Sergio Mendes (Barbican, 15 Nov, EFG LJF 2023)

“Play the music that lies within your heart,. Be open-minded, spontaneous and courageous,” says Sergio Mendes. Expect the warmth of Brazil on a November night in London…perhaps even “a mini Rio de Janeiro carnival when he performs at the Barbican in the 2023 EFG London Jazz Festival on 15 November. Preview feature by John Stevenson.

Sergio Mendes. Photo credit Tommy Honan.

Dressed in a lime green shirt and sporting his trademark glowing smile, veteran pianist and composer Sergio Mendes comes across as the essence of cool on a Zoom call from his home in Southern California.

He is one of the headliners of the EFG London Jazz Festival on 15 November and patrons to the show can expect to be treated to a mini Rio de Janeiro carnival, replete with lively rhythms, vibrant musical colours, and above all, joy, the quality most associated with the 82-year-old Brazilian leader.

Sergio is no stranger to London having performed several times over the years in the capital, most notably opening for Frank Sinatra at the Royal Albert Hall in 1980.

Born into a music loving family in Niteroi, he took piano lessons as a child, nourished by jazz, bossa nova, samba and myriad music genres swirling around him while he was growing up. He has also been strongly influenced by the jazz musicians he encountered in his youth, such as Dizzy Gillespie and Cannonball Adderley to mention a few.

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He was fortunate to have landed his first gig in the United States in 1962 with a performance at New York City’s Carnegie Hall with the Bossa Rio Sextet.

America’s pull proved irresistible in the end; soon after the Brazilian military coup of 1964, Sergio returned Stateside, eventually settling in Los Angeles.

He first formed the group Brasil ‘65 which met with limited commercial success. His fortunes soon changed dramatically with the album Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 which went platinum on account of the Jorge Ben song, ‘Mas que Nada’.

Numbered among his hit songs and covers through the years are ‘Never Gonna Let You Go’, ‘Cinnamon and Clove’, ‘O Pato’, ’Agua de Beber’, ‘Bim Bom’ and ‘Fool on the Hill’.

Sergio Mendes and Leo Costa. Photo credit Tommy Honan.

Sergio has a knack for reinventing himself and being part of the zeitgeist. In 2006, he released Timeless, produced by will.i.am and featuring the contemporary musical influences of hip hop, reggaeton and neo soul alongside samba and bossa nova. Guest artists on this foray into pop culture included Q-Tip, Justin Timberlake and John Legend.

Coinciding with John Scheinfeld documentary of the same name, 2020 saw the release of In the Key of Joy, a wonderful resume of Sergio’s collective 60-year oeuvre.

Nominated for several Grammy and Latin Grammy Awards over the years, Sergio won the 1993 Best World Music Album award with Brasileiro. He was the recipient of the 2005 Latin Grammy (Lifetime Achievement Award) and the 2010 Latin Grammy for Best Brazilian Contemporary Pop Album for Bom Tempo.

In 2012, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song as co-writer of the song “Real in Rio” from the animated film Rio.

Sergio says he takes his inspiration from beautiful songs and melodies:

“For me, the song is the most important thing. I love many songs from across the eras including those written by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Stevie Wonder and many more. I have also loved and been inspired by jazz instrumentalists such as Bud Powell, Horace Silver and Thelonious Monk”.

The music industry has undergone phenomenal change over the past 30 years.

With the decline of all-powerful record labels and the digitisation of music, what advice does a 70-year veteran of the music industry offer young musicians eager to make their mark in an ever-crowded 21st century music arena?

“Play the music that lies within your heart,. Be open-minded, spontaneous and courageous”.

Performing alongside Sergio at the Barbican will be a stellar cast of singers and musicians. They are (Sergio’s wife) Gracinha Leporace and Katie Hampton on vocals; saxophonist and flautist Scott Mayo; drummer Leo Costa; percussionist Gibi Dos Santos; guitarist Kleber Jorge Pimenta, and bass guitarist Andre De Santanna

It will be surefire way to beat London’s November chill with potent Brazilian cheer.

LINK: Barbican bookings/ (NB sold out / returns only)

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