Grammy winner Sergio Mendes, 70, one of Brazil’s most famous exports, kicks off his 50th anniversary in the music business with a new album, “Celebration,” compiling a half-century of hits; his first film score, the animated film “Rio"; and a special engagement at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood from Thursday through March 13.
You started playing Brazilian nightclubs in the ‘50s just as bossa nova was emerging. Take us back to the beginning.
When I was 18, there was a club in Rio de Janeiro called the Bottles Bar, and that’s where I started playing. I had the Sergio Mendes Trio, and that became a place where musicians used to hang. And by that time, bossa nova was starting. This was 1961, and it was a wonderful time in Rio. The bossa nova was such a fresh innovative style of playing Brazilian music. The songs were so beautiful, and most of them were written by Antonio Carlos Jobim.
So he was the creator?
He was the most important songwriter and the creator of that style. So he was a big influence on all of us. And he used to come to the Bottles Bar, and we used to talk. And then I did my first record and asked him if he would write some arrangements for me, which he did. I used to live in a town across the bay from Rio called Niteroi, so I’d go to his house in Ipanema and work until 3, f4 in the morning. And he had a little blue Volkswagen bug and he used to drive me to the ferry boat and we kept talking until 5, 6 in the morning and I’d go back to Niteroi.
And bossa nova was wonderful. It had all the great American jazz musicians being inspired by that, starting with Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd. Then in 1962, there was a bossa nova concert at Carnegie Hall, and I came in with my band called Bossa Rio Sextet. And Jobim came, João Gilberto, there was Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie. It was a big success. I couldn’t believe I was there. It was like, whoa, wake me up. The day after that I went to Birdland because Cannonball Adderley, the famous jazz saxophonist, was playing there. And he invited me to play with the band and do a record with him.
Was that on Herb Alpert’s A&M Records?
We’re not there yet. I came to L.A. at the end of ’64. I made a record for Capitol, “Brasil ’65.” After that we were rehearsing at a place on Melrose. Word of mouth got around, and a lot of record company guys came in to listen to us. One day walks in Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert, and they asked me if I wanted to join them at A&M. I did my first record. The song “Mas Que Nada” became a huge success all over the world. That was the only time a Brazilian song in Portuguese went everywhere and was a big success. And so then many other records with Brasil ’66. We used to open shows for Herb.
And about four days ago it was my birthday and my guests of honor were Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert and Lani Hall, who was my singer who’s now married to Herb, and my wife. We went to Mozza and we had great wine, we celebrated, we hugged each other, we cried. And it was just a beautiful story that 45 years later we still love each other.
I know that meeting will.i.am inspired you to get back into the studio for the first time in a decade. What happened?
I got a call one day from A&M Records, and they told me that there was an artist named will.i.am [who] would like to meet you, can he come to your house? So about three days later, he knocks at my door and he’s standing there with about six or seven of my old A&M records, vinyl. He told me, “Would you like to play a song for my new album called ‘Elephunk’?” And I said, “OK.” But then he knew so much about Brazilian music and everything I ever played, I mean songs I’d forgotten about, he knew about.
So I went to the studio to do a song for his album, and it was a Brazilian song that was written by Jobim, a song I’d played many times back in the Bottles Bar called “How Insensitive.” But the way he arranged it was so different and innovative and fresh. So I called him and said, “I really had a ball working with you. Why don’t we make a record together?” And we did it, not only “Mas Que Nada,” he invited all of his friends, some of them are my friends now, people like John Legend, India.Arie, Justin Timberlake. The record was a big success all over the world, and it was called “Timeless,” and he really brought me to a whole new phase of my life. And I’m also a music producer for this film “Rio” that’s coming out.
Did you record new music for it?
I rerecorded “Mas Que Nada” with a new band, and I wrote and arranged and performed songs. I brought a lot of Brazilian music to this project. It’s been a wonderful experience for me working with this young, very creative Brazilian director called Carlos Saldanha. He did “Ice Age” II and III [and co-directed I]. We’re both from Rio, and he wanted to portray the joy and happiness and sensuality of Rio. This was for me something new, the first time I’ve done it, and I adored doing that.