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Friday, Feb. 1, 2008
"It's been a mutual love affair," says Sergio Mendes explaining his popularity in Japan by phone from Los Angeles. "That's why I come almost every year."
Latin pop's most durable icon, Mendes' first tour in Japan was in 1968 with his breakthrough act Brasil '66. The group brought Brazilian music widespread popularity, notably in the United States. Mendes' take on "Mas Que Nada" became the standard, while the Bacharach-David tune "The Look of Love," originally sung by Dusty Springfield, became Mendes' biggest hit.
Forty years on, the 66-year-old will be updating his sound for a weeklong stint at Blue Note Tokyo, where he will be accompanied by San Francisco rapper H2O.
"We're going to play mostly songs from (the 2006 album) 'Timeless,' which we haven't done yet (in Japan)," Mendes says. "And some old classics that we have to do from Brasil '66."
"Timeless" was the pianist/vocalist's first new album in almost a decade. With will.i.am of hip-hop group The Black Eyed Peas producing and performing and guest turns from Stevie Wonder and Justin Timberlake, it consisted of reworkings of classic songs made famous by Mendes, such as "Mas Que Nada."
By contrast, Mendes' new album, "Encanto" (titled "Morning in Rio" in Japan and due for release here Feb. 27 to coincide with the 50th year of bossa nova's birth), shows the master taking control.
"I produced about 90 percent of the album," Mendes says. But he wasn't able to entirely shake off those pesky Black Eyed Peas: "Will did two or three songs," he says, and his Black Eyed Peas cohort Fergie sang on "The Look of Love."
With their hip-hop heavy flavor, will.i.am's radically different versions of Mendes classics had some of his fans up in arms.
"Well, I think it's for everybody," Mendes says. "When I make a record, I'm not thinking about age. But it's true that, for instance, when I reintroduced 'Mas Que Nada,' my idea was to really have young people be able to listen to those songs like their parents did. For me, that's a very rewarding kind of a feeling — you know, when you have a whole generation of new fans as well as older fans.
"And on (my forthcoming) record, I have people from the older generation. I wanted to do something different and that's why I decided to record the album in Brazil and to capture something different from the beginning," he says. "I haven't done that in a long time."
While "Encanto" features Herb Alpert, Lani Hall and Natalie Cole, it also showcases non-U.S. talent, and not just from Mendes' native Brazil. The collaboration with Miwa Yoshida of stadium-filling J-pop duo Dreams Come True marks the first time Mendes has collaborated with a Japanese artist.
"She sounded beautiful," says Mendes. "(The song is) a bossa nova, romantic thing. Me and my wife (Gracinha Leporace), we're singing in Portuguese, and Miwa answers in Japanese.
"I wanted for a long time to be able to invite people from other cultures to sing with me, cause we've been singing all these years in Portuguese and English. So, this time, I decided to do that in different languages."
Despite his open-minded approach to his music, Mendes remains a traditionalist at heart. What he wants on any album is "most of all, great melodies," he says.
"It's the most important thing. The song, the song, the song."
Sergio Mendes plays Blue Note Tokyo Feb. 6-12. Shows starts at 7 p.m. and 9:30 a.m. (6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Feb. 10-11). Tickets are from ¥10,500 (for more information, call  5485-0088 or visit www.bluenote.co.jp.