Brazilian music legend Sergio Mendes came roaring back in 2006 with Timeless, an unlikely collaboration with the Black Eyed Peas’s will.i.am. While some longtime Mendes fans winced at its heavy hip-hop influences, Timeless introduced a new generation of fans to Mendes’s unique blend of Brazilian and jazz sounds.
Following up that successful project, Mendes and will.i.am have reteamed to produce Encanto (Enchantment), a collection that relies less on hip hop and more on Mendes’s signature piano playing. While well-known artists such as Natalie Cole, Fergie, and Herb Alpert guest on the album, lesser-known (at least in America) international artists largely dominate Encanto. Latin superstar Juanes from Colombia; Carlinhos Brown and Vanessa da Mata from Brazil; Belgium’s Zap Mama; and Italian rapper Jovanotti are just a few of the talented artists that help Mendes rejuvenate many Brazilian classics.
“Odo-Ya” deftly merges samba with funk, accented with Brown’s smooth vocals. Another highlight is “Somewhere in the Hills (O Morro Nao Tem Vez),” featuring guest vocalist Natalie Cole. Cole’s jazzy style meshes perfectly with Mendes’s piano improvisation, making for a sensual samba.
Brasil ’66 fans will appreciate “Dreamer,” a reunion of sorts with Alpert (who discovered Mendes) and Alpert’s wife, Lani Hall, an original ’66 vocalist. While “Dreamer” may not hold up with Brasil ‘66’s classic catalog, it marks the welcome return of these Brazilian legends. “Morning in Rio” also harkens back to classic Mendes, with a touch of Alpert-like trumpet.
Interestingly two versions of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s classic “Waters of March” and “Y Vamos Ya (Let’s Go)” are included on the album. While this may seem excessive, the listener may enjoy hearing the songs in different languages and with slightly different feels. For example, the mainly instrumental version of “Y Vamos Ya” leans toward jazz, while Juanes’s vocal take propels the song into the pop category.
This being a will.i.am production, Encanto includes the obligatory Fergie guest vocal. Unfortunately she cannot do justice to the classic “The Look of Love,” which includes new lyrics and a slightly altered refrain. Fergie may attract new, younger fans, but they will hopefully stick around for the superior tracks on the album. Will.i.am fares better with “Funky Bahia” and a remake of “Agua de Beber,” which most resemble the hip-hop feel of Timeless. The latter song features altered lyrics and a heavier beat, but Mendes’s sublime piano remains front and center. While the first single, “Funky Bahia,” is catchy, it is most notable for the appearance of woefully underrated vocalist Siedah Garrett.
Overall Encanto improves upon Timeless in that Sergio Mendes remains more of a presence on this album. Wisely will.i.am keeps the exotic percussion in the forefront instead of burying it in heavy electronic beats. Virtually every track adheres to the Brasil ’66 sound, updated with modern, international artists. Unlike his previous album, Encanto appeals to both longtime fans and newcomers initially attracted by the Black Eyed Peas connection. Whether dabbling in hip hop or evoking classic Brazilian jazz rhythms, Mendes shows that age need not stifle creativity and vitality.