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Bossa nova icon Sergio Mendes has credited the great success he’s enjoyed in his career to a range of unexpected music-related collaborations. “The surprise of the encounter,” he called them during a recent phone conversation. “For me,” he added, “to experience that encounter in the studio is so beautiful.”
Mendes’ new album of original songs and past hits, In the Key of Joy (Concord Records), is a forward-looking celebration of his six decades in music that once again affords the 78-year-old composer, keyboardist and vocalist ample opportunities to indulge in spirited collaboration with a multi-generational roster of talented cohorts on a range of styles. The deluxe edition of the album is accompanied by a second disc — the soundtrack to a forthcoming John Scheinfeld-directed documentary about Mendes, also titled In the Key of Joy.
As a young man playing in small nightclubs in Rio in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Mendes, a classically-trained pianist, witnessed the birth of bossa nova while hobnobbing with Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, Baden Powell and other pioneering founders of the music. “It’s a part of my life that was so important,” he recalls. When Mendes moved to Los Angeles in 1964, he began playing a pivotal role in exporting bossa nova to the States. Two years later, Mendes and his ensemble Brasil ’66 scored their first hit with “Mas Que Nada.” Meanwhile, he continued to nurture his love of jazz and pop, transforming bossa nova’s hushed minimalism into a seductively effervescent sound, driven by chugging rhythms and melodic buoyancy. He collaborated with a wide array of giants, among them Cannonball Adderley, Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder. “I am very curious and open-minded as far as collaborating with different people and trying different genres of music,” he says. “I’m always searching for something new.”
In 2005 Mendes re-emerged from a 10-year lull when will.i.am approached him to make an album. The result was Timeless, a heady blend of Mendes’ hybrid brand of bossa, pop, mainstream hip-hop and sundry global trends.
Similarly, In the Key of Joy is an eclectic collection of lush Brazilian pop, lilting ballads, hip-hop and danceable urban beats created in collaboration with a diverse cast of fellow Brazilian legends (Hermeto Pascoal, João Donato, Guinga), modern-day hitmakers (Common) and emerging artists (Compton-based rapper Buddy). Singer Gracinha Leporace, Mendes’ wife of 48 years, is featured on three tracks, while The Voice alum Sugar Jones (whose father, Joe Pizzulo, along with Leeza Miller, sang lead on Mendes’ 1983 hit “Never Gonna Let You Go”) adds diaphanous vocals to “Samba In Heaven.” Pizzulo himself rejoins Mendes for “Love Came Between Us.”
“No scripts, no formulas, just intuition and joy,” Mendes says of the sessions that produced his latest outing. “It’s worthwhile to be alive and celebrate life.” —Lissette Corsa