At 11:45 Friday there was almost no one on the New Haven Green. That changed in 15 minutes as the members of the Bossa Nova Project took the Green’s mainstage, starting off the second-to-last day of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas.
“Feel free to dance. Feel free to sing. Feel free to have fun with us today,” pianist and singer Isabella Mendes said with a wide smile. Without further ado the band launched into a light, fleet groove, piano and guitar and bass weaving in and out from one another while Mendes’s vocals and lines from the flute floated over the top.
As guitarist Joe Carter took a lyrical solo, the people who had already parked themselves on the Green bobbed their heads and smiled. Meanwhile, people who were just walking by decided to linger.
The New Haven-based Bossa Nova Project, which Mendes and Carter co-founded, draws its inspiration from the bossa nova movement that arose out of Brazil in the 1960s and swept the world with its urbane, sophisticated, and sexy combination of jazz and Brazilian rhythms. The band — Mendes and Carter, joined on Friday by Adriano Santos on drums, Itaiguara Brandão on bass, and Tim Moran on flute and sax — has been making the jazz rounds in New Haven and southern Connecticut lately, including at Fornarelli’s Restaurant on Orange Street, which regularly books jazz acts. Friday at noon the Bossa Nova Project kicked off an afternoon of Brazilian culture on the mainstage of the New Haven Green that would continue with Ginga Braziliera performing capoeira a couple hours later.
Within the second song of the Bossa Nova Project’s set, two people were up and dancing, accompanied by a lot of smiles and seated shimmying. More people came and laid blankets down in the grass. By the band’s fourth song, about 150 people had settled onto the Green to listen, or chat quietly, clapping in appreciation as the band members all traded sinuous solos. Throughout, Mendes proved herself a subtle player as well as capable bandleader and frontperson. Through her precise singing and expressions and gestures, she gave each line of lyric meaning that crossed the language barrier.
The band even paid a visit to “The Girl from Ipanema,” setting it to a different groove and thus giving that war horse of a tune a new kind of trot. Even a passing breeze became part of the music, filling the microphones for a moment as Mendes was heading through the English verse to “Ipanema.”
“Tall and tan and young and lovely / The girl from Ipanema goes walking and / When she passes, each one she passes ... the wind blows away,” Mendes ad-libbed.
By 12:45, when the Bossa Nova Project dialed the music’s energy up a notch toward the end of its set, the crowd numbered 200, relaxing as the sun began to peek through the clouds. In the heat and humidity, The Bossa Nova Project’s music felt right at home.