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Nine Songs
Sérgio Mendes

Grammy-winning Brazilian composer Sérgio Mendes remembers the songs that forged his trailblazing career as a seminal figure in the world of jazz.

13 November 2023, 15:00 | Words by Lucy Tessier

Having shared the stage with Sinatra, it’s no surprise that Sérgio Mendes’ influences are so vast.

The infectious melody line of “Mas Que Nada” is etched into the memory of most of us. The single’s hip-swinging, bossa nova beat turned heads in the mid-1960s as Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ‘66 released their version of the Jorge Ben song, revolutionising Brazilian pop from then onwards. This was only the beginning for composer and virtuoso pianist Sérgio Mendes, as he embarked on a career that would see him nominated for an Oscar, collect a Grammy and two Latin Grammys, and join forces with legendary musicians such as Frank Sinatra and Antônio Carlos Jobim.

His collaboration with Black Eyed Peas in 2006, remaking his hit single “Mas Que Nada”, saw Mendes immerse himself in the contemporary pop scene with a new generation of fans. Over the course of his extravagant six-decade career, he has recorded and released more than 35 records, with his latest album In The Key Of Joy brimming with the colourful sounds of classic Brazilian pop, funk, and jazz.

Fast-forward to 2023 and Mendes is preparing for a sold-out performance at the annual EFG London Jazz Festival. Accompanied by his phenomenal band, he’s promising to bring Brazilian groove to the heart of the capital in a spectacular showcase at the Barbican Centre on Wednesday 15 November. Sharing one of the festival’s many stages with visionaries such as Cory Henry, Marcus Miller, Norah Jones, and Emeli Sande, Mendes’ show is anticipated to be a celebration of music from some of his biggest inspirations, as well as his own compositions. Talking to me ahead of his journey to the UK for the festival, he can’t contain his excitement, commenting on the “great selection of names that are playing this year” alongside himself.

So, how did this legendary composer initially discover the many wonders that jazz has to offer? It will come as no surprise that the first of Mendes’ picks is undeniably the perfect first introduction for anyone intrigued by the genre.

"Take Five" by Dave Brubeck Quartet

When I was young, I lived in a small town across the bay from Niterói. When I was about 14, one of my friends called me to his house and said, “You have to listen to this!” And he played me “Take Five”, and in that moment I just said, “Wow, that was amazing!” It was such a wonderful surprise to me, because that was the first time that I’d ever heard jazz. I was so used to listening to Brazilian music and classical music, and then all of a sudden came that wonderful song.

I was really taken by the uniqueness of that particular sound. Following that experience, me and my friends got together once a week and listened to other jazz records, and that’s how I initiated my love for jazz. We listened to so many, and it was very hard in those days to get hold of records from the United States because they didn’t sell them in Brazil, so when we finally got the opportunity to listen to them, it was really an adventure.

“Desafinado” by Frank Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim

I was very lucky to have worked with Sinatra. I did two tours with him – one in America and one in Europe. We played at the Royal Albert Hall for about two weeks, and I was the opening act for him. So I saw him every night in Europe, and here in America, and we became very good friends.

His voice was just amazing, and his personality – everything was just so wonderful. So when you put that together alongside orchestration from Claus Ogerman and Jobim, you’re talking about the trio from heaven! This song is so beautiful, we still play it in my show, and those three guys were just amazing.

Antônio Carlos Jobim is a very important person in my life - he was a mentor and a friend, and from him I learned so much. I was so lucky to be around him, and to be able to just watch his genius. “Desafinado” was really the first song that he wrote that took to lots of musicians all over the world, and everybody fell in love with it - from Stan Getz to Dizzy Gillespie.

The first time I came to the United States was for a bossa nova concert at Carnegie Hall in 1962, and Jobim came along with Stan Getz and all of those guys. I remember the magic of Jobim’s songs, and people fell in love with his music. There really was nothing like it at the time, so his music feels like such an important influence of mine.

