Few artists have experienced a career as long and varied as Sergio Mendes’. The Brazilian-born Mendes, who performs some of his classics with the Spokane Symphony this weekend, was one of the main artists to bring his country’s traditional bossa nova to the States, where it became a huge success in the 1960s.
“Bossa nova became a worldwide phenomenon because of the songs, because of the melodies,” the pianist said from his home in Los Angeles. “For me, at the end of the day, it’s the great songs that I still love, and that’s what we bring to the people when we do a show.”
In the ’60s, Mendes and his backing band Brasil ’66 had Top 10 hits with jazzy covers of the Beatles’ “The Fool on the Hill” and the Burt Bacharach/Hal David standard “The Look of Love,” and his take on the Brazilian song “Mas Que Nada” is generally considered the definitive version.
“I remember the first time I came (to the U.S.) in 1962,” Mendes recalled. “We played a concert at Carnegie Hall, and everyone already knew those beautiful melodies. And even ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ – it’s 60 years old, but it’s as fresh and as exciting as it was 60 years ago.”
What’s most notable about Mendes’ recent career trajectory, however, is the list of younger collaborators he’s racked up. In 2006, he released an album called “Timeless,” which flirted with pop, R&B and hip-hop and featured appearances from Justin Timberlake, Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder, Jill Scott and the Black Eyed Peas. Mendes’ newest record, this year’s “Magic,” follows a similar template, with John Legend, Janelle Monae, Seu Jorge and the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am.
“Luckily, my music speaks to two generations – the parents that listened to Brasil ’66, and now their kids who listened to ‘Timeless,’ ” Mendes said. “So there’s a whole new generation who comes to see my show, and it makes me very, very happy.”
And perhaps he can add yet another generation onto his fanbase. Mendes contributed several bossa nova-inspired songs to the soundtrack of the 2011 animated film “Rio” and its 2014 sequel. One of those songs, “Real in Rio,” was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Mendes said his craft has always relied heavily on collaboration – he rose to prominence with the help of, among others, trumpeter Herb Alpert and jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley – but working with young and up-and-coming artists has given him a new boost of creativity.
“I’m writing more songs now than I used to,” he said. “To write a song with John Legend was such a thrill. I wrote the melody and sent him the MP3, he wrote the lyrics and he sang. I love that kind of collaboration.”
But it’s the live shows that really drive him, and Mendes said that despite the occasional arena – he’s playing one in the Philippines following his Spokane stop – he prefers smaller, more intimate theater venues.
“I’ve been very blessed and very lucky that I’m still performing and still traveling,” he said. “It’s what I love to do.”
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