Sérgio Mendes (Courtesy of forgotten-hits60s.com)
Sérgio Mendes (Courtesy of forgotten-hits60s.com)

In the late 1950s, a new music sound emerged from Brazil called bossa nova, a blend of samba and jazz.

Two Brazilian musicians/composers who jumped on board with bossa nova were João Gilberto and Antônio Carlos Jobim. Jobim took Sérgio Mendes under his wing in 1959. Bebel Gilberto, a Brazilian-American singer and actress, is the daughter of João Gilberto.

Mendes and Bebel took audiences down memory lane, delivering a 60-year history of bossa nova during their recent concert at Strathmore Music Hall in Bethesda, Md. This was the first stop on their global tour.

Bebel opened with what could be called a stripped-down, or “unplugged,” set in which she was accompanied by only a guitarist and drummer/percussionist. She performed what one might call the Jobim songbook, opening with “Wave,” one of Jobim’s most popular hits. Bebel, backed by her duo, seamlessly moved to other Jobim compositions including “Corcovado,” “Doralice” and “Desafinado.”

During a pause in between songs, Bebel spoke about the preparation for the 60-year celebration of bossa nova.

“Tonight is a very nervous night for me, because I am performing songs I have never played before,” Bebel told the audience, admitting she had sung the songs only at home. “We’ve just started rehearsing two days ago.”

The audience applauded after her comment, showing that she was performing better than she thought. In tribute to her late parents, Bebel’s mother, Miúcha, a respected singer who died in December, and her father, João, who died in June, she sang “Just One of Those Things.” The arrangement of the Cole Porter song had a light bossa nova flavor, so adding it to the set did not feel out of place. Bebel’s 17-song set was the perfect appetizer for Sergio Mendes’ continuation of the bossa nova lesson.

It’s hard to believe Mendes is 78 years old. He and his group were high-energy. There was no announcer voiceover introduction. They just started playing to an audience that immediately got into the groove. The Mendes set opened with his compositions “Magalenha” followed by “Waters of March” both well-known to the Strathmore audience.

In his dialogue with the audience, Mendes spoke about being mentored by Jobim and what led to the American dream of success in the music industry.

“We came to New York in 1962,” Mendes told the audience. “We were performing with others like Astrud Gilberto,” best known for her vocals on the Jobim hit, “Girl from Ipanema” recorded with saxophonist Stan Getz.

Mendes’ approach to bossa nova adds more brass and funk rhythms. Much of his success came from taking those rhythms and laying them over American pop and R&B songs. Fans of Mendes got to know him through his 1960s group, Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66. Lovers of Brazilian music latched onto that mid-1960s group and their albums filled with bossa nova-flavored versions of songs such as “Scarborough Square,” “Going Out of My Head,” “Day Tripper” and “The Look of Love.”

Always staying current by surrounding himself with talented producers, lyricists, musicians and singers, Mendes has released 55 albums that have spawned crossover hits like “Never Gonna Let You Go.” That 1983 Billboard chart-topper was a detour from bossa nova-tinged music. It was performed during their recent concert.

In 2006, he collaborated with will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas to produce the album “Timeless” with appearances from John Legend, Q-Tip and Justin Timberlake. The LP included a hip-hop version of Mendes’ early hit “Mas Que Nada.” His group performed the song in one of their two encores at Strathmore featuring rapper Harrell Harris-H20.

Bossa nova is still fresh. That was affirmed by the Mendes/Bebel concert. As audiences around the world take in the tour, I am sure they will agree.

Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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