Nearly 80, Sergio Mendes is still vital and innovative and, because of that, thriving. His recording career began in 1961. Since then, the composer-keyboardist has garnered hit records, Grammy Awards and, most importantly, the respect of his peers across the musical rainbow. For example, Justin Timberlake, John Legend and the Black Eyed Peas collaborated with him on his 2006 recording Timeless.
How resilient and relevant has Mendes remained in the new century? His 39th album, Celebration: A Musical Journey stamped an exclamation point on his 50 years as a recording artist, a career which blasted off with recordings in Rio de Janeiro with Antonio Carlos Jobim, a man he regarded as a mentor and the world of music recognizes as a genius.
Even if they didn’t know who they were listening to way back when - and many did - people tapped their feet, snapped their fingers and basked in the light of his group’s (Brazil 66) bright bossa sound. Sergio Mendes was world music before there was world music.
His current ensemble covers several of the classic songs in the Bossa Nova repertoire, which sound as if they had been recorded last week. His set also included his huge hit Never Gonna Let You Go, his Beatles tribute Fool On The Fool and some fresher material. Credit Mr. Mendes, definitely no fool on the hill, for assembling a band of aces, most of them half his age or less.
Oakland rapper H2O and the band’s arranger, Scott Mayo (on sax), flanked the maestro sitting at his keyboard in a dynamic Three Musketeers presentation. Mendes beamed, a monarch surveying his paradise. His wife Gracinha and L.A. vocalist Katie Hampton flashed with dazzlingly impressive vocalese duets, sonic gymnastics, in the style of the great Jon Hendricks, which complemented the music brilliantly.
Mayo’s soothing flute whirls evoked the swaying palms and balmy breezes of Rio beaches, while H2O’s muscular paeans to Mendes energized the ageless delighted maestro, nattily attired in a Panama-style hat and sport coat.
Samba and Bossa are Brazil’s heralded twin musical exports. And rightly so. However, the band’s irrepressible percussionist Gibi, from Afro-centric Bahia in northeastern Brazil, was the showstopper with a whimsical virtuosic percussion-keyboard duet (with Mendes). He effortlessly and masterfully squeezed, tapped and jingled his unique instruments - cuica, pandeiro and clackers - elevating percussion to the center-stage status it deserves but is seldom accorded.
Opening the show, Bebel Gilberto, Brazilian royalty by virtue of her illustrious parents (her dad Joao, one of the creators of Bossa Nova; her mom, Miucha, a celebrated singer herself and her poet and singer-songwriter uncle, Chico Buarque), seduced the sold out crowd with her sultry voice and witty sensual intimacy. Two Berklee School of Music graduates, guitarist Guilherme Monteiro and drummer Leo Costa (doing double duty with Mendes), in a sort of homecoming, provided enchanting accompaniment to a set of dreamy rapturous tunes that massaged and tranquilized the keen assemblage.
Mr. Mendes and Ms. Gilberto, Boston thanks you for an evening of Bossa bliss. And Bossa Nova… Happy 60th Anniversary. You sound marvelous.