Mendes reflects on his influence on the music industry, his collaborations and his mediums and talks about his latest projects.
Musician Sérgio Mendes
Tavis: I’m honored to welcome for the first time to this set, hopefully not the last time, multiple Grammy winner, Sergio Mendes. His breakthrough album in the U.S., of course, was “Brazil 66″ which introduced Bossa Nova to this country.
His career now spans some 50 years and he shows no signs of slowing down. His latest CD is called “Magic” and features Janelle Monae and John Legend along with a host of celebrated Brazilian guest vocalists.
Among his many honors, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song for the animated film, “Rio.” Let’s take a look at Sergio Mendes performing “Mas Que Nada” in San Francisco just a few weeks ago.
Tavis: You’re still at it, man. You’re still sounding good.
Sergio Mendes: Thank you, man. A pleasure to be here.
Tavis: A pleasure to have you here. What motivates you these days to keep doing this?
Mendes: I think, you know, I love music. I mean, that’s in my blood. And growing up in Brazil and music was part of my life and still is a very important part of my life. And I love traveling. I love making records and playing live with my band, as you can see, and just having fun, man.
Tavis: How did you first get introduced to music?
Mendes: I learned classical music when I was seven years old. My mom got me a piano. My father was a doctor. And I learned classical music and then, when I was about 13 years old, somebody played me a jazz record and I said, “Wow.” I never heard that.
You know, I was playing Beethoven and Ravel, Debussy and things like that. All of a sudden, I hear this Dave Brubeck record, “Take Five.” I said, oh, man, I love that.
So from that day on, I start, you know, learning those chords and listening to more jazz and, you know, being exposed to people like Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker. I mean, so jazz was the love of my life.
And then like in the early 60s, Bossa Nova. Bossa Nova was a period in Brazilian music where fantastic melodies, fantastic songs came to the United States the first time. In 1962, they had a concert at Carnegie Hall, Bossa Nova concert. So I was like, I think, 20 years old. I arrived at Carnegie Hall.
There’s Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz and I was there with Jobim, João Gilberto. So for me, it was like, wow, I love this. That’s it. And the next day, I went to Birdland to hear Cannonball Adderley. He invited me to do an album with him. So it’s been magical, my life actually, my journey.
And that’s why I called this album “Magic.” The whole thing has been from this. It’s beautiful, I’m blessed and I’m lucky and it’s a magical process of the magic of the encounter, I think, meeting great people in your life that open doors for you and introduce you to new things. I love to learn. I’m very curious.
Tavis: You must be psychic because I wanted to ask why you called the project “Magic.” I get it now. But I’m fascinated that phrase, “the magic of the encounter.”
Tavis: Tell me more about that, what you mean by that.
Mendes: I mean that in life, you know, there are certain things that happen to you which I happen to call the magic. When you meet people that you never thought you’re gonna meet, it was not planned.
I mean, you wanna call it destined. You wanna call it karma or whatever. I like the word “magic” of the encounter because the people that I met in my life that helped me so much.
And that’s the reason, you know, why I am where I am in terms of career from meeting, you know, people like I told you. Cannonball Adderley and meeting people like Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss and will.i.am and Quincy Jones.
I mean, meeting all those people, working with people like Frank Sinatra. I did a couple of tours with him. So it’s been a series of magical encounters in my life which I’m so grateful and I’m so happy to have had that.
Tavis: Take me back to “Brazil 66″ and what that album that Herb introduced to you all, to the American public with, did for your career.
Mendes: Yes. I was here in L.A. rehearsing. I had the band. We were looking for a job. Melrose Avenue, studio of a friend of mine. And record people used to come there to listen. They were listening to bands all over town and somebody told there was a Brazilian band rehearsing.
When they walked in, Herb and Jerry, young good-looking guys, and they heard this song, “Mas Que Nada.” They said to me, “Listen, we’re just starting a label. Herb has a band called The Tijuana Brass and would love you to join us.” And magical encounter. Here we go again.
I signed with A&M, made the first record, “Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66″ and the year was 1966. So this song was a huge hit all over the world. First time a song in Portuguese became a hit ever. And then again 40 years later, it was will.i.am. That’s another magic encounter [laugh].
Tavis: I get your phrasing.
Mendes: You get it, right?
Tavis: I get that magical encounter. I mean, I’m laughing at Herb and Jerry saying to you, “We’re gonna start a little record label.” That record label turns out to be A&M, Albert and Moss, and everybody and anybody’s been on that label for years.
Mendes: But that was 1960 — the end of ’65. That was the beginning of the label. I mean, we’re still very, very close friends. Lani was my singer then.
Tavis: Of course, yeah.
Mendes: I mean, how great that is. I mean, it’s just beautiful.
Tavis: This is actually taking a page out of Quincy Jones’s playbook. You mentioned Q. earlier in this conversation. And one of the things that has always kept Q. young is that Q. loves hanging out with young people, and you’re the same way.
Mendes: Same way.
Tavis: So on this album, you’ve got John Legend, you’ve got Janelle Monae, you’ve got will.i.am. What is it about those persons or young artists that so fascinates you, that makes you want to be around them and spend time with them?
Mendes: I think the fresh energy, the spontaneity. I mean, Will was like a volcano of ideas, you know, creative and fresh. So it’s always wonderful. And I love to learn. I’m so curious.
Tavis: Even now?
Mendes: Oh, yeah. I’m learning talking to you. Yeah. So with John Legend, the same thing. I mean, I wrote this melody at home, sent it to him on MP3, just the melody. Five minutes later, he has me. “Sergio, I love this melody. I’m gonna write lyrics. I’m going to sing.” There you go again. So we got together here in L.A.
Same thing with Janelle Monae. I met her. I was part of producing the music for this movie, “Rio 2,” an animated. And Janelle wrote the opening song. They all have that same component of curiosity and they want to share ideas. For me, it motivates me a lot.
Tavis: Beyond the collaborations, how would you describe what this project, “Magic,” is musically?
Mendes: I think it also shows the diversity of Brazilian music because Brazilian music, you know, people talk about Bossa Nova, people talk about maybe Samba. But Brazilian music is so diverse. That’s what makes it so interesting.
I mean, if you go to like — when I started this album, I went to Bahia to work with my Carlinhos Brown, Bahia, Salvador. And the music there is totally different than the music from Rio de Janeiro, from music of (inaudible). I mean, I talk to you of places like that. But it’s amazing, the diversity. And that diversity is what really seduced the world.
I mean, if you go back to Stan Getz and recording “Girl From Ipanema,” that was an incredible melody. I’m a melody guy. I love melodies and so does John Legend, so does will.i.am. The finesse of great harmonies and beautiful melodies, I love that.
Tavis: But you admit — I mean, you’re an exception, but you do admit that melody has become invisible in so much of music today.
Mendes: Unfortunately, I think yes. But, you know, I mean, things go in cycles. I’m not gonna be — because, you know, this is a country that we had Gershwin, we had Cole Porter, Henry Mancini. I mean, this is a country of fantastic melodies that inspired me and the rest of the world.
But when you talk to John Legend or Janelle or Will or any of my guests, I mean, they love melody. I mean, look at John Legend’s song. Now it’s number one all over the world. It’s a beautiful melody. Not this one. I hope this one will be too. But his song. I mean, the love of melody for me, it’s what this album is all about.
But also, again, the diversity of Brazilian music. If you listen from song one to the end, to the last song, different rhythms, different colors, different harmonies. It’s just amazing. And I also have on this album, I must tell you, I mentioned about going to Rio de Janeiro, to Bahia.
But then I come back to L.A. and then I invite, for instance, Alphonso Johnson to play bass. Now all Alphonso played was Miles. Alphonso plays with Weather Report. I mean, it’s just amazing. P.J. playing guitar. You know, Bo Jackson, Jr. So that whole combination of incredible musicians and people, that’s also what I call magic.
Tavis: Is Brazil still churning out great vocalists? I mean, the country has a rich tradition of great vocalists.
Mendes: Yes. There are three vocalists there. One is called Seu Jorge. Seu Jorge is an amazing singer. He’s living in L.A. right now. It’s the third. It’s called “Sou Eu,” which means “It’s Me.”
There’s a girl named Maria Gadú, 27 years old. Seu Jorge is 37. So there’s a lot of — you know, there’s some young Brazilian artists and singers on this project that made me so happy as well, and Carlinhos Brown.
Tavis: The new project from Sergio Mendes is called “Magic” and it is a magical project and some great artists, Janelle Monae and John Legend and will.i.am and some great Brazilian singers. You won’t be disappointed. Sergio, good to have you on this program.
Mendes: My pleasure, Tavis.
Tavis: Before we close tonight, I want to pay tribute to Joan Rivers who died at the age of 81 in New York with her daughter, Melissa, and friends at her side.
I was honored to have her here on this set for a two-part conversation just months ago. Joan was someone I wanted to talk with ever since this program started 11 years ago. She was in fact the first comic I saw when I came here to L.A. 27 years ago.
Our conversation touched on so many things that were important to her, her family, her ability to make people laugh and how she broke down barriers for other women comics and, most of all, how she loved what she did. She will be missed.
That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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