In a career that spans over 35 albums, three Grammy awards, and even an Oscar nomination (for the “Rio” track “Real in Rio”), Sergio Mendes really has nothing to prove. The joy for Mendes, however, is not wracking up a list of accomplishments and resting on some ivory tower. The Brazilian musician, who returns as a producer on the “Rio 2” soundtrack, is a worldwide traveler who loves to collaborate with a wide array of artists.
It’s this spirit which has guided Mendes throughout his life, and during our conversation he talked about working on “Rio 2”, his collaborations with John Legend and will.i.am, the beauty of Milton Nasimento’s voice, and his upcoming album “Magic.” I also was curious about his collaboration with jazz great Cannonball Adderly so many years ago, and he talked about the experience as if it happened just yesterday. It was a wonderful chat, so please enjoy!
Producing the ‘Rio’ soundtracks must hold a special place for you, since it introduces many children, as well as movie fans, to the diverse world of Brazilian music.
Absolutely. It was a great opportunity for me to do that, because that’s the music I grew up with as a kid. I think it’s beautiful music and like you said the diversity is fantastic.
That gave me a chance to bring that music to the world, to the kids. We did that in Rio, and we did that in Rio 2. With (director) Carlos Saldanha also being from Brazil, it helped a lot because he is very familiar like I am with the music. It was a joy for me working with him and John Powell, the composer.
When I think of the merging of Bossa Nova and jazz from the 1950s and ’60s, as witnessed by Antonio Carlos Jobim’s work with Frank Sinatra or your collaboration with Cannonball Adderly, I see a parallel today with your approach to music in the Rio collaborations. Is that a fair connection?
You have a very good point. When you look back at the bossa nova and you saw Stan Getz falling in love with the Brazilian melodies. And many others like Cannonball and Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. You fast forward and you have all these wonderful singers and interpreters from all over the world falling in love with that kind of music.
It’s interesting you say that, because I’m working on an album right now that’s coming out in June. I have guests like Milton Nascimento but I also wrote a song with John Legend and (another) song with Janelle Monae. There is a whole new generation of musicians that love Brazilian music. We’re writing songs together which is the next step to a beautiful thing. So you’re right, there is a mutual attraction.
Is there a true key to a successful collaboration?
I’m very curious and I love to learn and those two things are very important. When I wrote this song, it was a melody. It was chords. I sent it to John Legend and said “would you be interested in writing some lyrics?” It was a very natural process.
For me, it is an enriching process because you get together with another musician and it’s like making a movie, but you’re writing a song. I love that. My band has eight people and we exchange ideas and it’s a great thing. When I worked with will.i.am. it was the same thing. He liked what I did and I liked what he did. It was a very spontaneous kind of encounter. It excites me a lot working with other artists from different cultures, different countries, different ages.
Is there also that idea that no matter how one has progressed as an artist, there is no master/student relationship in a true collaboration?
Absolutely. When you work with somebody else you’re always going to learn something new. You’re going to see things from a different perspective. Like working with will.i.am., for me it’s a wonderful experience because you’re not isolated with your own opinion or creative process. Someone else will give you alternatives, and I love that.
As a producer, what are the challenges of working on such a big musical number like “Batucada Familia” or working with the subtle tune “Favo De Mel” with Milton Nascimento?
With “Batucada Familia,” the idea was to have a celebration of the family getting together again. So Carlinhos Brown, we’ve been writing songs for a long time now. Batucada (translates to) having a lot of percussion. (So we came up) with something very positive, sunny, and colorful. We sat at the piano and John Powell also co-wrote the song with us.
The movie guides us. That’s what we write music for. It’s different if I’m writing a song for my record. If I’m writing for an animated movie like Rio you have to think about the children, the melody has to be simple, not too complicated and then you have to have the joy that the rhythmical part of Brazilian music brings.
Milton is an old friend. We’re the same age. He’s one of my favorite musicians in the world. John Powell had the idea of him singing ‘Real in Rio’ – the song that I wrote with Siedah Garrett, Carlinhos Brown, and John Powell, in Portuguese. He sang almost in a capella in John Powell’s studio. And then John put a beautiful orchestra behind it, 140 musicians. It’s a beautiful thing. I cried when I heard it the first time. I love his voice.
Is one of the reasons you continue to grow as an artist is that you continue to explore, share your music and move forward?
You just described me! I am that kind of guy. I’m on the move. I’m 73 years old and next month I’m going to Japan. I’m doing all the jazz concerts in Europe this year and I’m finishing my album. I love that. As long as God gives me the health to do that, I’m very lucky and blessed to have that. I have a great family. My wife stays in my bed, so we travel together. It’s a great thing and it’s a wonderful life. I’m enjoying it to the max every day.
Can you please tell us what to expect from your upcoming album?
The album is coming out on Sony Masterworks the first week in June. The title is “Magic” because when I look at the people that worked on this album (it feels) like the magic of life. The art of the encounter. Going to Brazil and recording. Having Milton Nascimento writing a song for me. Writing a song with John Legend or Janelle Monae. Will.i.am. is producing a song and I sent him a track and he’s working on it. To have singers from Brazil like Maria Cantu and Seu Jorge, for me that’s magic. I was as excited (doing “Magic”) as I was with my first album. That’s where I’m at and I’m really excited about this project.
Very quickly. Just memories of working with Canonball Adderly?
Oh man. That was 1962. I was 20 years old. There was a bossa nova concert in Carnegie Hall. Bossa nova was exploding with Stan Getz and “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Desafinado.” So the Brazilian government put together a bossa nova concert. It was November of ’62, and it was the first time I came to the United States. I had a band that time called the Bossa Rio Sextet. Two trombones and a saxophone and a trumpet.
I couldn’t believe I was in New York and in Carnegie Hall. When I get there, I meet Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie and all those guys. So after the show, I went to Birdland to meet Canonball Adderly. I was a big fan. We met, I think he saw the show at Carnegie Hall and he asked me if I wanted to sit down and start playing piano. I started shaking and thought, ‘Oh my God, this is not possible.”
But I did play a song with him and after that he said, ‘Let’s make an album together.’ He was a wonderful human being and an incredible saxophonist so that was my first beautiful musical experience. To play at Carnegie Hall and make an album with Cannonball. It was a big (and) important part of my life.