Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto's sultry smash hit "The Girl From Ipanema" on Verve Records introduced the U.S.
Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto's sultry smash hit "The Girl From Ipanema" on Verve Records introduced the U.S. pop audience to the Brazilian craze - the bossa nova. Musician Herb Alpert, who founded A&M Records in 1962, introduced that same audience to Sergio Mendes, who guided the bossa nova and the samba into more accessible and unchartered pop music waters. Mendes first came to the U.S. in around 1961 with a fascination of the jazz culture in New York. The classically trained pianist who was heavily influenced by Antonio Carlos Jobim, one of bossa nova's innovators, teamed up with Cannonball Adderly on a recording session and played with other jazz icons including Getz and Dizzy Gillespie. Mendes recorded a few jazz infused Brazilian musical sides with Phillips and Capitol Records before joining A&M in 1966, when his band Brazil 66 started carving out a long string of pop hits that mostly consisted of cover tunes.
An influential change in Mendes' band personnel was lead vocalist Lani Hall, a Chicago, Illinois native who replaced Brazilian born Wanda de Sa. From that point, Brazil 66 injected a more soulful kick that complimented Mendes' sweet bossa nova and samba stroke. The sassy, jazz infused Jobim composition "Mas Qe Nada," a cover by Brazilian pop star Jorge Ben, got the ball rolling. Other covers included the Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield easy listening versions of "The Look of Love"; the quaint folk tale "Scarborough Fair," written and originally performed by Simon & Garfunkel; The Beatles' psychedelic pop hit "The Fool On The Hill"; and even a stab at Otis Redding's definitive soul gem, "Sitting At The Dock Of The Bay." The Brazil 66 hit parade slowed down considerably in the early seventies, and Hall departed for a solo career, eventually marrying Albert. During his first tenure with A&M, Mendes also recorded for Atlantic Records, rekindling his love for the jazz side of Brazilian music, a diversion which alienated much of his pop music fan base.
DJ's such as Junior Vasquez and Masters At Work (MAW) were very affectionate about Mendes and often remixed his jazz (e.g., Quiet Nights with Cannonball Adderly) and pop catalogs (especially "Mas Qe Nada") that fit like a glove into the dance club's rising popularity of the lounge music scene. Mendes' popularity continued to flourish across the world, even as he continued to occasionally explore other musical terrain, including interpretations of the Joni Mitchell songbook, and more recently Bahian hip-hop, integrating politically charged raps and Caribbean flavors.
After leaving the recording scene for about a decade starting in 1996, Mendes ended up connecting with one of the hottest urban producers on the planet, will.i.am. Their collaboration on The Black Eyed Peas' Elephunk project - a juicy cut called "Sexy" - led to a private meeting of the minds. will.i.am impressed upon Mendes with his knowledge of Brazilian music and his entire collection of every Mendes classic recording on vinyl. This new connection landed the Peas' co-founder and rapper the co-producer job for Mendes' return to the studio on Timeless, a disc of collaborations with current stars ranging from John Legend to Justin Timberlake. Some critics and record buyers pounced upon will.i.am's sophomoric raps for overcrowding Mendes' soft bossa nova and samba fundamentals. Others sang praises for integrating Brazilian's cool rhythms with the culturally relevant hip-hop & usually harder-edged R&B.
The duo collaborated again on Mendes' the latest effort, Encanto (Enchantment), a disc that spotlights four Jobim compositions; lessens the street attitude that hampered the melodic Brazilian spirit of Timeless; relies more on an international guest vocal cast representing Brazil, Japan, France, and Italy; and, the most critical asset, focuses on the accessible, attractive rhythms that made Mendes a household name. It's hard to pick a favorite here, but for starters, Ledisi, an extremely gifted R&B/jazz stylist, adapts nicely to the Brazilian Carnival mood behind "Waters of March." Putting a funk spin on the samba swing, "Good-bye" features progressive Brazilian music musician Carlinhos Brown's sizzling vocals. An always reliable Natalie Cole recaptures Brazil 66 vibe with "Somewhere In The Hills."
Hall and Herb Albert - who, believe it or not, marks his recording debut with Mendes - wrap their loving bossa nova arms around "Dreamer." A slightly unexpected but joyous surprise is "Lugar Comun," pairing Italy's hip-hop/pop artist Jovanetti, whose vocal demure melts in your ears, and Japanese pop group Dreams Come True, who truly grasp Brazil 66's exquisite overall background sound. In fact, there are only two real clinkers here are - The Peas' Fergie lead turn on "The Look of Love," which lacks the vocal finesse to carry off what Hall or Springfield did; and "Funky Bahia," on which will.i.am and Siedah Garrett vocally sleep through an ordinary modern R&B ditty that has little to do with the Brazilian music influence.
For the most part, Encanto means exactly what the title implies. It enchants the listener as the enchanting collaborators handle the bossa nova and samba with grace. Like Motown and The Beatles, Sergio Mendes is a key figure in pop's overall complex landscape of the last half century. And with Encanto he provides a new generation of listeners a view of how Brazilian music captured America decades ago and why its remains relevant today.
By Peggy Oliver