Jun 03, 2021
By Jake Uitti
In the span of about six decades, the famed Brazilian composer and performer, Sérgio Mendes, has worked with Cannonball Adderly, Herb Alpert, Lani Hall, Quincy Jones, John Legend, Will.i.am, and many others. In each collaboration, Mendes brings his lighthearted, though thoughtful spirit to the music he produces. Indeed, this is the theme of the new documentary on the musician, Sérgio Mendes & Friends: A Celebration, which will air this month on PBS.
We caught up with the Brazilian-born Mendes to ask him about how he first found music, what it was like to grow up in Brazil, what it’s like for the 80-year-old to look back on his life in the new movie, and how he deals with doubt.
Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did you first find music as a young person?
Sérgio Mendes: I started learning classical music when I was about six or seven years old. My mother bought a piano. I had Osteomyelitis, the bone disease, and I couldn’t do the other things that the other boys were doing, like playing soccer. So, the piano came in. Classical music was my first encounter, playing Mozart, Bach, and Chopin. I liked that very much, so that’s when music first came to me.
What was your relationship to Brazil growing up in a sensory way, the sights, sounds, smells, and the beaches?
Brazil, it’s very sunny! It’s hot, it’s warm. Going to the beach, of course, is part of life everyday. I was living in a small town across the bay from Rio, called Niterói. So, going to the beach was part of life there. Once a year, we have Carnival and people celebrate life for a week. So, it’s a very festive, that kind of a celebratory culture where joy is something that people love. Things like soccer and music, you’re surrounded by them from the early years.
Is there a sense that music is treated differently in Brazil as more of a resource than a commodity?
It’s something that—I mean, I never thought about the word “commodity,” you know? But it’s part of life. You see a little kid playing a little tambourine and then there’s great [Brazilian] composers, too. So, music is in the blood of the people. But I think that’s the same here [in the United States], too. I mean, it’s different because growing up, you don’t have Carnival. But each culture, they have their own music. You do have your Carnival here in New Orleans, which is pretty much the same thing, actually. So, I think the difference has to be cultural. We had the Portuguese colonizers that came in and then the slaves that came in from Africa that brought all the fantastic rhymes. So, we have that in our music in Brazil.
As you were growing up, how did sounds like bossa nova, samba, and jazz swim in your brain?
Well, you know, samba is the main rhythm that we have in Brazil. That came from Africa. So, it’s the beat we have—it’s in Carnival music, it’s all over Brazil. Then there are other sources of music. Bossa nova was a period in the late ’50s and ’60s that saw incredible compositions and songs and melodies. Then there are some other rhythms that come from the north-eastern part—you know, Brazil is a huge country! From Recife and Bahia. It’s a very multi-cultural place. So, it’s hard to explain in words. But there are so many different things happening musically, which I think makes it different.
Watching the documentary, my thought was that you’re like a musical chef, mixing different flavors together. Do you ever feel that way?
[Laughs] That’s interesting! No, I’ve never thought about that. But, listen, when you put things together, when you’re an arranger, that’s what you do with the sounds, you combine sounds like a chef does with food. Combining the spices, how much of this, how much of that. Arranging, in a way, is like that. It’s a good title!
Quincy Jones in the documentary said something about you understanding the “gumbo.” That’s partially what made me think of it.
Oh, he did? The gumbo! The gumbo! Yeah, yeah.
What was it like for you to be a big star with Brasil 66? Was that hard, scary?
It was very joyful. I never thought about it in those terms, “Big star,” you know? That doesn’t come to your mind. You’re just enjoying the ride and the journey and the beautiful moments. It has been a fantastic 60 years playing music, and more than that. So, I celebrate and I’m thankful to God and to life for allowing me to do what I always loved to do.
You had such great chemistry with Herb Alpert over the years. Do you have a favorite memory working with him?
We’re very close friends, even to today, him and Lani [Hall]. We talk at least once a week. But he was responsible, really, when he invited me to join A&M, he was starting with the Tijuana Brass. He’d already had a big hit with the Tijuana Brass and A&M was an amazing, incredible record company. I had all the creative freedom to do anything I wanted to do, musically. So, it was very important for me when he invited me to join A&M. I think that’s a really significant chapter in my life.
What is it like to see your life in a documentary, to think so much about the past when, it seems, you’ve been such a forward-thinking person in your life?
I like it! Are you kidding, I appreciate it so much! When I saw the first cut and [director] John [Scheinfeld] showed me, it was a very emotional moment because now you’re reviewing your life, from childhood to growing up. All the travels and all of that. He did an incredible job putting it together.
How do you stay so positive? Do you experience doubt, and if so, how do you climb out of it?
Oh, yeah, like everybody else, you know? The last year and a half has been really dark. When you live through a pandemic and you see what’s happening all over the world, in Brazil and here in the United States, it’s a really very sad moment. I didn’t feel like playing, I didn’t feel like doing anything like that. I stayed home for a year-and-a-half for the first time in my life. So, yeah, it was a very somber moment. But we’re happy that right now things are getting much better. I’m fully vaccinated, so hope is back! My first show will be August 15th, here in L.A. at the Hollywood Bowl, which is a wonderful venue that I played many times. So, going back on the road in a great place. That’s a very joyous moment for me.
What do you love most about music?
The joy. And I like performing, I like playing, I like playing with the band. I like it very much. Composing, I also like that. Everything about the music is beautiful.