Brazilian Legend Sérgio Mendes Celebrates Life on New Album ‘In The Key of Joy’

Photo by Katsunari Kawai. Courtesy of the artist

“Sabor Do Rio,” the latest single by Brazilian living legend Sérgio Mendes featuring Chicago rapper Common, is a great representation of the way he’s made music throughout his six-decade-long career: it sounds like his version of Brazil, it finds its strength in collaboration, and, most importantly, it induces a state of sheer joy on listeners with every single note played or sung. This feeling has always been present in Mendes’ music, but it’s now the nucleus his latest album In The Key of Joy revolves around.

After releasing Love for Sale in 2016, Mendes, the multi-Grammy Award winner and Academy Award nominee from the southeast city of Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, returns with In The Key of Joy, continuing the eclectic, guest-heavy trajectory set off by his spectacular return to the international mainstream, Timeless.

Led once again by his love for samba, bossa nova, jazz and pop music, Mendes created this album to be a pleasurable, carefree experience, as hinted on its Stevie Wonder-referencing title. “Brazilian music is full of joy,” he tells Remezcla. “The idea was to have some songs that were fun, that you can dance to, that you can listen to and enjoy. The album is a celebration of life and joy.”

His words make the songs on In The Key of Joy sound simple, but they actually display a fantastic, meticulous work in arrangement, songwriting and altogether musicianship—the kind we’ve come to expect from him. The recording sessions were split between Brazil and Los Angeles, his current city of residence. “I think it’s very important [for me to record in Brazil], because that’s where I was born and grew up, and I’m familiar with the rhythms and the sounds,” he explains. “I recorded a lot of the rhythms in Brazil to capture the joy and the local percussion, which are very important in Brazilian music.”

Although there’s a timelessness and familiarity to Mendes’ work, he has a constant need to move forward with every new piece of music, and that’s also true on In The Key of Joy. For instance, “La Noche Entera,” co-written and sung in Spanish by Colombian duo Cali y El Dandee, is Mendes’ first approximation to reggaeton, injecting it with his technicolor vision and making it a Carnaval-ready jam that’s a delight to the senses. He says: “I always try to look forward, to come up with something fresh and different and try not to do the same thing I did before. That’s what I like, to discover new sounds and write new songs.”

“I’m very curious and I love to work with different people from different cultures and different countries. It gives me joy to do that.”

The album’s title track is an upbeat number that blends Mendes’ bossa nova arrangements with a bumping beat infused with enough funk carioca flavor to take us to the dancefloor, and it’s completed with verses by up-and-coming Compton rapper Buddy. The Voice participant Sugar Joans is another new talent highlighted by Mendes on the album, and she takes the lead on the thumping samba-house track “Samba in Heaven.” “I’m very curious and I love to work with different people from different cultures and different countries. It gives me joy to do that,” he says. “I love working with young people. They have fresh energy and they bring something unique.”

Interestingly enough, Joans is the daughter of Joe Pizzulo, the singer who famously performed “Never Gonna Let You Go,” Mendes’ chart-topping 1982 song. Pizzulo himself is one of the trusted previous collaborators summoned by Mendes to complement the songs on In The Key of Life, as he returns to sing on “Love Came Between Us,” a loungey reprise of their previous joint song that is an instant time machine. Mendes’ wife, muse, and longtime musical partner Gracinha Leporace, known to many of us as the gorgeous lead voice on Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ‘66’s definitive hit, the Jorge Ben-penned “Mas Que Nada,” is also here. She guests on four of the 12 album tracks, including the disco-sprinkled “Bora Lá,” with samba star Rogê and closer “Tangara,” one of the few quiet moments here, and definitely a stunning one.

Collaboration is key on Mendes’ music, and it’s not limited to finding the right singer for the right song; it’s present in the whole process, from songwriting to recording. “It starts with a great melody. That’s what I like to have first of all, a great melody and great lyrics. And then it’s getting to the studio and coming up with ideas with whomever you’re working with,” he explains. “And I like to work with no formula; [I] let spontaneity be the most important thing, and we organically create something new in the studio.”

Photo by Katsunari Kawai. Courtesy of the artist
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Coinciding with In The Key of Joy, an eponymous documentary focused on Sérgio Mendes’ life and work directed by acclaimed filmmaker John Scheinfeld (Chasing Trane) was premiered on January 18 on the Santa Barbara International Film Fest. That’s why it made sense to pair up the album on its deluxe version with a retrospective compilation of some of the best songs in Mendes’ extensive catalogue, serving both as the film’s soundtrack and as a document of the Brazilian artist’s evolution. Apart from the aforementioned “Mas Que Nada” and “Never Gonna Let You Go,” it includes many of his classic songs with his Brasil ’66 combo, like their rendition of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “The Look of Love.”

“[The song selection process was] very difficult, ‘cause I’ve done more than, I don’t know, 60 albums, so it’s always difficult to select.” says Mendes about the compilation. “But I think that’s basically the essence of my work. Although there are many other things, the list is fine.”

In The Key of Joy does a great job reminding us why Sérgio Mendes became one of the biggest Brazilian stars worldwide and why, at 79 years old, he’ll never be satisfied with only doing what he already knows how to. For him, every studio session is an opportunity to explore new sonic territories without losing his signature style, and he cultivates a growing community of musicians while doing so.

Stream the album here: