Retro Review: “Look Around” by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ‘66

Garry Berman
11 min readDec 6, 2023

I usually try not to inject too much of myself into my online articles, preferring to keep the true topic of each piece as the center of attention. But once in a while, I allow myself to indulge in a bit of sentimentality while sharing a bit of pop culture history. And so it is today.

I was about seven years old when I first heard the Look Around album. It was part of my father’s 8-track tape collection, which he played mostly in his Buick. His other tapes included Whipped Cream and other Delights by Herb Alpert and the Tiuana Brass, and even a few Beatles albums, as I was an enthusiastic fan from a very young age. Saturday errands always included a few 8-tracks to listen to as we made our various local stops, but they also came in handy on longer family trips.

As for Look Around, it played a big role in my early enjoyment of Brazilian music — especially bossa nova — as did my parents’ record albums by Antonio Carlos Jobim. I wasn’t truly aware of bossa nova as a music genre at the time, but the seed was sown, to be reaped with considerably more gusto in my adulthood obsession with bossa nova.

But enough about me.

Sergio Mendes’ musical career in Brazil had a modest beginning, as he played and worked as a session musician, eventually playing for recordings such as jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderly’s 1962 album Cannonball’s Bossa Nova.

After settling down in the U.S., Mendes signed with Ahmet and Nasui Ertegun of Atlantic Records, but his efforts weren’t finding much success there. A period of trial & error with his music repertoire and band members — especially the addition of young singer Lani Hall — led to an audition for A&M founders Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, who were impressed enough with the band to sign them. Alpert was especially excited about Mendes’ sound and potential.

The first album, Herb Alpert presents Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, released in August of that year, featured what was to become a major international hit, “Mas Que Nada” by Brazilian composer Jorge Ben.

Mendes was justifiably proud of the track becoming the first worldwide hit sung in Portuguese. Alpert produced the album and lent invaluable support to Mendes, who was admittedly still new to the finer points of working in the recording studio. The results allowed Brasil ’66 to make a musical splash, with “One Note Samba/Spanish Flea” medley and “Going Out of My Head” as just two of several standouts.

One of the group’s two singers, Sylvia Dulce Kleiner, known professionally as Bibi Vogel, left the group shortly after the album’s release, to be replaced by Janis Hansen for the band’s upcoming touring and follow-up albums.

With Janis now at Lani’s side, and Bob Matthews, José Soares, and João Palma completing the band with Mendes (with John Pisano on guitar for some recordings), the Brasil ’66 that has since taken up residence in the hearts and minds fans around the world was in place. It was a band exuding charisma, style, and an uplifting attitude both on vinyl and in live appearances, with the stunning girls inevitably catching the lion’s share of the attention.

Equinox was released in April of 1967, solidifying the band’s way of performing a repertoire of popular songs in English— albeit given a somewhat more exotic treatments than the originals — and Brazilian bossa nova classics in Portuguese (the lyrics of which Lani and Janis sang phonetically), proving an irresistible combination and fresh sound.

The April, ’67 release of Equinox, with highlights including “Chove Chuva (Constant Rain)” “Night and Day,” and Jobim’s “Wave,” was followed quickly by our focus today, Look Around, released that July.

After admiring Guy Webster’s wonderful photo for the album’s cover, we can delve into the music. Look Around’s opening track, “With a Little Help from My Friends,” is of course taken from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, released just weeks before. As a personal note, I usually disapprove of cover versions of Beatles songs. Most are unnecessary, or just plain insulting. But I’m willing to make very rare exceptions, as in this case. Here, Sergio takes the Beatles’ easygoing, shuffling rhythm and gives it a faster tempo — with, yes, a Brazilian flavor — as he trades the lines of lyrics with Lani and Janis (the band would cover a number of other Beatles songs, to great success, in their subsequent albums).

