What a pleasure to interview Sergio Mendes, one of my musical heroes since I was a kid. The article appears in TIDAL Magazine, the highly readable online publication of the TIDAL streaming service (owned by Jay-Z).
Here’s one bit that didn’t make the final piece:
“Mas Que Nada” – Sergio’s signature song since Brasil ’66, a song that became the first-ever worldwide hit in Portuguese. The title means, approximately, “Yeah, right,” sarcastically, in Brazilian Portuguese. Sergio recalled when he heard the song for the first time:
“It was in Bottles Bar (the legendary Rio jazz hangout that witnessed the birth of Bossa Nova), maybe ’61 or ’62. This young kid, Jorge Ben, came in with his guitar and started playing it. It was so different from the very melodic stuff Jobim would do, a different vibe. But a great chant! When I play it in Japan, the Japanese sing along with it – it’s like the national anthem!”
I asked if he had any idea the song could become such an enormous worldwide hit in its original language. “Never!” he said. “When I first heard my record of it on the radio [in 1966], I called Herb [Alpert, his producer at A&M Records]. He said, “Sergio I think we’ve got a big hit here!”
DownBeat recently asked me to review Capitol’s re-release of Frank Sinatra’s 1960 mid-career classic Nice ‘N’ Easy, now in an expanded edition for the album’s 60th anniversary (https://downbeat.com/digitaledition/2020/DB20_08/single_page_view/48.html). A slightly “expanded edition” of my review is below. Diving back into that New Frontier world with Frank and Nelson Riddle – both of them at their artistic peak – proved a soothing diversion from the pandemic and the anxieties and outrages of the 24/7 news cycle. I heartily recommend it.
Nice ‘N’ Easy (60th Anniversary Expanded Edition)
Capitol/UMe Records B0031729-02
Ol’ Blue Eyes to the rescue: In these troubled times, a classic album of Sinatra love songs might be the ultimate sonic comfort food.
Especially this album. Nice ‘N’ Easy was recorded in 1960 when Sinatra was at the height of his vocal powers. At age 44, no longer the carefree young crooner, his voice had deepened and matured, reflecting the agonies of his tempestuous six-year marriage to Ava Gardner. After two ballad collections (No One Cares and Only the Lonely) featuring torch songs near-suicidal in tone, Sinatra wanted to record love songs with a lighter touch.
The newly minted title track, by Lew Spence and the young Alan and Marilyn Bergman, was the only mid-tempo number. Sinatra had previously recorded the other 11 songs, all classic ballads, for Columbia in the 1940s. Now he intended to produce the definitive versions, with peak Nelson Riddle arrangements, this time in hi-fi and stereo. The 1960 versions are deeper and richer; the arrangements are more modern but timeless.
With his honeyed timbre, marinated over the years by booze, smoke and heartaches, Sinatra is the romantic hero of each little three-minute drama, the voice always intimate, now confiding, now confessing, sometimes just wryly commenting.
The new stereo mixes are breathtaking, and the bonus materials are invaluable: two session takes illuminate Sinatra’s process in the studio, recording take after take with full orchestra. There’s also an exquisite “The Nearness of You,” the album’s original title track.
Riddle was the best, and Sinatra knew it (“Nelson is the greatest arranger in the world” he declared). His orchestrations, particularly his writing for woodwinds and strings, are a heavenly combination of romance, classical know-how, and judicious use of jazz harmonies. If you don’t get goosebumps when Frank sings, in “That Old Feeling,” “…and when you caught my eye, my heart stood still,” as Riddle’s strings start to soar, check your pulse.
Nice ‘N’ Easy: Nice ’N’ Easy; That Old Feeling; How Deep Is The Ocean; I’ve Got A Crush On You; You Go To My Head; Fools Rush In; Nevertheless; She’s Funny That Way; Try A Little Tenderness; Embraceable You; Mam’selle; Dream; The Nearness Of You; I’ve Got A Crush On You (session takes); Nice ‘N’ Easy (session takes). 57:15
Personnel: Frank Sinatra, vocals; Nelson Riddle, arranger and conductor; orchestra includes Plas Johnson, tenor saxophone; Al Viola, guitar; Felix Slatkin, violin; Bill Miller, piano.
Thanks to everyone who attended my jazz history talks last week on the Queen Mary 2 during its voyage from Quebec to Nova Scotia to New York. I got a few requests to post the playlists, so here’s the first one, covering “The Great Jazz Singers (1950-Present).”
The Great Jazz Singers (1950-Present) Playlist
“A Tisket, A Tasket” – Ella Fitzgerald w/Chick Webb Orchestra (1938).
“Blue Skies” – Ella Fitzgerald (from Get Happy, 1959)
“You Make Me Feel So Young” – Frank Sinatra, w/Count Basie Orchestra conducted by Quincy Jones (live video, 1965)
“Tenderly” – Sarah Vaughan (live video, 1958)
“I Fall in Love Too Easily” – Chet Baker, from Chet Baker Sings (1958)
“Chega de Saudade” – João Gilberto from album Chega de Saudade (1959)
“Every Day I Have the Blues” – Lambert, Hendricks & Ross w/Joe Williams and Count Basie (live video from Playboy’s Penthouse TV show, 1959)
“No Love Dying” – Gregory Porter (live video from CBS This Morning 2013)
“I Wish That I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” – Cecile McLorin Salvant (live video from KNKX Public Radio, 2014)
“Marrakesh Express” – Accent (video from AccentVocal.com, 2018)
“Look For The Silver Lining” – Tony Bennet & Bill Charlap, promo video for album of the same name, 2015