"Song For My Father" by Horace Silver

I met Horace when I came to do the Carnegie Hall show in 1962, and he was one of my idols – I had listened to his records in Brazil. I met him at my friend’s house, and immediately I thought he was an amazing person and an even more unique piano player. I would say that up until then, no one had a style like him and nobody played like him.

When I first met him, he said he would love to come to Brazil to visit, so I invited him. I just had this small apartment, and he came and spent over a week with me. It was absolutely beautiful having him in my house every day, going to the piano with him and watching him play. I have a really lovely picture with him that I’ve kept all these years. He was such a dear friend and an amazing pianist. When I was in Brazil ‘66 we used to play “Song For My Father”, and I was lucky to have learned it from him.

"Travessia" by Milton Nascimento

Milton Nascimento is one of the greatest composers in Brazil. He has an incredible voice, and his songs are even more unique. I got to spend time with him in Brazil, and he was in LA a few months ago and I went to see his show.

“Travessia”, one of his masterpieces, is so wonderful. We play that at our show also. I think this song will always be one of my favourite Brazilian songs, and when we play it together it just gives me the best feeling.

"Waters of March" by Antonio Carlos Jobim

I have an interesting story about this song… I was with Jobim one day, and he said to me, “Sérgio, I just bought ten English dictionaries.” I said, “What! Ten dictionaries - why?” He said to me, “Well, I decided to write the lyrics in English.”

It’s very difficult to write lyrics, and as a composer, I always have somebody writing them for me. Even if you speak the language it’s still impossible, but writing lyrics in somebody else’s language is even more difficult, but Jobim did it! He’s a genius - he’s like the Gershwin of Brazil!

When I met Michael Jackson here in LA, he said, “You know what my favourite song is in Brazil?” and he said “Waters of March”, which really shows how sensitive he was. The song is a classic!

"Waltz for Debby" by Bill Evans

When I was younger and at my friend’s house listening to jazz records, we used to listen to a lot of Bill Evans. I fell in love with his piano playing, which is so unique and amazing. So fast forward a little bit, and I met him at the Village Vanguard in New York – after his show I went to say hello. He was very shy, and he didn’t talk much, but his piano playing really was an amazing thing. I will never forget that moment.

I started playing piano as a kid, and like many other kids I learnt Brazilian and classical music first. I studied classical for a while, and then around the age of 13 or 14, I discovered jazz and I’ve never looked back. It changed my life.

"Morro Velho" by Milton Nascimento, sung by Gracinha Leporace

I recorded a few songs with Milton because he’s one of my favourite composers, and like “Travessia”, “Morro Velho” is another one of my favourites of his. I think that’s why I mentioned him twice on my Nine Songs list, because his genius is never-ending.

This version is sung by my wife, so the song is really special to me, harmonically and melodically. Dave Grusin is such a great arranger, he wrote the orchestrations and it’s such a wonderful piece. My wife will be singing this at the London show as well, and I have a really great, young band. I mean – compared to me they’re young! But each of the musicians is very unique, and they’re all really excited for the show.

"Saci" by Guinga

Guinga is not as well-known as Milton Nascimento and Jobim, but he’s such a great friend of mine and a fantastic composer. I’ve recorded many of his songs because he has such a special way of writing. This sort of shows the great diversity of songwriting we have here in Brazil. Each of the musicians I’ve mentioned are different, but when you hear a Guinga song it has its own stamp on it, and you know it’s him.

“Saci” was the very first song I ever heard of his, and since listening to that I’ve recorded so many of his songs because he’s such a wonderful composer. I’ll always be a big fan of his.

"Long Ago (And Far Away)" by Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kerns, sung by Frank Sinatra

A lot of singers and composers have arranged this song, but this version is my favourite. Sinatra actually sang this song a few times in his show and I got to hear it in person, and it gives me a special feeling of nostalgia and warmth. “Long Ago (And Far Away)” has such a beautiful melody – so simple, but so beautiful combined with the lyrics as well.

When you asked me for nine songs, I could have given you eighteen and so many more! But that song is such a special one to me, and when I hear it now it just brings back so many memories.

EFG London Jazz Festival runs until 19 November and tickets are available for many of the shows.

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