Blame it On Rio

Posted July 9, 2009 in Music

While pop music in the mid-1960s was being roiled by the feverish insurgence of the British Invasion and the fiery soul of Stax and Motown, a new strain of exotic rhythms managed to slip in through the back door and quickly exert a powerful hold over the mainstream American ear. It was the boys from Brazil—Antonio Carlos Jobim, Gilberto Gil and Sergio Mendes—who collectively represented an irresistible three-headed monster, and each had the good fortune to align themselves with some formidable American talent. While Jobim had Sinatra and Gil teamed memorably with saxist Stan Getz, it was Mendes and A&M Records head-hitmaker Herb Alpert who really struck gold. Exploiting a fascination with the sound that first took root here via 1959’s Best Foreign Film Oscar winner Black Orpheus, Alpert and Mendes’ partnership resulted in an impressive new musical fusion that resulted in a string of top ten and top twenty chart hits. Whether it was a stone, sung in Portuguese samba like “Mas Que Nada,” or Mendes’ brilliant reworking of Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love,” his records were uniformly arresting.


Colorful, dynamic, anchored by a true jazz head and deeply rooted in the intoxicating primal rhythms of the carnaval, Sergio Mendes’ music ranged from communicative introspection to steaming funkenized syncopation to his signature high gloss Brasil ’66 pop, music so blindingly well crafted that it verged on a quasi psychedelic state. While still often lumped in with the kitschy retro cocktail lounge set, there was nothing contrived about Mendes’ fusion. Born February 11, 1941, in Niteroi, Brazil, Mendes was a classically trained pianist who, by his late teens, was already caressing the ivories in jazz clubs throughout the country. With the valuable stewardship of Jobim, the pair helped ignite the sinuous new bossa nova style, and Mendes additionally benefited from frequent opportunities to stretch out with just about every American jazz player who came through the region. By the early 1960s, with his Sexteto Bossa Rio, Mendes was a regular on the international circuit and here in America, where he could also be found in recording studio collaborations with the forward-looking likes of Herbie Hancock and Cannonball Adderley. 


After relocating to the U.S. in 1965, two short-lived stints with Capitol and Atlantic proved fruitless, but when Mendes moved to A&M Records, all that changed. At A&M, Herb Alpert was already spinning gold from Latin rhythms, both his own Tijuana Brass and the label’s Baja Marimba Band, yet once Mendes’ debut platter and the break out single “Mas Que Nada” hit the airwaves in 1966, A&M’s hue went from gold to platinum. Taken into orbit by vocalist Lani Hall’s clarion pipes (oddly enough, the Chicago-born singer had mastered the lyrics phonetically) the song was an infectious and inescapable confection and ignited a wildly prestigious run, taking the band to appearances on the Academy Awards and visits to both the Johnson and Nixon-occupied White House.


Mendes seemed incapable of a misstep and over the next several years, transforming rock numbers like “The Fool on the Hill” into sleek, fast moving paragons of groove; he and Brasil 66 were indisputably the biggest thing to come out of Rio, eventually outstripping even his mentor Jobim in worldwide prominence. Even after public tastes changed in the ensuing decades, Mendes constantly updated and enhanced his style, consecutively re-titling the band through its ’77, ’88, ’99 and 2000 editions. While sales may not have been what they once were, the music itself only broadened and deepened. The man, after all, is an artist, not a bubblegum salesman, and as unforgettably delightful as his fizzy hey-day hits were, Mendes’ soul-deep involvement and technical mastery have created an impressive stack of ideal records.


Hardly a relic—his 2008 Encanto album featured contributions from Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, John Legend, India.Aria, Jill Scott—Mendes also jumped into another intriguing mix when he and the Black Eyed Peas cooked up a wild new version of “Mas Que Nada,” resulting in a potent earful that became a Top Ten U.K. hit in 2006. Untrammeled and unpredictable, when Mendes takes his seat on the piano bench, only one thing is certain: you’ll witness a spontaneous combustion of lovingly rendered and boundlessly creative music. 


Sergio Mendes at the Soboba Arena at the Soboba Casino, 23333 Soboba Road, San Jacinto, (866) 4-SOBOBA; Fri., July 10. 8PM.


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