Sergio Mendes - Timeless(Concord Records)
Review by Brad WalsethHis music gentle as a summer breeze through the palms and smooth as the silky Rio sand that seemingly exists only for beautiful long-limbed and tan goddesses to stride through in the imaginations of all red-blooded males, Sergio Mendes arguably did more than anyone (including Stan Getz) in the 60's to introduce the American public to Brazilian music through his light jazz/pop combo - Brazil 66. Returning after an eight year absence with a new recording produced by erstwhile fan will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas, Mendes proves that his brand of tasty melodicism - contemporized adroitly by his younger producer - is indeed timeless.
With the Peas supplying the party favors, this hip-hop reworking of the classic Mendes sound is surprisingly successful, although the basically pedestrian raps (especially will.i.am's) generally mar rather than enhance the flow, neither taking the listener to any greater sensual heights, nor making the journey from the whitewashed tourist beaches under Corcovado to the dangerously nearby slums of the "City of God." There are exceptions of course - Mr. Vegas provides a riotous Dancehall shout out on the delightful "Bananeira," and rapper Q-Tip goofs his way through "The Frog," which hints at how the combination of rapping and light-hearted bossa silliness can work successfully.
On the flip side, perhaps the biggest complaint is that the production - which is mostly effective - and the overabundance of guest artists (aka Santanaism) sometimes overwhelm Mendes and his classy, tasteful playing and arrangements. His piano and Rhodes playing occasionally appear like a welcome breath of fresh air in a smoggy downtown street, yet are often buried under layers of elephunk beats. Only "Damba Da Bencao" features the jazzy Mendes (a well regarded sideman with Canonball Adderly among others in the early days) to a fuller extent and hints at what could have been with the pianist brought a little more front and center. Meanwhile, some of the guests enhance the proceedings - like the suddenly ubiquitous Stevie Wonder, whose virtuoso chromatic harmonica graces "Beribau/Consolacao," and the amazing Maogani Quartet - whose intricate acoustic guitar arrangements are a revelation on "Lamento (No Morro)." However, flavor of the month, John Legend's "Please Baby Don't," while catchy, is unexceptional, and Justin Timberlake's "Loose Ends" is soulful, but misplaced in this project. The female "star" vocalists - Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and India.Arie may fare even worse. Their vocals are fine and highly polished, yet pale in comparison to the entrancingly sexy singing supplied by Mendes' wife (and Brazil 200? lead singer) Gracinha Leporace (and background singer - Costa Rican born Debi Nova). The Americans have chops, especially in the R&B field, but Leporace and Nova clearly have the South American sun in their blood.
Overall, this recording improves upon repeated listening - creeping up on you like a slow toke of Jamaican Red - and will.i.am deserves credit for bringing an overlooked musical artist of the near past to the short attention span of today's youth. If Timeless results in hip-hoppers tuning in to Mendes' artistry (as well as that of other artists from those countries that exist somewhere down below our southern border), than it will be deemed successful. More importantly, I am hopeful that Mendes (and or a far-sighted record company) will be inspired to write and release more music - this time featuring his playing and writing (along with the singing of his talented wife) to full effect and without the added baggage of the so-called North American "stars." Clearly, Mendes gentle and pleasantly happy South American sounds are a nice break in these and any times (just try not smiling while listening to "E Menina (Hey Girl)"). I know that this recording is set to be one of my summer "sitting in the sun" discs - and you may want to give it a try.
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