Brazilian-born pianist/composer/arranger Sergio Mendes’ name is synonymous with pop bossa nova. He became an international icon in the late 1960s, recording with numerous hit-making incarnations of the group Brasil ’66. With the success of their light, jazz-flavored pop records, Mendes also developed as a high-caliber producer, working with the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Johnny Mathis, Gilberto Gil and others. Mendes settled in the United States permanently in 1964. He had always had an affinity for mainstream jazz, and he jumped at opportunities to work with legends such as saxophonists Cannonball Adderley and Stan Getz, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and fellow countrymen Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto.
In strong contrast, William Adams, better known as will.i.am — rapper-singer/leader of the red-hot Black Eyed Peas — was born in 1975, years after Mendes’ most successful period, and he comes from the hip hop world. But he’s very versatile, playing keyboards, drums and bass, and his diverse musical tastes include bossa nova. In fact, the rapper/producer is one of Mendes’ biggest fans.
This unlikely pair formed a relationship in 2002 when the Peas were recording their breakout CD, Elephunk. They decided to do a take on Jobim’s “How Insensitive” and wanted Mendes to play piano on a song called “Sexy.” Mendes says he met with will.i.am mostly out of curiosity, but then was amazed when will.i.am came over to his house with a crate full of Mendes music on vinyl, dating back to his instrumental years at Atlantic and including albums that Mendes himself didn’t have. After the session with the BEPs, where Mendes was exposed to Pro Tools for the first time, he and will.i.am talked about working together in the future.
“My last record was about ten years ago and I wasn’t really thinking about doing another one,” Mendes recalls from his Woodland Hills, Calif., home. “But I enjoyed that experience [with the BEPs]. So I said to will.i.am, ‘Why don’t we make a record? You love Brazilian music and we can re-introduce those great melodies to the kids of today, and you can bring the hip hop world. So it’s like two generations, two different cultures, doing something very fresh and unique.”
In 2004, will.i.am and the Peas were in Sao Paulo, Brazil, performing; Mendes happened to be there as well, vacationing with his family. Because he had never seen the Peas perform, he came out for the show and was astonished by both the crowd and group’s energy. Afterward, will.i.am invited Mendes to a late-night session. Without a record deal or clear concept, they recorded a hip hop version of the Brasil ’66 hit “Mas Que Nada” and a few other songs over the course of several days at Mosh Studios. Mendes also cut a song with the Maogani Quartet, whom he brought in from Rio de Janeiro. Weeks later, back in Southern California, Mendes and will.i.am met again; this time they started formulating a coherent plan, which resulted in Mendes’ most recent album, Timeless. For the album sessions, will.i.am brought in more Brazilian records, including albums by Jorge Ben, Joao Gilberto, Baden Powell and Joao Donato. “Whenever I dive into something, I do my homework,” will.i.am stresses from his home studio in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, “We picked ‘Berimbau/Consolacao,’ ‘Bananeira’ [Banana Tree], and ‘E Menina’ [Hey Girl] — they just spoke to us.”
Because of will.i.am’s busy schedule touring with the Peas and producing other artists’ CDs, he didn’t get back in the studio with Mendes until Spring 2005. However, leading up to that meeting, Mendes and will.i.am worked on sessions with other contributing artists at Mega Studios in Paris, Chung King Studios in New York, Pacifique in North Hollywood and Wild West Studios in Malibu. Once they got together again in L.A. the work shifted to House of Blues Studio in Encino.
In the studio, will.i.am is highly energetic and quite adept at using Pro Tools — he’s a triple-threat combination of artist, engineer and producer. “Engineers slow me down — those guys are like turtles,” he says with a laugh. “I’ll request a mic be placed next to the Pro Tools screen while I do my vocals. I sequence, program, edit, submix and mix on it. A lot of people think of it as a tape machine, but I don’t look at it like that — it’s my palette that I draw on. But I need an engineer for the patchbay, especially on the older, vintage equipment. I never had the patience to learn it and I don’t like reading manuals. Also, I hate MIDI, think it sounds terrible and prefer humans playing those parts.”
Jason Villaroman, who’s been associated with the Peas and will.i.am for about five years, did the bulk of the recording. He also catalogued every session that could be potentially used for Timeless. “Just about everything I know [about Pro Tools] I’ve learned through [will.i.am],” he says. “We tailor sounds for the songs using Pro Tools when we work with an artist, miking stuff up and implementing gear outside of a computer — what he likes to have an engineer for.”
During sessions at House of Blues Studios, Mendes would usually roll in around noon, work into the evening and go out for dinner afterwards. Villaroman’s and will.i.am’s days were longer — they had usually worked on another project, such as Macy Gray’s album, before Mendes arrived. “Sergio is different than the Black Eyed Peas because he’s a lot more musical,” Villaroman says. “He’s made, like, 70 records and my grandparents even know who he is. will.i.am tends to formulate as he goes and he just wanted the project to sound hot. No EQs and very dynamic unless you’re tailoring a sound [such as bass, which was EQ’d heavily].
