Maria Mendes is a Jazz singer – heart and soul. She has studied in New York, Brussels, Rotterdam and Porto – her talents have been praised by musical legends such as Quincy Jones and Hermeto Pascoal. However, for her latest album, she explores a completely different genre, Fado from her native Portugal. The results of this unique adaption are surprising and refreshing and thoroughly engaging.
“A symphonic Jazz approach to Fado”, is how singer-songwriter Maria Mendes describes the music on her new album Close To Me. “It is not Fado,” she immediately emphasizes. “I only used the music and poetry from this genre, but made a completely personal interpretation of it, with new arrangements.” In addition, she wrote her own songs, all in the spirit of the genre of her motherland. Although Mendes has been living in the Netherlands for several years, her connection to Portugal remains strong, it is where Fado is anchored, in the soul of the country. Her love for the genre began at an early age, as a child, she heard the melancholic, dramatic sounds every day on the bus that took her home from school. “The first time I was really touched by it was when I was 18, when I heard Mariza sing Barco Negro” says Mendes. It is one of the most loved fado songs and especially known in the voice of Amália Rodrigues, the greatest fado queen. “Fado is in our identity,” explains Maria. “It is our way to evoke “saudade”: longing for the past and hoping it becomes present once again. But it is also universal: we all have those feelings in life.”
The idea for Close To Me gained shape at a festival in the Netherlands, the Dag van de Rotterdamse Jazz. There, in the context of a musical assignment commissioned to her by the festival, Mendes combined the harmonies and melodies of two folk songs; the Portuguese Barco Negro and the Dutch Ketelbinkie. The reactions from the press and the public were so enthusiastic that the singer decided to investigate whether she could also master other fado songs through jazz arrangements. She started working on the repertoire of the Portuguese greats such as Carlos Paredes and Amália Rodrigues and, inspired by their work, also wrote her own songs in which she explores her love for Jazz with her affection for Portugal. Moreover, one of her musical gurus, the Brazilian legend Hermeto Pascoal wrote a fado especially for her.
Mendes did not settle for less with this album. Backing her every step of the way is her band of top Dutch jazz musicians: Karel Boehlee on piano, Jasper Somsen on acoustic bass and Jasper van Hulten on drums and percussion. In addition, she collaborated with the famous multi Grammy Award winning Metropole Orkest (the world’s leading Jazz symphonic orchestra with 4 Grammys out of the 18 nominations received) – in a chamber line up of thirty musicians, led by conductor, Grammy award winner Jazz arranger, pianist John Beasley, who not only produced the album, but also played the keyboards and wrote the arrangements/orchestrations.
Close To Me, Maria’s third album will be released internationally on Justin Time Records (the same label that launched Diana Krall to international stardom). Her previous releases include her 2012 debut Along The Road (Dot Time Records NY) and in 2015 she released the successor, Innocentia (Sony Music Portugal). In recent years, she has completed several successful tours with performances all over the world, including the prestigious concert halls: Concertgebouw (Amsterdam), Blue Note Jazz Club (New York) and the North Sea and Montreux Jazz festivals.
The first thing that strikes you about Maria Mendes is the purity of her tone and her graceful, lyrical phrasing. She glides over her band, adding emphasis here, lingering there, scatting in unexpected directions and occasionally soaring to a heady high when the mood takes her. Clearly, she has spent time on her craft.
With her new project, Mendes hopes to attract a wider audience. “This album is a gift for the avid listener,” she says. “For people who have an eclectic taste. I don’t know what the Fado audience will think of it, but I hope they’ll listen and appreciate the respectful and refreshing approach I have given to these beautiful songs.”