By Danny R. Johnson/Jazz and Pop Music Critic
LOS ANGELES–Sérgio Mendes, the prolific Brazilian composer, band leader, songwriter, pianist, and educator, has been at the very apex of the Brazilian music scene since the 1960s and, like his great contemporaries Antônio Carlos Jobim, Chico Buarque, and Jorge Ben
The album features an all-star cast of special guests including Academy Award winner Common, Cali y El Dandee, João Gilberto, Buddy, Sugar Jones, Joe Pizzulo, Gracinha Leporace, Hermeto Pascoal, Rogé, Guinga and Sheléa.
According to Concord Records, the released is to coincide with a spectacular new documentary on his life by acclaimed filmmaker John Scheinfeld (Chasing Trane, Who Is Harry Nilsson?), “In the Key of Joy” melds the classic Brazilian, jazz and pop sounds that have long characterized Mendes’ music with stunningly contemporary inspirations that make the album sound at once utterly timeless and wholly of the moment.
Mendes’ musical virtuosity comes swinging through as he continues to grow in experimenting with new rhythms and Afro-Brazilian projections. The foundation of the album is a rhythm section that has a fascinating dynamic range—softly haunting in some passages rising to a fabulous eruptive power as the drummer, Leo Costa; percussionists, Carlinhos Brown, Gibi, Mika Mutti, Pretinho da Serrinha, Pedrinho da Serrinha, Jorge Quininho and the bassist, Andre de Santanna, build climaxes that can all but take you to another stratosphere!
“This album is all about joy and celebration,” Mendes says. “I’m very curious, and I love to work with different people from different cultures, different countries, different generations and different styles.”
To accompany the documentary’s wide-angle perspective on Mendes’ sweeping history, the Deluxe Edition of “In the Key of Joy” includes the soundtrack to the film, a career-spanning overview that encompasses the greatest moments from Mendes’ musical life. From the unforgettable Brazil ’66 classic “Mas Que Nada” to Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love,” which Mendes memorably performed on the 1968 Academy Awards telecast; collaborations with will.i.am and the dazzling, soulful “Never Gonna Let You Go,” the disc offers an essential primer on Mendes’ ability to place his indelible imprint on multiple styles of music across the decades.
On the “Bora La” track featuring Rogé and Leporace, are joined with Mendes and the ensemble to form a vocal ensemble at some points but, for the most part, create a vocally instrumental duo in front of the rhythm section. Mendes, at the piano and with some serious acrobatic keyboard interjections, acts as the focus around whom the whole group explodes.
The emphasis of “In the Key of Joy” is to resonate a style, which is a mixture of bossa nova rhythm with a remarkably effective combination mingled with very clean, positive passages by Mendes on piano, with heavy emphasis on funk, mixing it with samba and the music of his Afro-Brazilian roots.
Unlike rock, which never did and never will sit easily with subtle rhythms and versatility of the Brazilian musical imagination, the fit between funk and Mendes’ Afro-Brazilian beat is so close you can’t see the seams. Everything in this album is built around a tight percussion unit, with two sets of drums and an array of African and Brazilian percussion instruments. Tight brass sits over the fast, choppy rhythm, while Common’s rap stretches phrases for the percussion to weave around, to hypnotic and riveting effect in the opening “Sabor Do Rio” selection.
For Mendes, “In the Key of Joy” is a chance to look back on the early years of bossa nova and its birthplace, Rio, which is the universal epicenter of samba and bossa nova. As it has since his Brazil ’66 days, Mendes’ lineup featured two terrific female singers—Los Angeles based Katie Hampton, and his wife, the fabulous Gracinha Leporace, who has been part of his sound since the ’70s. The two women are featured on a number of selections on the album with various degrees of success. But I admit Leporace’s vocal contribution to this project has made the album most appealing because she uses her voice as an effective musical instrument to convey the Brazilian traditional storytelling. Leporace’s voice somehow combined technical perfection, control and pitch with an unrivalled capacity to project emotion, both happiness and pain.
Mendes’ most significant contribution is bringing great Brazilian music to other parts of the world. The songs on this album is a celebration of Brazil and the artists such as the likes of Edu Lobo, Gilberto Gil, Dori Caymmi, and João Donato, composers whose work he championed, in addition to Jorge Ben Jor.
By the time you get half way through this album, Mendes would have sprung into his distinctive pumped up piano adrenalin as in the “Catch The Wave” selection, and will have you up, dancing and singing along “In the Key of Joy” rhapsody and bossa nova exhilaration.
For additional information on the “In the Key of Joy” album and Sergio Mendes, go to the website https://www.sergiomendesmusic.com