“It really was all about mic placement for me, and will.i.am doing his thing on Pro Tools. The rough mixes throughout the whole thing were amazing and texturally deep — I mean [mixer] Tony Maserati killed it! But if I played what we mixed you would still be saying, ‘Damn — those are cool.’” Villaroman used the House of Blues’ vintage API console with 550A EQs, along with a Neve 1076. Most of the instruments were captured using Neumann U87s and 67s — the latter was the favored mic for Mendes’ wife, Gracinha Leporace, who provided the vocal foundation for the project. Other microphones included an AKG 414 for piano and C 12 for guitars.
From the audience’s standpoint, Timeless is laden with top-selling pop artists, who are certain to interest even listeners with little knowledge of bossa nova and samba. During the song selection process, Mendes asked will.i.am whom he envisioned on the record. The rapper/producer casually responded, “Justin Timberlake and Stevie Wonder.” “I was just dreaming,” will.i.am says. “When it came time to try to put it together and deliver, that’s when I thought, ‘I’m in over my head with these promises I made.’ To expect Justin Timberlake to like samba as much as I do is hard. But when he heard India.Arie’s song, ‘Timeless,’ I didn’t have to ask him — he wanted to be part of the project. India.Arie and Jill Scott really set the tone for some of the people who traditionally wouldn’t accept that kind of collaboration. I saw Stevie Wonder coming out of the Record Plant at four in the morning and told him who I was, that I was working on a project with Sergio and asked if he would play harmonica on a track. He said he loved my band and hadn’t seen Sergio in 30 years, but wanted to hear the track and take it home so he could learn it. He came by the next day at three o’clock, did one take and left an hour later.”
Throughout the making of Timeless, the greatest challenge was maintaining a balance of bossa nova and hip hop. Sometimes will.i.am wanted to try a rap or rhythm that was slightly incongruous, and Mendes would complain that it didn’t sound Brazilian. Singer John Legend’s track was one where will.i.am had to make some creative adjustments to satisfy Mendes’ views. Other times Mendes told will.i.am to add more rapping, so it went both ways. “When you’re fusing genres like that you have to be careful,” will.i.am says. “Sergio has been doing bossa nova for over 40 years. I don’t want to insult all of his other records, and I want to have some of the same colors of samba.”
When it came time to mix, will.i.am brought in Tony Maserati, who has worked extensively on projects by the BEPs and many other pop and hip hop acts. The two had been talking about working on a Mendes record almost since the mix of the Peas’ “Sexy” three years earlier. Toward the end of the summer of 2005, Maserati, who has his own custom room at Chung King in Manhattan, got down to business on the Mendes record.
“It was an interesting project because everything is played live,” he says. “Sergio’s band did most of the original tracks. Then will.i.am had several guests and members of his band play along with Sergio’s hits to fill in. will.i.am was always on the road and did all the programming and editing before I got it. I mixed about ten songs and communicated [live in real time] through iChat with will.i.am. I’d send mixes and he would give me comments, while Sergio was here most of the time making his comments. Sometimes will.i.am would get inspired, add a guest and make a song longer, then I would clip it here and there to fit the format of having another singer or rapper. It ended up that all the songs were mixed about three times; basically the project grew as it developed and sometimes the songs changed form.
“Sergio and will.i.am worked together really well, with Sergio being the consummate musician and always had great comments about vibe and aesthetics,” Maserati continues. “will.i.am has great sensibility about that as well. It all worked out because we approached it as a whole project and we didn’t have to worry as much about studio time because I had my own place.” Maserati affectionately called Mendes “the Brazilian police” because he made sure the Brazilian/jazz flavor was always present.
Mendes notes, “It was great and clear, with very good sounds. At the end of the process, I had my dear friend Bernie Grundman, where I’ve always ended my projects, master it. He brought the final magic to it, with the beautiful spices he adds, combined with will.i.am doing most of the Pro Tooling and Tony Maserati mixing.”
will.i.am sums up the project: “Sergio planted a seed and people picked the fruit, and now we replanted it for people to come and enjoy the same tree that was there, just in a different shape than in 1966. To me that’s Timeless and I don’t care if this record doesn’t sell but ten copies. The fact that that it was made honestly — with no record company and nobody saying ‘You guys should…,’ with just two people that appreciate each other — hasn’t been done before. Sergio is a producer, and the reason all his records sound a certain way is because of him. But for him to sit back and let me produce with the limitations of not knowing theory, but having lots of imagination and just being a hip hop producer — that’s dope. He appreciated and found beauty in the whole thing.”