BRAZILIAN-BORN PIANIST AND BANDLEADER Sérgio Mendes has captivated listeners internationally through five-and-a-half decades of live shows and more than 40 records. He made his U.S. debut as part of a legendary 1962 bossa nova concert at Carnegie Hall, then achieved worldwide pop fame with the smooth sounds of Brasil ’66. And he’s continued to reinvent himself musically with releases such as 2006’s Timeless, which features collaborations with the Black Eyed Peas, Justin Timberlake, India.Arie, and others.
Now Mendes is back to enchant audiences again with 2014’s Magic, which includes such guests as John Legend,, and famed Brazilian singer/songwriter Milton Nascimento. All Access caught up with Mendes recently at his home in Los Angeles to learn how this master musician casts his spells.

Tell us about your new record. What makes it magical?
I call it “the magic of the encounter.” Being able to work with all these people, and collaborate with them on writing songs, was a wonderful experience. And in a way, my life has been much like that. The people I’ve met, the people that I’ve worked with—the whole process has been wonderful. I’ve had a great time working with so many different people from different cultures, different countries. John Legend,, Janelle Monáe, and some Brazilian guests as well. And I have Paul Jackson, Jr. playing guitar and Alphonso Johnson playing bass. It’s that combination, those encounters with great musicians interpreting a wonderful melody.

Which of your many albums mean the most to you?
Each one has a special significance to me. The first one, of course, which I made in Brazil many years ago, was just two tracks. The records I made with Cannonball Adderley, the records I made with Brasil ’66—all of them are a part of my life.

What prompted you to relocate to the United States?
I first came to United States in 1962, when they had the bossa nova concert at Carnegie Hall. I had an instrumental band at the time called the Bossa Rio, with two trombones, a tenor saxophone, bass, drums, and myself. So I arrived for the first time in the United States, I’m a young kid, and I meet all those great musicians like Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie. I went to see Cannonball Adderley, and he invited me to make an album with him. Again, it was the magic of the encounter. And I said, “Wow, this is amazing!” Because I listened to jazz records in Brazil, and to be in New York and meet these people was such an incredible experience. So I decided to come back in ’64. I was just recently married, and I had a young kid, who is now 50 years old. [Laughs.]

mendes-sideBrasil ’66 was hugely popular. What made your sound so perfect for that time?
You know, I think the sound was very simple. Just two girls singing in unison. But the arrangements were very important. And most of all the songs, the melodies. I’m a melody person. So for me, you get a song like “Mas Que Nada,” which I recorded in ’66, and then again in 2006. It’s magical. I’m using that word again, but it’s true. The magic of the song is that the melody is so simple, but people can sing it all over the world. It’s the same with the great songs I’ve recorded by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Henry Mancini, Paul McCartney—they’re all about fantastic melodies. Because that’s the most important thing.

Herb Alpert was also a big part of Brasil ’66: he produced the band and released the record on his label, A&M.
Well again, I’m going to repeat the word: it’s the magic of the encounter. With Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, and with A&M, it’s been exactly that. They opened the first door for me being in the United States and recording, and he was a very good producer. And Herb had Tijuana Brass, which was a very important instrumental band, so we went out with them on tour. It was just fantastic working with him. We’re still very good friends, both him and Lani Hall, his wife, who was one of my singers in Brasil ’66.


And your own wife, Gracinha Leporace, has contributed to many of your projects, including your new album.
Yes. We first met in Brazil. She was singing with a Brazilian band, and she was like 17 years old. I saw her sing and just fell in love. And we’ve been together now for 45 years. How about that? It’s great working together, traveling together. Yeah, we have a lot of fun. It’s very natural and spontaneous, having the trust and the respect. And I love her voice. I think she has such a unique voice.

You play a Yamaha Motif XF8. What do you like about performing with this instrument?
It’s so versatile. I love the touch, and the great, great variety of sounds. I use a lot of the piano sounds on the Motif, of course. But it also gives me the possibility of having so many different textures—not only acoustic pianos, but also Rhodes and sounds like that. It’s a great instrument, and I use it all over the world. I’ve played Yamaha keyboards for a long time. I remember getting a CP70 many years ago: I went to Hamamatsu, Japan, to visit the Yamaha factory, and they gave me one as a present. So I’ve been playing Yamaha for a very long time, and I really enjoy it.

What’s next for you musically?
Right now I’m promoting the record. We have a show here in Los Angeles in October, and then I go to Hong Kong and Bangkok. And then I go to Brazil at the end of the year— every year we spend Christmas and New Year’s in Rio with the family. And then I’m touring again next year. So there are a lot of shows, and enjoying life!