Finding his way back home again: Sergio Mendes

Boston Globe, June 20, 2008

One of the privileges of stardom is the ability to concoct and pull off projects that color outside the lines. In the past few years Sergio Mendes, the superstar Brazilian keyboardist and bandleader and longtime ambassador of bossa nova, has drawn freely on this license.

In 2006, for his first recording in eight years, he put out “Timeless,” an album of Brazilian and jazz standards reimagined as hip-hop and neo-soul tunes, with producer will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas as co-conspirator and the likes of Justin Timberlake and India.Arie as featured singers. With distribution through Starbucks, the album broke with commercial convention, too, raising eyebrows not only among musical traditionalists, but also in certain critical circles for whom the move seemed a tad declasse.

Now Mendes is back with “Encanto,” another Starbucks-supported production along the same model, with once again will.i.am as co-producer and a new roster of guest talent that spans generations and genres. Among them are trumpeter Herb Alpert, whose connection with Mendes dates back to the 1960s, along with Natalie Cole, new-school R&B singer Ledisi, and the Colombian pop star Juanes.

Mendes visits the Somerville Theatre on Wednesday with his regular 10-piece band, which includes three singers and plenty of percussion, with a mission that includes but is not limited to supporting the new album. “We’ll be playing songs from my whole musical journey,” he says by phone, “from the beginning to `Timeless’ and `Encanto.”’

It’s actually a highly coherent project when you consider that the material on “Encanto,” new arrangements and guest performers aside, consists either of classic songs (“Agua de Beber,” “Waters of March”) that Mendes has mined on numerous occasions in the course of his nearly half-century career, or of newer contributions that nonetheless share that feeling of classic songcraft.

Mendes describes himself as a melodicist and says his longstanding attraction to music of the Great American Songbook tradition stems, quite simply, from the quality and lasting power of the melodies. In collaborating with younger artists from a broad palette of styles, he says, “I’m taking these timeless kinds of songs and reintroducing them to a younger generation.”

At the same time, there’s a perceptible shift from the program of “Timeless,” with its heavily beat-driven, global R&B/pop agenda. “Encanto,” however, makes more room for incontrovertibly Brazilian treatments, like “Odo-Ya,” which features the great Bahian musician Carlinhos Brown, or the lovely, taut “Catavento,” on which Mendes’s wife, Gracinha Leporace, sings to the funky squeak-squeak of the cuica drum.

Mendes, who at this point has come to incarnate the international artist par excellence, admits to an intention of homecoming. “It’s the music I grew up with, so it’s very natural for me to want to play Brazilian music,” he says, as if this were a matter of doubt. “I decided to go down there to record this album to capture that feeling, the percussion from Rio and Salvador, and the diversity.”

It’s true that Brazilian music consists of numerous regional styles and energies, and even as “Encanto” connects these with other international genres, it does a good job reflecting that variety. Opinions of the specific treatments will vary, as tends to be the case with a record with so many guests: While Cole’s delivery of “Somewhere in the Hills” is unimpeachable and Ledisi’s “Waters of March” alluring, not everyone might feel the same way about will.i.am’s rap interlude on “Agua de Beber.”

Those who remember Mendes best from his fruitful period, in the late 1960s and early-’70s, with the band Brasil ‘66 (later rechristened Brasil ‘77 to mark the passage of time), will take note of one song, “Dreamer,” which features Alpert and singer Lani Hall. It invokes an item of back story: Hall was for a time the lead vocalist in Mendes’s band, and they recorded for Alpert’s label.

It’s been claimed that bad blood ensued when Hall left the band and went on to marry Alpert. “That’s a total myth,” Mendes says. Nevertheless, this is a reunion as well as the first time that Alpert and Mendes actually appear together on the same recording. Mendes says he’s been friends with the pair all along and got the idea this time to invite them onto his album out of the blue.

Their presence, amid a roster that skews in other respects toward a younger, multicultural pop coterie, serves as a reminder of another constant in Mendes’s career. More perhaps than anyone else, he has convened a conversation between Brazilian and international artists that has continued across generations, spanning from Cannonball Adderley and Sarah Vaughan to hip-hop and Latin rock stars of today.

The enduring allure of Brazil plays a part here, as does the vitality of the great bossa nova songs and their amenability to reinterpretation. So, too, do the good humor and party feel that so many associate with Brazilian music, and that is unabashedly on display in “Encanto” – a summer album for sure, with the easy draw of beach reading.

But it’s taken the perseverance of a Mendes to move the conversation forward, and today he’s enjoying the emotional reward. “It’s a joy,” he says, “to have a new generation around the world accepting and participating in singing these songs with me.”

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