“Thankful for Everything”: A Conversation With Sergio Mendes

On the cusp of 80, the Brazilian icon reflects on decades of rhythm, melody and joyful living. 

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Credit: Katsunari Kawai/Concord Music Group.

When it comes to 20th-century Brazilian music, Sergio Mendes belongs to a rarefied group of musicians who participated in its creation.

“I remember Antônio Carlos Jobim showing me the song ‘Águas de Março [Waters of March]’ in the early 1970s,” Mendes says, casually confirming his status as an OG. “He said, ‘Check this out, I just wrote it.’ And I said, ‘Wow! Yeah, it’s magical!’ But then, everything he wrote was brilliant.” A few years later, when Mendes made his first recording of the song, on his album Vintage 1974, Jobim played guitar.

A pianist, producer, songwriter and bandleader — as well as a Grammy winner and an Oscar nominee — Mendes is arguably the best-known Brazilian musician of all time. He was a founding father of bossa nova, the Brazilian pop-jazz movement that became a worldwide craze in the 1960s and has inspired countless musicians and songwriters ever since. He’s also the greatest popularizer of the Brazilian sound in history, bringing added renown to Jobim and other revered songwriters such as João Donato, Edu Lobo, Dori Caymmi, Milton Nascimento, Jorge Ben Jor, Carlinhos Brown and Guinga, to name just a few. His own songs include the much-covered classic “So Many Stars.”

But although he was the auteur of best-selling groups called Brasil ’66, Brasil ’77 and Brasil ’88, Mendes these days signifies a genre unto itself: an alchemical fusion of bossa, samba and older indigenous styles of Brazil with American pop, jazz, R&B and funk. Usually thought of as a master of rhythm, whose deep Brazilian and funk grooves are omnipresent throughout his dozens of albums, he nevertheless says, “I’m a melody guy.”

He has reinvented himself continually over the course of a 60-year career, during which he has played (and partied) with Jobim, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Herb Alpert, Quincy Jones and other pop-music royalty. His 2006 collaboration with will.i.am, the bossa/hip-hop/R&B album Timeless, included a revamped version of Ben Jor’s “Mas Que Nada,” Mendes’ first big record, from 1966, which became a hit all over again. A recent album and a documentary about his life by director John Scheinfeld (Chasing Trane, Herb Alpert Is…) are both titled Sergio Mendes: In the Key of Joy; the film is due to be released later this year.

Approaching his 80th birthday on Feb. 11, Mendes looked back on his career with TIDAL recently via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. As he spoke, his wife, the singer Gracinha Leporace, who has sung on Mendes’ records for more than 40 years, dropped in to say hello and occasionally Google facts for her husband.

Mendes and his Brasil ’66. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

You have said that serendipity has played an enormous role in your life. Can you give me a few examples? 

All my life I’ve been coming to the U.S. and meeting people. The first time I came was in 1962, to play in the first bossa-nova festival at Carnegie Hall. Then I went to Birdland and met [jazz saxophone titan] Cannonball Adderley, and he invited me to make a record with him. Then meeting Nesuhi Ertegun at Atlantic, my dear friend, and making records for him. Then meeting [A&M Records’] Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, and traveling and doing shows with Sinatra and Fred Astaire — people I never in my life thought I’d be working with. All those encounters have been very serendipitous.

I think of you as a kind of musical ambassador for Brazil to the world. Is that how you see yourself?

I don’t think in those terms. I’m very proud to be from Brazil. I lived there a third of my life. I love Brazilian music. It’s a very special kind of music. I understand why it seduced the world. Stan Getz, Cannonball, Sinatra, the jazz musicians in the 1960s — they all loved those great melodies. That’s something I kinda miss now; I don’t hear much melody these days. I’m a melody guy. I grew up listening to Cole Porter, Gershwin, Henry Mancini and then Jobim. I still play those songs. They are timeless.

I think melody will make a comeback. Everything is a cycle. When you walk out of a movie today, you’re not whistling a song. Where’s Henry Mancini? … I don’t see myself as nostalgic. But there will come a time when melody will again be very important.

Could you tell me a bit about your early days as a pianist in Rio? How did that lead to you recording with flutist Herbie Mann and Cannonball? 

In the 1960s, I started working at this jazz club called Bottles Bar in Copacabana. First I had a trio, then a quartet, then the Sexteto Bossa Rio, which was inspired by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and [pianist] Horace Silver. Horace came to visit me in ’61 or ’62. We became very close friends. I wanted to combine [Silver’s sound] with the melodies and the sensuality of bossa nova.

My teacher at the time was [the great Brazilian jazz composer] Moacir Santos. People don’t talk much about Moacir and [the guitarist-composer] Baden Powell, but they were amazing instrumentalists, geniuses. Baden came to Bottles and played guitar with us every night. It was a hang for musicians; it became our little Birdland. Herbie Mann came to Brazil in [the early ’60s] with Nesuhi to make a Brazilian record. Stan Getz had made one, and [Herbie] came down to make his. And he invited me into the studio. And Nesuhi and I became friends for life.

Your decision to relocate to the U.S. was incredibly fateful. What made you decide to emigrate?

