A Conversation With Sergio Mendes
Mike Ragogna: Sergio, you have a double disc collection coming out soon titled Celebration: A Musical Journey.
Sergio Mendes: Yes.
MR: It's going to basically cover your whole career.
SM: That's correct, yes.
MR: Can you talk about its span a little?
SM: It goes back from my first record, back in '66. Then, it goes onto the other records after that. So, it's a lot of songs that I've recorded. It's coming out to celebrate fifty years of my career.
MR: By the time this gets printed, you will have already played some anniversary shows at the Geffen Playhouse, but since you've already played a night, can you go into the experience?
SM: Yes, we just played last night for the opening, and the whole thing is sold out. It's a lovely theater, people were dancing and standing up, and it was wonderful last night. I think we're going to have a nice run here for the four days.
MR: Did any of your old friends like Herb Alpert show up?
SM: Yes, yes, actually, yes. Jerry Moss, Herb Alpert--all my old friends--absolutely. That's the "journey." They were all there.
MR: In the old days when you guys got together, it was a journey, but it also was an exciting sort of challenge, wasn't it?
MR: What was it like right in the beginning, when you guys were basically a bunch of pals hanging being musical together?
SM: It was wonderful because A&M was just starting in those days. Herb had the Tijuana Brass, which was the hottest instrumental band in the world, so we went on tour with them all over the United States. It was always such a wonderful time with Herb, and touring, and so forth. My singer, Lani Hall, is Herb's wife, so it's a beautiful story. We'll get together at least a couple of times a month--we talk all the time. Both Herb and Jerry are dear friends of mine.
MR: Do you go to his club?
SM: Yes, Vibrato. It's a lovely club.
MR: What is a normal day like in the life of Sergio Mendes?
SM: Well, it all depends. For instance, right now we're working at night, so there is all that preparation. Then, when it comes time to travel, there will be a lot of rehearsing. I have a couple of kids at the house, a twenty-four-year-old and an eighteen-year-old, and they hear things that I've never heard about and turn me onto it, you know? My eighteen-year-old loves alternative rock, and every once in a while, I like to hear what he's hearing. My wife sings in the band and we travel together, so it's a regular day--a nice cappuccino in the morning and some good wine for dinner.
MR: What are some of your favorite Sergio Mendes recordings?
SM: It's hard to say because there are so many songs. But, of course, all the Brazilian songs that I've recorded.
MR: Well, something like "Mas Que Nada" seems like it appears in every other movie.
SM: Actually, I just finished writing the music for a new animated movie for FOX called Rio, and "Mas Que Nada" is there again, in another version. That song is such a magical song. This movie is animated, and it's by the same people that did Ice Age. It's beautiful, and it's got people like Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg and Jamie Foxx. We are all going to Rio next week for the premier. I have about five or six songs in the movie, so that was an exciting thing for me to do. I've been working on this project for the last couple of years.
MR: Is this the first time you've worked on film?
SM: Yes. I've done a lot of TV, but for movies, this is the first time.
MR: That is such a surprise. I guess you could take it for granted if you wanted to since "Mas Que Nada" always ends up in movies.
SM: Well, you never take it for granted because it's always a challenge. Working with the director--his name is Carlos Saldanha, a brilliant, young guy--we're both from Rio, so it was a lot of fun. But it was a big challenge to have the right music, the right sound, and the right percussion fitting with the images. It was great.
MR: Your last few albums have had some incredible collaborations. My question is, are you having fun with the "kids" on these records?
SM: Absolutely. For my last three albums there is a whole new audience that has been exposed to my songs because I have guests like will.i.am, Justin Timberlake, and John Legend. That brought a whole new, young audience to listen to those songs that maybe they would never have heard without those young people on the albums. It was a great collaboration, and I love doing that.
MR: There are international groups like the Norwegian duo Kings Of Convenience whose music centers around an authentic samba feel--it's virtually Latin jazz. It's interesting hearing Brazilian music being reinterpreted around the world, especially by alternative or acoustic acts
SM: The kids see this, today, as a very central, interesting kind of music, and more than that, great melodies. So, when you talk about the Scandinavian group, I can remember fifty years ago, Stan Getz doing "The Girl From Ipanema." I think the quality of the music, and the magic continues. People get enchanted by those sounds and those rhythms, so it's something that is still very, very hip all over the world.
MR: Was there ever a summit of Brazilian artists where most of you got together on a stage and played?
SM: Years ago, there was a Bossa Nova concert in Carnegie Hall in '62. Each one of us would develop our own careers. I just brought Carlinhos Brown from Brazil to be a part of this movie--but not a summit per se.
MR: So, you've begun your musical celebration at the Geffen, but are there going to be more celebrations, some more touring?
SM: Well, we're starting here at the Geffen, and then next month we're going to Asia. I go to Brazil next week to promote the movie Rio, but then we go to Asia and Europe. So, we're going to be touring this year, playing all those songs, and it's a nice coincidence that the movie will be out at the same time, so I'll be able to play songs that I wrote for the movie.
MR: Are you going to be participating in the promotion of this film beyond the junket?
SM: Oh yeah, next week I'll be doing George Lopez' show on TV, and I hope to be doing other TV shows. It's a great theme, and people are very interested in it.
MR: As you're moving forward, and now that you have caught the bug of doing movie soundtracks, do you want to do more?
SM: Listen, I take it one day at a time. I'm having a lot of fun working and traveling, so for me, it's just great to be doing that. I don't really make long-term plans at all, but of course, I would love to do more. I hope there is a Rio 2 and 3.
MR: What lies ahead after the touring and movie promotions are completed?
SM: I'll probably record an album towards the end of the year. I don't know what I'll do. Maybe I'll go to Scandinavia. You really never know because I've been so curious all my life towards life in general, and I always hope to find something new.
MR: Sounds perfect. What advice would you have for new artists?
SM: I think the most important thing is the passion. You've got to use your passion and embrace that, then work very hard, rehearse, and do what you believe is right for you. Work hard, and have fun.
MR: Are there any artists that you're listening to these days that you've been admiring?
SM: It's a hard thing to say. I know there are people that I still admire because they are very creative, like Prince for instance--he's a guy that I think is amazing, and he's always innovating and bringing new things to his music. There are a couple of young composers in Brazil that are very good. As far as jazz, I go back to listen to Bill Levinson, Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk because that's what I love to listen to. And of course, Frank Sinatra and Jobim, which was the greatest combination ever. I'm probably forgetting names and stuff, but I've given some names that I really respect.
MR: You actually worked with Frank in the past didn't you?
SM: I did, yes.
MR: Do you have any special memories from that?
SM: It was wonderful, just incredible. We did a couple of tours--one in '68, and the other in '80. Just working with him was awesome. To hear him singing was just a great experience.
MR: You worked with Fred Astaire as well, right?
SM: We did a TV special with him, and he danced to "The Look Of Love."
MR: Sergio, I hope your celebration and musical journey continues another fifty years. I appreciate that you took the time to talk with me today, thank you very much.
SM: My pleasure talking to you, take care.
Garota De Ipanema
So Danco Samba
Mas Que Nada
Going Out Of My Head
Night And Day
The Look Of Love
So Many Stars
The Fool On The Hill
(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay
What The World Needs Now Is Love
Promesa De Pescador
Never Gonna Let You Go
My Summer Love
The Sound Of One Song
Sarara (Bring Me The Sunlight)
Cinnamon & Clove
Rio de Janeiro
Mas Que Nada
Waters Of March
Y Vamos Ya
So Tinha De Ser Com Voce
The Fool On The Hill
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)