- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2006

Sergio Mendes, Will.i.am, et al.



If bossa nova were to stage a significant North American comeback, it could only happen with the active participation of the multitalented Brazilian recording artist Sergio Mendes, one of the form’s leading popularizers, whose new compilation album, “Timeless,” is being released today.

Each of its songs is a collaborative effort between Mr. Mendes and contemporary artists as diverse as Justin Timberlake, Stevie Wonder and Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas.

The album features innovative rerecordings of Mendes standards such as “Mas Que Nada,” though Mr. Mendes’ most famous recording, “The Look of Love,” is curiously absent. Will.i.am, who also produced the album, has claimed that the first music he ever sampled in one of his rap songs was a Sergio Mendes tune.

Bossa nova has had an erratic and rough ride penetrating the U.S. market. It attained wide familiarity for a time without ever becoming very influential. Despite a brief heyday in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it has fallen almost completely out of favor with the exception of the ever-popular “Girl From Ipanema.”

In recent years, bossa nova has appeared in movies or television shows for the sole purpose of poking fun at a certain time and place, such as when it was used as the background music for an Austin Powers seduction scene.

Will.i.am notwithstanding, very few contemporary artists have incorporated bossa nova influences into their sound. It is not as easily accessible as other Latin genres such as mambo or salsa, partly because of its lack of strong percussion.

The bulk of Mr. Mendes’ original recordings from his days with Brasil ‘66 rely heavily on the contrabass, as well as the sandy sound of the maracas to provide rhythm. In other words, the sound is too soft to make a real crossover into the popular realm. This is where Will.i.am steps in, to punch in the more aggressive percussive elements of rap. He does so with varying degrees of success.

The blend of rap and bossa nova works well in the newly recorded version of “Mas Que Nada,” wherein the Black Eyed Peas replace the song’s original female refrains with rap. This is a felicitous introduction because the original version’s female whispering was so soothing as to be almost soporific.

On the other hand, it’s hard to know what to make of “Surfboard,” kind of a mission statement for the album. Will.i.am provides the vocals, singing the praises of “This new genre, hip-hop bossa nova soul urban classical.” He clarifies (sort of): “All my people break dancing to the left/all my people capoeira to the right/if you dancing samba in the back, come to the floor.”

There’s just one problem: There isn’t anyone on the floor doing capoeira or samba; only break dancing. The album suffers from a disconnect between medium and message. The lyrics declare this song to be Latin fusion, but the sound is distinctly hip-hop.

The best sounds by far on the album are those with the most direct participation of Mr. Mendes (heard primarily in the instrumentation, not vocals) with the least intrusion from the contemporary artists.

“Timeless,” therefore, is a mixed blessing: Bossa nova deserves a comeback, and these artists are to be commended for their appreciation of the genre. But this isn’t the album that’s going to bring about that comeback.

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