After Carnegie Hall in ’62, I came back to Brazil. In 1964, there was a military coup. My son Rodrigo, who is 56 now and lives in L.A., had just been born. I sent a telegram to an artist friend of mine in Brazil. I wrote to him [regarding Rodrigo], “The order of the day is loose diapers and warm milk.” The authorities thought it was some kind of a code and that I was a communist or something. They kept me for a day or two; they only let me go after they saw the baby in the incubator at the hospital. I thought, “This is going to be horrible!” I came to L.A. with my wife and baby that November and started auditioning at jazz clubs. 

I had a friend in the foreign office who helped me get a green card. There was a club, Shelly’s Manne-Hole, where we played a lot. I met Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers. João Donato was living here in L.A., playing with Cuban bands. He said, “I found an apartment for you in Glendale,” near where he lived. How sweet is that? Donato is a dear friend of mine; I love him. 

When you first met Herb Alpert you were still under contract to the Erteguns at Atlantic, right? How did you get out of that contract to join A&M?

We were doing auditions for record companies in L.A. in 1965, and Herb and Jerry came. They said, “We love your sound.” I said, “But I have a contract with Atlantic.” I called Nesuhi the next day. He said the most beautiful thing: “Sergio, they can do for you what I wish I could do for you. But — you still owe me three instrumental records.” Which I did.

Even though you sing, your patented sound always includes other singers, female and male, taking the lead, and your stage show includes two female lead singers. Is it true that the idea of having two female singers began with one of your original singers, Lani Hall, being double-tracked in the studio? 

Yes. When I heard the double voices, I said, “What a great sound!” Simple unison. It was sensual and cool. Actually, the idea of doubling the voice was Herb’s. Once in a while I do a track with one vocalist, like on [the 1983 worldwide hit] “Never Gonna Let You Go.”  

Tell me about your friendship and collaboration in the 1970s with Stevie Wonder.

Stevie was a big fan. When he was making [1974’s] Fulfillingness’ First Finale, he would come to my house to listen to the mixes and eat my wife’s Brazilian food, which he loved. One night he said, “Can you write me some lyrics in Portuguese?” This was for the song that became known as “Bird of Beauty.” I don’t write lyrics, but I did for him. He gave me the Gold record. Two months later, he wrote “The Real Thing” for me [from the album Sergio Mendes and the New Brasil ’77].

You’ve always incorporated contemporary pop and R&B and mixed it with Brazilian rhythms to create new hybrids. Your collaboration in 2006 with will.i.am resulted in your second international hit recording of your signature song, “Mas Que Nada.” How did that collaboration come about?

That was another serendipitous encounter. Will came to my house and said, “I’ve been listening to your records since I was 14 years old, and I know every song you recorded. Let’s make a record together.” It was a wonderful experience working with him. He’s very intelligent and musical. I like “disruption,” you know? Making an album with Cannonball was, for me, a little disruption, artistically speaking. It’s the same type of experience working with Will.

Mendes and will.i.am onstage in 2006. Credit: M. Caulfield/WireImage for PMK/HBH.

On your latest studio album, In the Key of Joy, once again you collaborate with artists representing different styles, traditions and generations. Tell me about some of your partners on the recent album and how those tracks came to be.

I went to Brazil and did a lot of songwriting there with different people; I like writing songs, and I plan to do more of it. Of course, being in Brazil, I called [Brazilian composer] Hermeto Pascoal, my friend for many years. Everything with Hermeto happens in the moment — the same thing with João Donato. You bring them to the studio and magic will happen, so that’s what we did. I asked Hermeto, “Can you make a rap?” And he said, “Rap? Oh, yeah. Sure!” And immediately he starts talking. In the Northeastern part of Brazil they have those guys who [rap] — it’s not urban rap; sometimes they imitate sounds of birds and [nature]. I said to him, “There’s a few bars in the middle. Why don’t you say something?” He did it, one take! Donato had a fantastic new song called “Muganga,” which I love. And Guinga, one of the best current composers in Brazil — talk about melody! He wrote a piece that’s very pungent and sad. They represent the different colors of Brazil.

When I came back to the U.S., I did a lot of overdubs with a kid from my band, Scott Mayo, a great writer of horn parts, and Paul Jackson Jr. on guitar. I met Common through John Legend, who sang on one of my previous albums. I give [rappers] a melody. They ask me what direction they should go. It’s pretty freestyle. In “Sabor Do Rio,” Common talked about going to Rio from Chicago. There’s Joe Pizzulo, who sang on “Never Gonna Let You Go,” singing a new song I wrote, and his daughter Sophia — she’s my goddaughter — her artistic name is Sugar Joans.  And, of course, my wife, Gracinha Leporace, who has sung on all my albums. 

What was it like to see the whole arc of your life reflected in the documentary Sergio Mendes: In the Key of Joy

It was a wonderful experience. I went to Rio with the director, John Scheinfeld. He interviewed a lot of people there. I went to visit the place I was born. I’m very happy with the result. When you see your life represented that way, it makes you thankful for everything — for being alive, for doing what I love to do, for my family and friends, for the joy of having so many incredible people in my life.

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