EXCLUSIVE: Sergio Mendes Talks 'A Night in Rio', Duke Ellington and will.i.am

Brazilian jazz legend Sergio Mendes performs at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center in Atlanta.  (Photo Credit: DJ Blak Magic)

Brazilian jazz legend Sergio Mendes performs at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center in Atlanta.
(Photo Credit: DJ Blak Magic)

After five decades, the legendary Sergio Mendes happily remains on the cutting edge of music. The proud Brazilian attributes his sound – a bold, imaginative hybrid of jazz, funk, samba, bossa nova, pop, African rhythms, R&B and soul — to having a “fantastic and very unique” heritage.

He has received three Grammys, earned an Academy Award nomination and has released well over 50 albums. With his signature dimples and a pearly million dollar smile, Mendes can easily drop the name of an incredible musician, percussionist or a singer – especially if it’s jazz — from either Brazil, the United States or anywhere in between.

“It’s a natural attraction to have. It’s such a respect and love for the other. I’m always looking for something new, something bold and something different to do. I like to learn. That’s what excites me,” says Mendes with a charming Portuguese accent.

Mendes relaxes with his legs crossed in a backstage green room at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre (October 26). While pianist Eliane Elias opens the show, titled “A Night in Rio,” Mendes, also a double Latin Grammy winner, admires the beauty of the venue.

Taking the stage for two hours sitting elevated behind his keyboard, Mendes is blessed to have longevity. The musician’s unprecedented brand of generational crossover pop hits, whether solo or with his ensemble, Brasil ’66, include “The Look of Love,”  “Fool on the Hill,” “Scarborough Fair,”  “Mas Que Nada” and “Never Gonna Let You Go.”

Even at 72-years-old, Mendes admits to having anxiety before performing live. “Everytime I do it or record something, it’s music that’s in my blood. It’s natural for me to do that. It’s a good positive thing, but I just want people to have a good time and enjoy the music,” says Mendes bouncing a wine glass full of ice on his knee.

The bandleader’s 2006 effort, Timeless, features diverse cameo appearances from Q-Tip, India.Arie, John Legend, Jill Scott, Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, Mr. Vegas, Ledisi, Black Thought, Justin Timberlake and Pharoahe Monch. “It was a wonderful encounter. I was very lucky to meet all of those people,” recalls Mendes.

Those recording sessions are also where Mendes and will.i.am hit it off. “Great kid. Wonderful. We got along great. We’re very good friends. He has his own energy and vision. He brought [a new component] very fresh ideas,” says Mendes.

Currently scoring the sequel to Rio due in 2014, Mendes joyfully gets the audience on its feet. Performing in support of Larry Rosen’s Jazz Roots series, Mendes, trained as a classical pianist as a kid, hopes younger artists and performers are equally as passionate about knowing and learning the history of music.

“It’s very important to listen to not only Top 40 radio but to go back and listen to the old masters. Listen to Duke Ellington, Charlie “Bird” [Parker], Horace Silver, Cole Porter, [George] Gershwin. Listen to everything. Go deeper,” says Mendes delicately.

This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, a pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.

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