Sérgio Mendes is back in action. The prolific king of bossa nova is heading to Northern Virginia this Thursday, April 14 to play The Birchmere with his wife Gracinha Leporace and band. On Sunday, I had the opportunity to chat with the Grammy Award-winning musician just minutes before his first rehearsal in two years. He spoke with sheer joy about his return to live performances, reminisced about playing Carter Barron Amphitheater years ago, walked me through some of his favorite moments with mentor and composer Antônio Carlos Jobim and artist Herb Alpert, and shared the secret to staying sane during a pandemic. Read on for more gems from the Brazilian legend, and don’t miss his performance in the DMV later this week.
District Fray: Are you excited to be performing live again?
Sérgio Mendes: It’s unbelievable after being home for two years to go back and play again and do concerts, which I’ve been doing all my life. It’s a great feeling to come to a place like The Birchmere, which we’ve played before and is gorgeous. It’s very exciting — for me, for the band, for everybody. It’s just a pleasure to go out and work and play again.
I read a recent interview where you said you and your wife kept each other sane during Covid, which is rare because I think most couples drove each other crazy after being stuck at home together for so long. What’s your secret?
We have a son who lives with us. He’s 28 years old. So it was a good balance between the three of us. We adapted to each other — readapted — and we didn’t have any serious problems or anything like that. It was pretty smooth sailing — some laughs, sometimes some screaming. But overall, it was pretty good.
Were you writing music at home or did you take a little bit of a creative break?
Not really, no. I didn’t feel like playing. I didn’t feel like playing at all. It was so sad — the whole world tragedy to have a pandemic like that and people in Brazil dying everywhere and getting sick. Today is the first time we’re going to rehearse in about two years. After I speak to you, we’re going to get together with the band and rehearse again and start over again.
I’d love to hear a little bit about your 2020 album “In the Key of Joy,” which features contemporary artists like John Legend, Common and will.i.am. What inspired those collaborations?
I’m very curious and always try to do something new, something innovative, something fresh. I really enjoy doing that: working with different people from different cultures and different ages. It’s exciting. It’s very creative. It’s a great way to collaborate in music.
Are there any up-and-coming musicians with bossa nova influences who you are particularly interested in or enjoy?
I like the classics. I’m a big Carlos Jobim fan. He was my friend and my mentor. There’s a lot of young kids in Brazil writing great music. But I’d say Jobim is my favorite composer: the father of the bossa nova.
Are there any collaborations on your bucket list? Is there anyone you’d love to either tour with or write a song with in the future?
Those things, they happen very organically. I love the word serendipity. My life has been a series of that.
What makes bossa nova music universal and timeless?
I think the great melodies. Brazilian music has several components. It’s very sensual. It’s very rhythmical. It’s very melodical. When you hear “Quiet Nights” or “Ipanema” or those songs, they just stay with you. There’s a tremendous melodical force — and then the rhythms and the excitement and the romantic part. I’s very different, Brazilian music. It’s very, very different than other styles.
Your fanbase transcends age. It seems to be very multigenerational.
Absolutely. Brasil ’66 — that was a few years ago. Now, I’ve got all the fans from my recent albums: things I did with will.i.am, with John Legend, all those great musicians. There’s a whole young generation that follows us, too.
Can you share a time in your career that was really pivotal, where you knew you’d hit your stride and truly made it as a bossa nova artist?
I think when I heard my song on the radio, “Mas Que Nada,” back in ’66. Wow, what a great feeling when you hear your song on the radio in the United States and then all over the world. What keeps me moving is the desire to play, to perform, to create and to travel — all those things.
Can you share a favorite memory of Jobim and/or Alpert?
In my early years in Brazil, I used to work with a nightclub in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro. It was called called Bottles Bar. That was the place where bossa nova started in Rio de Janeiro, and the musicians used to get together — and just [made] wonderful music, wonderful melodies. Jobim was the guy. He was like our Cole Porter. He was our great, great, great composer and we became friends. When I recorded my first album there, I had an instrumental band and he wrote arrangements for me — great, great memories of him. Then he came here and, again, we worked together. And Herb Alpert is the man — him and Jerry Moss — who really I started my career [with] in the United States and in the world. They were just starting A&M Records and they invited me to join them and I went on tour with Herb & The Tijuana Brass. We’re still very close friends. It was the best memories with them two.
I grew up listening to bossa nova, and one of my absolute favorites is Elis Regina singing “Águas de MarçoI.”
Oh, yeah yeah yeah.
Who would you say is your favorite female bossa nova artist?
My wife, Gracinha Leporace. You’re going to see her. She’s my favorite — my muse.
How long have you been together?
50 years? Wow, that’s amazing.
The only thing that can survive a pandemic is 50 years.
Don’t miss Sérgio Mendes at The Birchmere on Thursday, April 14 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $69.50. Learn more about the king of bossa nova here, check out the trailer for his 2021 documentary “Sergio Mendes: In The Key of Joy” here, and follow him on Instagram and Facebook.
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