June 18, 2018 / 8:44 PM

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Sergio Mendes Brings Brazil to Fore on 'Magic' with Guest Appearances from Seu Jorge, Carlinhos Brown and More [Music Times Exclusive]


Sérgio Mendes has an enormous discography after more than 55 years in the music business. Forward-thinking at the time, the Brazilian icon timestamped his albums to help future fans keep things straight: Brasil '65, Vintage 74, Sergio Mendes and The New Brasil '77 and Brasil '86 serve as handy bookmarks for reference (although Brasil '88 throws a monkey wrench in the system, arriving ten years early). So what does Brasil '14 sound like?

"Exactly that," the pianist declares with a laugh when describing his newest album, actually titled Magic.

Fans across the last decade have come to recognize one detail that keeps Mendes' music modern: popular guest stars. The jazz musician began a running relationship with The Black Eyed Peas when recording his 2006 album Timeless, which made a new hit with a cover version of his already classic "Mas Que Nada." Peas' frontman will.i.am returned to help produce "My My My My Love" for Magic, Janelle Monae contributes vocals to "Visions of You" and John Legend guest stars on "Don't Say Goodbye" (although Mendes took care of the keyboard in this case).

Although the new record doesn't actually go by the name of "Brasil '14," Mendes does make sure that his home country gets the attention it deserves. Names like Legend and Monae will hopefully lure American attention to a collage of Brazilian guest stars that pepper Magic's tracklisting. Names such as Seu Jorge, Milton Nascimento and Carlinhos Brown are already well-established in the Land of The Palms but deserve more investigation from listeners up north.

It's a role Mendes has been playing for years. Chris McGowan, author of The Brazilian Music Book, cites him as one of the most influential musicians from the nation, at least in terms of delivering its music to the world. 

"He is arguably the single greatest popularizer of Brazilian music worldwide-even more so than Stan Getz—because of the number, breadth and success of Sergio's recordings," he says. "Many foreign listeners, including musicians, were introduced to the songs of Caymmi, [Jorge] Ben, Milton Nascimento, Edu Lobo, Gilberto Gil, Marcos Valle and other prominent Brazilian composers on Sergio's albums"

As for the man himself? Fans already familiar with his seductive bossa nova rhythms won't be disappointed. He warms up the dance floor with tracks like opener "Simbora" and keeps things cool when slowing down for relaxed numbers such as "When I Fall In Love," featuring his wife andy frequent collaborator Gracinha Leporace on vocals. His own piano playing might not necessarily be as noticable as it was decades ago—due to electronic elements and other modern touches—but the groove confirms that this is a Mendes product regardless.

It is, of course, incorrect to nail Mendes down as strictly a jazz musician. Even before hip-hop and reggaeton tinged his work, bossa nova hardly qualified as purely jazz music. Magic does appear on the Okeh record label, a company employed as Sony's jazz arm in recent years. Genre labels aside, the pianist appreciated the Okeh experience because it allowed him freedom to travel to Brazil to work with his litany of guest stars.

"I had to travel to Brazil...I went to Bahia to work with Carlinhos Brown and all my guests," said Mendes, who now lives in Los Angeles. "Supportive and I'm very happy to be there."

The Brazilian contributions were a must considering the current spotlight in which the nation finds itself. It sits sandwiched between two colossal events—the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, which will be hosted by Rio de Janeiro—that offer a chance to expand Brazil's cultural and musical influence around the globe as international viewers and listeners tune in.

Along those lines, many raised a stink when the official song for the World Cup, "We Are One (Ole Ola)," was performed by New Yorker Jennifer Lopez and Miami-born rapper Pitbull. Brazilian pop star Claudia Leitte also appeared but it wasn't enough to stem the flow of complaints from irritated nationals. They could have taken solace in Mendes' "One Nation"—which was also released on the One Love, One Rhythm: The 2014 FIFA World Cup Official Album—for some homegrown flavor from the pianist and Carlinhos Brown. The same song closes out Magic triumphantly.

The passion for his homeland's music had to tide Mendes over as his nation's soccer team fell following an injury to star Neymar da Silva Santos. The performer, who released the album Pelé during 1978 as a tribute to the athletic icon, suffered an unfortunate coincidence the night of Brazil's elimination game: He was performing in Berlin as the German national team (and eventual champions) dissected the Seleção 7-1. Watching the populace dance to his music, Mendes couldn't hold a grudge.

"Of course I was sad but that's life, you know?" he reflected. "But then we played 'Mas Que Nada' and we had the whole German crowd dancing to our music. We still won."

Mendes claims that touring is all that's on his mind right now, following Magic's release on September 9. But you just know he'll want to represent Brazil in song come the Olympics.

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