Next comes “Roda,” a high energy number by Gilberto Gil and sung in Portuguese, with a rousing chorus and snappy piano solo by Mendes. It is fairly remarkable, in hindsight, how this and the other Brasil ’66 albums were able to so seamlessly alternate between songs in English and those sung in Portuguese, a rather unfamiliar language to most American listeners — until, of course, the bossa nova craze struck.

Which brings us to another issue, and the song “Like a Lover.” The original version was written by Dori Caymmi and Nelson Motta, with Portuguese lyrics. By this time, many of the most popular bossa nova songs that had gained popularity in the U.S. — a vast majority of which were written by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes — were commandeered, so to speak, by opportunistic lyricists such as Norman Gimble and Ray Gilbert, who bought the English rights to the songs and then proceeded to create their own lyrics for them, which rarely bore any similarity to the original words or intentions of their Brazilian composers. This was the case with such classics as (using the English titles here) “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars),” “Mediation,” and “Summer Samba.” It was a disgraceful practice, and an insult to the songs’ composers.

How then, does one approach “Like A Lover,” the next song on Look Around? The beautiful melody of the original is retained, but with a new set of lyrics written by the legendary husband-wife songwriting team of Alan and Marilyn Bergman. An easy reaction would be to angrily object to this on the same grounds as with the other Portuguese-to-English Brazilian gems.

However…

While risking shameful hypocrisy here, it must be said that the Bergmans’ lyrics for this song are, without exaggeration, among the most beautiful ever written — for any song, of any culture, of any time. They read as sheer poetry, achieving a sublime expression and creativity rarely seen in lyrics of love songs, which, no matter how pleasant the song, risk becoming somewhat predictable. Not with these lyrics, as delicately sung by Lani, with a backing string section. Some who aren’t quite as tuned in to this style of writing might dismiss the words as a bit schmaltzy, but no — they are gorgeous. You know you’re listening to a superior album when songs by writing teams such as Lennon-McCartney and Bachrach-David aren’t even the best songs on the record.

Listen for yourself:

At the same time, Sergio also retains the original Portuguese lyrics of many other selections, which does comes as some comfort (and apparently at his own insistence).

We then proceed with the Brazilian “The Frog” by Joao Donato, an up-tempo samba highlighted by some snappy punches by a horn section and Sergio’s piano solo.

“Tristeza (Goodbye Sadness)” kicks off with a joyful, high-energy chorus evoking a celebration at Brazil’s Carnival. This treatment simply doesn’t allow the listener to do anything but feel and share the high spirits of the tune.

Janice then takes a rare lead vocal for the Bachrach-David song “The Look of Love,” which featured Dusty Springfield’s vocals in the film Casino Royale (Janis reportedly only took her ten minutes to record the vocals for her version). A horn section again provides some zest to the track, arranged by Dave Grusin (and perhaps due to Mr. Alpert’s influence?).

The lush, somber ballad “Pradizer (To Say Goodbye)” strikes a compromise by having Sergio sing the opening verse in Portuguese, with Lani continuing in English after the instrumental break, as she shows off her emotive vocal skills again, but only as a hint what is to come from her a few songs later.

“Batucada (The Beat)” follows, returning us to an upbeat, fast-tempo rhythm with the entire band in peak form, and includes another swinging piano solo from Sergio.

Next we come to the highlight of the album, the haunting “So Many Stars” by Sergio and Alan & Marilyn Bergman. The typically poetic set of lyrics by the team ponders the dilemma of feeling a bit lost in life and searching for where to fit into the world.

But the highest of praise belongs to Lani’s vocal performance. I don’t know how many takes were necessary to achieve what we hear on this track, and I don’t really want to know. But I will say this…

I’m not a musician, but after having listened to thousands of songs in my life by countless singers in many musical genres, I would place Lani’s vocal here as the greatest female vocal I’ve ever heard in the jazz/pop genre — and I’m including anything by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzerald, Sarah Vaughn, Barbara Streisand, you name ’em.

