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Sergio Mendes Carnegie Hall

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JVC Jazz Festival Review

Sergio Mendes is a proud member of the generation that invented bossa nova, but he has always been more popularizer than purist. Most of the hit singles he had with his group Brasil '66 in the late 1960s were pleasant middle-of-the-road pop with a mild overlay of samba. His most recent albums mix bossa nova with hip-hop and contemporary R&B, sometimes smoothly but often awkwardly.

For Mr. Mendes's JVC Jazz Festival concert on Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, his powerful ensemble (seven musicians, including Mr. Mendes on synthesizer and three female singers) was periodically joined by a rapper named H2O, who contributed rhymes to a tarted-up new version of Brasil '66's biggest hit, “The Look of Love." Mr. Mendes reprised a few of that group's other pop hits as well, including its endearingly odd version of the Beatles' “Fool on the Hill." But the hip-hop touches were window dressing, not really integrated into the overall sound, and the nods to Top 40 nostalgia were less important than what Mr. Mendes announced early in the evening was his main purpose: to celebrate some of the great Brazilian songwriters.

Navigating bossa nova's vital polyrhythms with grace and powered by two extraordinary percussionists, Meia Noite and Gibi, Mr. Mendes's band gave evergreens by the likes of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Dori Caymmi and Jorge Ben the passionate treatment they deserved. Mr. Ben's “Mas Que Nada," one of Brasil '66's first hits (and its most authentically Brazilian), was the eagerly anticipated encore and, with the audience singing and dancing along, turned Carnegie Hall for a few glorious minutes into Carnaval.



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