Sergio Mendes is the best-selling Brazilian artist of the 20th Century challenged only recently by hot ticket Sepultura. Yet Sergio is far from hot. His cool transcends trends. What Sepultura tries to do with shock tactics, Sergio has accomplished with subtle strategy.
Let's take a look at his roots to see how Sergio has synthesized international influences into his own interpretations of modern jazz. First let's survey the cultural environment in which Mendes thrived. Then we'll see him grow through collaborations with established artists. Finally we'll be illuminated by the soft, yet steady glow of Sergio's fame.
Sergio Mendes, son of a successful physician, grew up in Niteroi, a fashionable suburb of Rio. Brazil's economy surged with WWII's demand for rubber and other rain forest resources. Waves of European refugees became music teachers bringing with them traditions of romantic impressionism and experimentation with modern atonality. Disney's cigar-chomping parrot Jose Carioca called the streamlined Pan-American lifestyle "Bossa Nova." Meanwhile back in the states, everybody from Mickey Rooney to Bugs Bunny spoofed Brazilian Bombshell Carmen Miranda's stereotypical 10" heels and Tutti-Frutti hat. Soon Bob and Bing were off on "The Road to Rio." "Boom Chica Boom!"
Crooner Dick Farney toured the US with the theme song from Miranda's '46 film Copacabana. The Sinatra-Farney Fan Club included Bossa Nova's founding triumvirate: Tom Jobim, Joao Gilberto, and Vinicius de Moraes, dramatist of Black Orpheus and lyricist of "The Girl from Ipanema." The success of Black Orpheus at the '59 Cannes Film Festival sparked further interest in Brazilian music already represented in the Hollywood scores of samba guitarist Laurindo Almeida, Sabicas student and war buddy of Django Reinhardt.
Johnny Alf pioneered innovative piano arrangements of traditional Brazilian rhythms with songs like '53's "Sky and Sea" and '67's "I and the Breeze." In the 60's, Alfredo played at Bottles Bar with Mendes and recorded with experimental percussionist Airto Moreira and multi-instrumental sorcerer Hermeto Pascoal. In a recent interview, Mendes acknowledged "El Bruxo" Pascoal as his "idol." Sergio also recognized the influence of Be-Bop hipsters Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. From these monumental innovators and personal favorites such as Art Blakey, Bud Powell and Horace Silver, Mendes learned the art of post-modern improvisational permutation of popular melodies.
Rio's weird beards rejected greasy kid stuff like "Rock'n'Roll 'Em Copacabana" preferring the cool style of Nat "King" Cole. No Celly Campello dolls for these cats. Bossa Nova was patronized by social sophisticates whose musical milieu lay somewhere between the salons of Paris and the saloons of Vegas. The Sinatra-Farney Fan Club also produced talented guitar academy alumna Nara Liao of TV's Opiniao--The Muse of Bossa Nova. Parties at her swank pad turned into late night "Bossa Gang" sessions frequented by Rio's rising impresarios.
Sergio got his start playing pocket shows in Rio's Bottle Alley--so called because of irate neighbors' response to late-night music sessions. Mendes' big break came when he accompanied Jobim and Gilberto to the historic 1960 Carnegie Hall concert. (Now on CD!) Jacqui-O even invited the Boys from Brazil to Camelot.
The Kennedys weren't the only powerful people at that show. Many recording executives and jazz musicians also caught the wave. Sergio was signed immediately by Philips and also became a popular studio artist on other labels. Funky flute Herbie Mann flew all the way from Memphis to Rio to Do the Bossa Nova with Sergio. Jazz Meets Bossa Nova when new age sax Paul Winter met Mendes. Most notably, Mendes' Bossa Rio Sextet backed up soul jazz saxman Cannonball Adderley, who had just played alongside John Coltrane on Miles Davis' ground-breaking Almost Blue sessions. The Cannibal's previous pianist was ultracool Horace Silver, an important mentor praised and emulated by Mendes. Sergio also cut Bossa Nova York and Brasil '65 featuring vocalist Wanda de Sah who would marry Mendes' favorite songwriter Edu Lobo.
Mendes' tenure at Atlantic included collaboration with Lionel Hampton's trumpet Art Farmer, Crusaders' flute Hubert Laws and Hi-Los' arranger Clare Fischer who had charted Ellington's swing for Gillespie. Although none of these outings seized the popular imagination as much as his concurrent works on A&M, Sergio's classical apprenticeship was now additionally well-grounded with a journeyman's appreciation of advanced jazz composition.
Mendes' masterpieces came when he signed with A&M. He found the right lyricist in Chicago native Lani Hall, the future Mrs. Herb Alpert. Alpert's arranger Shorty Rogers had a long relationship with Almeida as well as trumpeting alongside Sinatra in The Man with the Golden Arm and even transformed Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos into "The Brass Are Comin'!" At A&M, Sergio established the formula for international success.
Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66 opens with Jorge Ben's idiomatically rhythm'n'bluesy "Mais Que Nada". Then there's the old one-two: a combination of Jobim's twelve-tone exercise "One Note Samba" fused with Julius Wechter's "Spanish Flea"--defamiliarizing a popular hit as the bridge in an imported innovation, balancing cool monotone with its bouncy melodic antithesis. Comfortable popular covers follow with "The Joker" from The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd by the gold fingers of Newley/Bricusse and the even more familiar "Going Out of My Head" taking a new twist. Then the first side finishes with the childishly nonsensical "Tim Dom Dom" taking us to the realm of pure musical joy. This is a hit recipe.
Side Two starts back strong with Lennon/McCartney's "Daytripper" featuring a wild bebop piano solo. Then we return to the cinematically exotic: Mancini's "Slow Hot Wind" from Mr Lucky Goes Latin as well as more Jobim. "Berimbau," Baden Powell's tuneful interpretation of traditional martial arts rhythms, is the forceful finale.
Equinox with TJ Brass guitarist John Pisano followed formula mixing familiar songwriters Cole Porter and Johnny Mandel with more exotica from Jorge Ben and Tom Jobim. Mendes also introduced major influence Edu Lobo, who would have four songs on Sergio's next hit LP as well as providing the title tune for Crystal Illusions.
Brasil '66 climbed the charts: "Look Around" was #5 in '67 followed by '68's "Fool on the Hill" at #3. "Scarborough Fair" also went Top 20. Dusty Springfield sang "The Look of Love" in Casino Royale, but Mendes' version was on the radio. Sergio's talent is that of a master arranger who is able to translate pop standards into the Bossa Nova idiom. He is an interpreter who provides introductions while remaining discreetly in the background. Jazz solos are daring and inventive, but economical in elaboration.
As he progressed into the '70s, Sergio's tone got darker with more shades from the broad spectrum of Brazil's musical heritage. These later LPs are maturations of style featuring more Latin than Anglo material. Primal Roots is the eventual percussive expression of the Amazon's postcolonial ethnicity. Then Mendes moved on.
After leaving A&M, Sergio had no problem finding other opportunities. Fronted by Gracinia Leporace--Senora Mendes when she's at home--Brasil '77 cut a couple of LPs on Bell in the early '70s. But it was '77's workup of "The Real Thing" by Stevie Wonder on Elektra that would chart. Mendes followed up with the Pele soundtrack on Atlantic to inspire a generation of soccer moms. "Never Gonna Let You Go" and "Alibis" went Top 40 in the '80's. Brasiliero's hip-hop styling won a Grammy in '93. Brazil 2000 continues to tour with recent material from Oceano as well as old favorites--and not always the ones you would expect.
What is it about Sergio that has kept him going for over four decades? Whether the contemporary style is Jazz, Rock, Disco, New Romantic, or Hip-hop, Mendes seems to say, "I can do that," and he does it well indeed.
First there is the legacy of Romanticism. An Impressionistic composition necessarily transgresses generic boundaries. The Impressionist writes of the light of the moon--not in its silent illumination, but in its synaesthetic emotional impact on the beholder. An Impressionistic composition may also paraphrase an influential work in another format. Thus DeBussy/Deodato's musical adaptation of Mallarme's poem "Afternoon of a Fawn" where sensual images are clustered in constellations of ecstatic signification: the whole much greater than the sum of the parts.
The Romantic tone-poem can also be a programmatic evocation of forces of nature. Sun, sky, sea and sand all attain elemental iconographic status in the Bossa Nova landscape. These symbols are painted with artful nuance; spare strokes suggest more than they say. "Look Around," Sergio sings, and you will see auguries of innocence and intimations of immortality in every blade of grass or grain of sand. "So Many Stars," so many possibilities. The beach is the boundary between individual familiarity and the insistent throbbing of oceanic unity. Ride the crest of the wave. Hear the eternal murmur of the sea in the string arrangements of "Crystal Illusions"--"I'll go where no one will find me." One finally finds the authentic self by merging with the stillness of nature.
The purest perception of nature to the Romantic is that of the Noble Savage. Thus the thrust of the exotic. Somewhere in the rain forest is an altered state that can be attained through the pulse of a primal rhythm. We can all join in the second line of the samba crews at Carnival parades. Consequently, the Berimbau finale on Mendes' A&M debut is a martial cadence rousing the audience to action. ("For What It's Worth.")
The humanitarian commitment of Romanticism is its ethical dimension proceeding directly from Impressionistic art's primary assumptions. Freedom and equality are categorical imperatives for beings participating in an unmediated perceptual relationship with natural phenomena. Mendes goes to his primal roots to demonstrate that all are enfranchised citizens in the global ecostructure. Songwriter Carlos Lyra says "Bossa Nova isn't some rich 'little daddy's boy' thing. Quite to the contrary, it is the meeting of different socio-economic classes, races, political and religious ideologies, which are united around a single objective."
Mendes' greatest talent as a composer has been to incorporate folk elements into arrangements of the commercial music that has displaced traditional songs in popular consumption. These same native icons influenced cubists leading to the abstraction and minimalism of Modernism. Serial music is democratic in that no tone color is dominant over the others--one note, one vote. The montage technique of filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein also contributes to the "verbivocovisual" method of Brazil's vanguard concrete poetry. Compare adman Ronaldo Azeredo's '56 "tic tac":
ate' est est etc
i a i a
c ca ca c
with songs such as "Chove Chuva", "Lobo Bobo," "Bim Bom," and "Tim Dom Dom." Likewise, there is innovation in the homespun concrete music or "som de aura" of Pascoal the Sorcerer who wowed New Orleans at Jazz Fest squeezing a squealing piggy under his arm. How primal can you get?
The Lydian scale of jazz improvisation shares the democratization of serial atonality essential to the off-key harmonies of Bossa Nova. In the Lydian scale, notes of the melody are treated as a series that can undergo any number of variations. Yardbird Parker could drag this out for hours; Sergio works in seconds, the economics of pop. He finds a basic alternative permutation of the melody to bridge the rising and falling movements of a song. Often Sergio reduces melodic components into an insistent riff forming a walking rhythm as basic undercurrent upon which female vocals float. "The Look of Love" has such a beat that propels us into a cinematic synaesthesia, a multi-media sensorial amalgamation. Depth of appreciation relies on concentration of audience response to the suggestions in the music.
Consequently, these sounds carry enough cultural environment with them to invoke escapist fantasies. The urban industrial becomes fixated upon the primal tribal. When we listen to Sergio, we leave the workaday world for a reverie of repose. This daydream brings us to a happy place. Maybe it's out on the beach where we survey the boundary between flesh and floss. Perhaps it's deep inside the hermit's hut in which we await vistas of worlds beyond imagination. "The Fool on the Hill" dreams of a "Happy World for me and for you"--the fundamental existential compromise of the New Romantic. Does it matter that Agent Double-O Soul is a bobo like Peter Sellers or a boob like Woody Allen as long as he's got The Look of Love? Sergio knows that we can get "Lost in Paradise." He always has an urbane sense of self-awareness.
Along with cosmopolitan modern jazz, there is a lot of down home soul. Sergio brings several of his native African, Amazonian and Iberian influences into a complex fusion of cross-cultural dissemination melding North & South, Classical & Popular, Rock & Jazz, Urban & Rural, Industrial & Tribal, Anglo & Latino, White & Black. Jorge Ben, Gilberto Gil, Edu Lobo and Caetano Veloso all benefited from Mendes' Americanized arrangements. So what if Baden Powell complains that overproduced Yankee versions of Bossa Nova are like file of sole smothered in ketchup?
What it all cooks down to is the aesthetics of understatement as the essence of cool. No hype here. Sergio's arrangements rise above the commercial production to attain the sublimity of suggestivity. Mendes' music is a minimized economy of nuance and inference. There's nothing heavyhanded in Sergio's smooth, sophisticated approach.
Each album is a strange-eyed constellation with "a dream for every star." Different moods are illuminated as we witness the unfamiliar celestial configurations of the southern hemisphere. With a little help from his friends, Mendes links global villages into cosmopolitan cooperation. Sergio's ambassadorship has established international networks of communication. The medium is the massage. The message is peace and love with freedom and equality for all.
We may have bought that Sergio disc for his covers of familiar favorites, but the Brazilian imports keep us coming back for more because these delicacies are served in the savory sauce of Sergio's personal interpretation. Beyond his many festive masks, we find the sincerity of Sergio's personality as he continues to sing the song of the fishermen. Somehow he is always out there on the beach just beyond the edge. The tide rises, and the tide falls, but Brazil 2000 floats buoyantly along sipping a chilly cocktail under that ubiquitous umbrella.
Ultimately it is Sergio's skill as an interpreter that has made him Brazil's foremost musical ambassador. Hermeto Pascoal never learned English, which has limited his status to a novelty act. But Mendes is right on the beat in any cultural medium. Whether African, Amazonian, American, European or Latin, Sergio fluently fuses all musical styles. He has applied both classical and modern compositional techniques to arrangements both impressionistic and atonal. He has created a mythology in a minor key.
Mendes is charming, friendly, accommodating. Yet he plays the familiar in an unfamiliar way that becomes accustomed through acquaintance. In that transformation, there are transpositions that compliment and counterpoint each other so well that we will never listen to anything in the same way again.