Like a Wayback Machine, certain sights, sounds, smells and tastes transports us to certain times and places in our lives. Listening to Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 from their hitmaking days from four and half decades ago puts me right back into preschool.
Fool On The Hill was probably Mendes’ most popular album in the U.S., and being squarely in the target demographic of adults too old for rock ‘n’ roll and too young for Glenn Miller, my dad snapped this up and gave it many spins on his huge Magnavox cabinet stereo. Since I hung out near that piece of furniture a lot as a kindergartner, I got to soak in the lite jazz Brazilian vibes of Mendes and his multinational band Brasil ’66. Two of the cuts from there didn’t just get airplay on the ol’ Magnavox: covers of The Beatles’ still-new “Fool On The Hill” and the Simon & Garfunkel-popularized folk ditty “Scarborough Fair” reached #6 and #16, respectively, on the Hot 100.
With its two female lead singers—one of which was Herb Alpert’s wife Lani Hall—and its widely appealing contemporary pop sensibilities, Brasil ’66 was kind of like the ABBA of its time. Hall’s voice, while no Dusty Springfield, came to represent along with those swelling strings and jazzy percussion, the sound of the thirtysomethings of the Woodstock era. Dentist office fodder, well sure, but Mendes brought real jazz credentials that sometimes came to fore (he once cut a record with Cannonball Adderley back in ’62) and as one of the first Jobim interpreters, he had a knack for finding great Brazilian and pop tunes and giving them imaginative arrangements which is evident even on the deeper cuts like Edu Lobo’s “Case Forte.” As if to entice listeners to embrace Brazilian music fully without the Western clothes, Mendes inserted a few songs that undiluted bossa nova numbers with Portuguese lyrics (“Festa,” “Lapinha”). But the stellar tracks remain those two singles.
“Fool On The Hill” is made into a song of two moods: the light, rim-shot tempo with Mendes’ electric piano dancing gently behind Hall’s vocals, and the crescendo-building chorus built up dramatically by Dave Grusin’s orchestration. “Scarborough Fair” is built atop a junglicious bass/drums groove, but includes a brief proto-fusion, instrumental interlude that allows Mendes a rare opportunity to stretch out a bit on the Rhodes.
When I try to separate my impressions captured in my life’s earliest memories from a critical take on a record I’ve known virtually the whole time on earth (and arguably my first taste of anything jazz), I’d have to deem Fool On The Hill as being not particularly deep music or demanding of a lot of listens almost 45 years out…but I’d more apt to blame Grusin for that more than Mendes and his band. That said, if I were 32 in 1968, I probably would have bought this album and spun it many times all the same. Because deep down, I’m a little bit like my dad.
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