Here, after a plaintive intro by the orchestra, Lani begins softly, and from that point on, every note, every syllable, every inflection she sings achieves absolute perfection. Her feel for the song, and how to convey it to us with such an uncanny balance of emotion and restraint, is both remarkable and beautiful. Words fail me to describe it any better. While I’ve known this song for just about all of my life, it wasn’t until recent years when I stopped to really listen to Lani’s singing on this, and the other Brasil ’66 tracks. It still leaves me awestruck.

“Look Around” closes out the album, with Sergio’s melody and still more gorgeous lyrics from the Bergmans:

“All the wisdom of the sea in a grain of sand/Look around, just look around…All the innocence of spring in a blade of grass/Look around, just look around…”

By the end of 1967, Mendes decided to make major changes in the band, dismissing everyone but Lani Hall. New musicians included Sebastiao Neto on bass, and Rubens Bassini and Dom Um Romao on drums/percussion, with Karen Philipp joining Lani on vocals.

The second line-up of Brasil ‘66.

The group’s next album, Fool on the Hill continued the string of successes, with the title song reaching the Top Ten on the charts, as did their version of “Scarborough Fair.”

Ironically, the song “The Look of Love,” as sung by Janis on Look Around, also made it to #4 on the Billboard charts in July of 1968, partly as a result of Dusty Springfield’s Casino Royale version being nominated for an Oscar. Karen Philipp performed it with the group at the Academy Awards that April. Due to her earlier departure, Janis sadly missed out on what would have been a great opportunity.

More changes were in the wind. Lani and Herb Alpert had fallen in love, but as he was no longer touring with his Tijuana Brass at the time, Lani was still busy recording and touring with Brasil ’66, creating a significant in their blossoming romance. She eventually made the difficult decision to leave the band, which came as a shock and disappointment to Sergio, but who nonetheless could not begrudge Lani following her heart.

Sergio found a young singer in Rio named Gracinha Leporace to replace Lani, and, as fairytale stories are wont to do, the Sergio and Gracinha also fell in love, and later married.

Gracinha and Sergio in 1971.

As 2023 comes to a close, both couples are not only still married, but still performing.

Herb Alpert and Lani Hall.

There is much more to the story of Brasil ’66, both before and after Look Around, which we can and should explore further at a later time. For now, as the weather gets colder and drearier, it’s comforting to dream of tropical climates, palm trees, and girls from Ipanema, while listening to the timeless sounds of Look Around.

Until next time…

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A selection of my other articles related to music (please make special note of the wonderful Sant Andreu Jazz Band):

“Bossa Nova Returns to Barcelona”| by Garry Berman | Nov, 2023 | Medium

“Joan Chamorro and the SAJB: Past, Present, and Future” | by Garry Berman | Medium

“Jobim is Alive and Well in Barcelona” | by Garry Berman | Medium

“How a Kids Band in Barcelona Rekindled My Love of Jazz” | by Garry Berman | Medium

“When American Jazz Pros Meet Spanish Jazz Kids”| by Garry Berman | Medium

“Carla Motis: A Quiet Force on Jazz Guitar” | by Garry Berman | Medium

“Memories of my Visit to Jazzing Fest, 2023” | by Garry Berman | Medium

“The Compelling Music of Èlia Bastida and Carolina Alabau” | by Garry Berman | Medium

“Did Someone Say Anastasia Ivanova?” | by Garry Berman | Medium

“Kindred Spirits: How Joan Chamorro and Isidore Rudnick Teach Jazz to Kids” | by Garry Berman | Medium

“A Musical Milestone at Carnegie Hall (on January 16, 1938)” | by Garry Berman | Medium

“Manhattan Transfer Co-founder Laurel Massé and Her Life in Music” | by Garry Berman | Medium

“Retro Review: Donald Fagan’s “The Nightfly” | by Garry Berman | Medium

“A Tale of Two Albas”| by Garry Berman | Medium

“The Magic of the Voice: The Singers of the Sant Andreu Jazz Band” | by Garry Berman | Medium

Please visit www.GarryBerman.com to read synopses and reviews of my books and order them via the links to Amazon.com.

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Garry Berman

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.