalobos (that’s Ricardo not Heitor), complete with close vocal harmonies and, randomly, what sounds like a church organ.
It’s followed by the contemplative Despues del Amanecer (After Sunrise), written by long-term Mendes bassist Sebastiao Neto, and a couple of tracks based around a propulsive samba beat, with fantastic call-and-response vocals and bassline that carry a real thump.
It’s difficult to pick out highlights but the atmospheric, moody and dramatic Iemanja by Baden Powell simply smoulders.
It turns out this is music for the hips as much as it is for the heart and soul.
Pretty much the whole of side two is taken up by the extraordinary Jogo de Roda (The Circle Game in English), a simply insane 18.23 samba jazz jam in distinct sections, I suppose you could call them movements, with delirious and dissonant extended improvisations by flautist Tom Scott, guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves and finally Mendes himself.
It’s a real trip, and not dissimilar to Can at some points. No, really.
Either way, it sounds very, very contemporary and not remotely half-a-century old. It is proper far-out shit for the heads.
Primal Roots didn’t sell many copies and was pretty much the final nail in the coffin of his relationship with A&M. It was the final Sergio Mendes studio album for the label for a long time.
Primal Roots is a marvellous little album. Even the artwork is great. In some ways, it is very different to Sergio’s usual schtick but in other ways it is not that different at all. The improvisation, the innovation, the melodies, the harmonies, the tunes, are still there, perhaps more so than ever before, but its sound is stark and unadorned, with none of the usual polish.
I’m probably not the most reliable person to be listening to about musical theory but I can confirm that it’s well worth getting hold of Primal Roots if experimental acoustic ethno-jazz is the tree up which you are currently barking.
I bought Primal Roots from somewhere on Carrer dels Tallers in Barcelona – possibly Discos Impacto – for €10.95.
Cheap at half the price.
Love Music by Sergio Mendes & Brasil 77 (Bell)
Mendes’s first album after leaving A&M was about as far away from the earthy, organic sound of Primal Roots as you can get and is regarded with something approaching open derision by the online Sergioscenti.
None of the songs on the album are Brazilian in origin – a first for Mendes – all of them are sung in English, and there’s a decidedly poppy feel throughout, as well as new personnel in the band (singer Geri Stevens was replaced by Bonnie Bowden, presumably after a bizarre gardening accident), and someone other than Mendes arranging the music once again.
The issue seems to be that Love Music seemed like a blatant, slightly desperate stab at creating commercial music that would get played on AOR radio – which probably would’ve been fine if the album had been successful in all that, but it wasn’t.
I find it difficult to get my head around that. He’s done better albums, without a doubt, but Love Music contains some of my most favourite Mendes moments, not least the album’s soulful opener Where is the Love.
Equally great are the sunny and optimistic title track, and a couple of great covers, James Taylor’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight and the ever-dependable Bacharach and David’s Walk the Way You Talk, both featuring beautifully low-key vocals by Gracinha Leporace front and centre.
There are also a couple of not-so-great and possibly even ill-advised covers of Killing Me Softly and I Can See Clearly Now – but everyone has an off day, even Sergio Mendes.
Don’t make a big deal about it. It’s his birthday.