Isabella Mendes’s life has never been without music. “The running joke in the family is that the first word that I said was ‘piano,’” she said. “Every toy store that I went to, I always looked for the little keyboard. That’s always been my passion, since very young.”
She was born in São Paulo to parents who, in response to her enthusiasm, enrolled her at the age of 4 in the Centro Livre de Aprendizagem Musical (CLAM), a music school founded by Amilton Godoy of the Zimbo Trio, a famous Brazilian ensemble. When she was eight years old, she began writing her own music and taking private lessons in piano and composition. Right about then was when her parents surprised her with a gift: a real piano.
“I came home from school in fourth grade and I saw the piano in the living room ... and I remember just being so happy,” Mendes said. “I just played it all the time. My mom literally had to say, ‘Isabella, you need to stop playing now so we can have dinner,’ and then bring me back, because I would not stop playing.”
Piano competitions, master classes, and concerts followed, along with a scholarship at one of São Paulo’s top music schools. Then, at the age of 15, she moved to New Haven, when her father came to Yale to do a postdoctorate fellowship studying liver diseases. They intended to return to Brazil. But “we liked Hamden,” Mendes said with a laugh. “We liked New Haven.”
She also got an immersion in the pop culture of the United States, from pop and rock to musicals, and wanted to be a part of it. “I joined choir, I joined band, I joined everything I could. I started learning percussion in concert band because they didn’t have a piano part.… My piano world opened up to this beautiful world of music and opportunities.”
In her senior year of high school, she enrolled in ECA. “It was definitely one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had,” she said. “Just going to high school part of the time and then the other half of the day being a real arts magnet school. I felt like I belonged there.”
She met bassist, composer, and teacher Jeff Fuller for the first time as a student of his at ECA; he was her composition instructor. “He always told me when I was interpreting jazz, or when I was writing a new song, to learn to tell the story,” Mendes said. “Coming from classical [music], I was too focused on just learning the piece and learning it well—it’s the right notes and the right chords, it’s the right changes. But then once you add that layer of telling the story—what is the song about? If there are words or not, you want to tell the story to your audience and communicate with your audience, and I think that’s a very valuable lesson that Jeff taught me.”
She went to school for engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, as “my passion for math had always been there, growing up,” Mendes said. She also minored in music, and “throughout college, all of my projects were music-based. Aside from my senior project, of course. That had to be engineering.”
For Mendes, though, the connection between engineering and music was clear. “Music is very mathematical and very logical. And … there’s a lot of creativity that goes into designing a building or a bridge, and the same creativity can be translated into music, and vice versa,” Mendes said. “I’ve always been drawn to music theory since I was very young, and I think that’s part of my analytical mind … it’s the music theory and classical music that tends to be a little more structured.”
At the same time, “I remember growing up, when I started composition lessons, I almost didn’t want to know everything I knew about theory, because I felt like that limited me … I’d just close my eyes and sit at the piano and just try to hear the sounds and feel the music.”
After college, she had engineering job offers in New York, Boston, and Connecticut. She came back to New Haven to be close to her family, and took a job as a structural engineer with a consulting company for five years. She now works at the Yale School of Management.
Meanwhile, she got a steady gig right away, at Colonial Times in Hamden. “It was probably the easiest gig I’ve ever gotten,” Mendes said. She walked in and asked if they needed a pianist. “The manager was very nice. He said ‘sure, why don’t you play a couple songs for us?’… So I sat down, I played a couple songs, and he said, ‘okay, you start Thursday.’”
She held down the Thursday spot there and an occasional Friday and Saturday for a few years. She started off just by herself, playing piano. Then she began singing. She added Hernan Yepes and Asher Delerme to form a group, focusing on Brazilian jazz. After Colonial Times closed down, the group moved to the Beach House in Milford and played for a few more years.
Mendes reconnected with Fuller in 2010. “We got together and had a couple of piano and composition lessons, and he said, ‘do you want to start a Brazilian band?’” Mendes said. “And then we talked to our other colleague, Joe Carter, who is a phenomenal guitarist, and we just started Sambeleza.” That project took her to the International Festival of Arts and Ideas. This August, she brought her own quintet to the stage of the New Haven Jazz Festival, focusing on her original material, some of which can be found on her debut album, Blame Destiny.
“We have a very tight community of jazz musicians. So when you bring out something like Brazilian jazz as an authentic Brazilian music, it differentiates you from other musicians in clubs. And that can go either way…. Once you’ve found that niche, then it’s a great thing, because that’s our focus … and if you’re playing jazz, then you can go to all these different jazz clubs,” Mendes said. “We all have to wear different hats at all times.”
So how does she juggle job, burgeoning music career, and her own continuing development as an artist?
“I’m still trying,” Mendes said, with a self-deprecating laugh. From the sound of it, though, she is succeeding — remarkably — in a journey from São Paulo to New Haven to whatever stage she takes next.
Click on or download the above sound file to hear the full interview with Isabella Mendes on WNHH radio’s “Northerm Remedy.”