Brazilian bandleader Sergio Mendes hits up Sonoma
Serendipity. It’s a word that crops up time and again for Sergio Mendes, as the renowned Brazilian bandleader tries to put his finger on how a kid from the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, suffering from a disabling bone disease that nearly cost him a leg, could grow up to become one of his country’s most internationally celebrated musicians.
Most longtime fans of Mendes, the pioneering keyboardist who helped bring bossa nova to the American mainstream in the 1960s, would credit his influential 60-year career to tireless hard work and no small amount of natural talent.
But not Mendes. Serendipity, insists the modest musician. Happy accidents.
“That’s the word I use, because my life has been so much like that,” said Mendes, 81, noting his good fortune at being among the first Brazilians to ever receive penicillin (his father was a doctor; it cured his bone disease) or to play Carnegie Hall and record with Cannonball Adderley early in his career. “Serendipity, that’s the story of my life.”
John Scheinfeld, however, sees a little more to the story than that. He’s the filmmaker behind such documentaries as “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” and “Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?,” along with a slew of other film projects focused on music legends like John Coltrane, Brian Wilson and Frank Sinatra.
His latest is “Sergio Mendes: In the Key of Joy,” which traces the life and times of the world-music luminary from his childhood in Brazil to his pop breakthrough as bandleader of Brasil ’66 to his latter day resurgence as a pop icon and influence upon some of the 21st century’s most celebrated composers.
The film makes its debut in Sonoma July 7, with a 6:15 p.m. screening at the Sebastiani Theatre.
“Sergio is a first-class musician. He arranges, he produces, he is an amazing keyboard player,” said Scheinfeld. “He has a style all his own - you can spot the difference between him and others.”
Scheinfeld describes Mendes as a “pioneer” in the way he combined the samba and bossa nova styles of his native Brazil with American pop and jazz to “really capture the attention of people in the U.S.” in the mid-1960s.
With the likes of Herb Alpert producing, Mendes and Brasil ’66 broke through in 1966 with their debut single, “Mas Que Nada,” which reached the top 50 in the U.S. Over the next four years, Mendes and the band enjoyed even greater success with Latin-funk versions of such ‘60s standards as “Fool on the Hill,” “Scarborough Fair” and “The Look of Love.”
“The sound is so fresh and so timeless,” Scheinfeld added, noting the many contemporary musicians who cite Mendes as a major influence. “It speaks to them. That’s a very rare thing.”
Much of “Key of Joy” is dedicated to Mendes’s imprint on such musicians as John Legend, Common, Quincy Jones and will.i.am, all of whom are featured in the film. (As are non-music-world fans such as Pele and Harrison Ford.)
One of Mendes’s favorite memories – another serendipitous moment – is the time will.i.am cold-called bossa legend at his house to introduce himself and suggest they collaborate on a record. According to the film, the Black Eyed Peas founder brought all his Sergio Mendes albums to the front door and said, “I’ve been listening to your records since I was 14 years old, I know every song you’ve recorded!”
Their collaboration resulted in the 2006 album, “Timeless,” which featured such guests as Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, John Legend, Q-Tip, Justin Timberlake and India.Arie, among others. A new version of “Mas que Nada,” recorded for the album with the Black Eyed Peas, went to No. 6 on the U.S. singles chart.
And Mendes wasn’t done. He received his third Grammy nomination in 2011 for his album “Bom Tempo” and a 2012 Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song for “Real in Rio” from the “Rio” soundtrack.
Even as his music career enters its sixth decade, Mendes likes to stay busy, continuing to collaborate with other musicians. “I’m always looking for something different to do,” Mendes said. “I like the adventure. Doing something with someone I never thought I would do.”
What it comes down to, said Scheinfeld, is that Mendes’s music makes people feel good. That, he adds, is why he called the film “The Key of Joy.”
“And it describes Sergio as a person,” Scheinfeld said. “He’s an upbeat person who loves life, travel, visiting other cultures. He approaches life and music with joy.”
Still, to Mendes, it’s about serendipity.
“You look at other great musicians who didn’t have that in life, either died very young or got into drugs,” Mendes said. “You can be very talented, but still nothing happens.”
In Mendes’s view, there is no formula for success. “It is serendipitous.” Your destiny is your destiny.
“When I look back,” concludes Mendes, “I was pretty lucky.”
Email Jason at Jason.email@example.com.