With a part in Adam Sandler’s new movie and the release of her highly acclaimed CD ‘In Hi-Fi Stereo’, Mindi Abair is certainly on a roll. Consequently, when Jazz Review recently caught up with her, there was a lot to talk about.
JazzReview: I was at a concert of yours recently and the audience was really energized. They were dancing and entirely electrified. As a matter of fact people were lined up to see you when I arrived. How do you get your audience so excited?
Mindi Abair: I love coming home to Saint Petersburg. My band and I look forward to getting on stage and playing. I’d like to think that the audience is having as good of a time as we’re having. That’s what we strive for. We figure that if our audience is having half as much fun as we are then we are doing our job. At the end of the day people feed off our energy and that works both ways. Any concert is a conversation between the musicians and the listener. We make it exciting for each other. I think we turn each other on to better things.
JazzReview: It’s been a long time since I have been to a concert where people are literally dancing in the aisles.
Mindi Abair: Yes, we want that. We’re not your father’s jazz band where you stand in the corner while the band plays. We are definitely not that. We grew up watching pop, rock and R&B bands that were rocking around the stage, the guys in Earth Wind & Fire, Maurice White for example. He didn’t stop and nor did Mick Jagger. They were out there having a great time. Those are the people I look to. Tina Turner, she just never stops, constantly giving of herself, just giving and singing her heart out. That’s how I learned to be a performer. I feel like if you’re on stage and you have a microphone then you should give everything you’ve got to whoever is in the audience. This is especially so with the music from my new album. It really is music to have a good time to and dance to. It’s definitely not music to light a candle to. You have to get up and dance.
JazzReview: I was reading your bio and it starts off by explaining that you were born on tour into a musical family. What does this mean?
Mindi Abair: When I was born my dad was on tour with a band called The Entertainers. He was their saxophone player. Basically my mother went home to Saint Petersburg to have me and a few days later they took me out on the road. For the first few years I was around we didn’t have a house.
The band broke up when I was four and we moved back to Saint Petersburg, Fl. For those first four years I was either in a band truck or a car or a hotel. I grew up traveling around and listening to my dad play in what was a blue eyed soul band. That was my childhood (laughter) and more (laughter). We joined them and right away it was one big happy family on the road. Looking back it really was. The first couple years were, for me, really formative. I got a chance to be a part of something really fun. Of course when we got back to Saint Petersburg I wanted to play an instrument. My parents enrolled me into piano lessons and I loved that. In the fourth grade, when school band started, they put a saxophone out there on the ground and said, chose whatever instrument you want. Of course I went for the saxophone. I think that growing up that way definitely saved who I was.
Jazz Review: Who were your musical influences?
Mindi Abair: Early on, I was just like every other kid on the block. I listened to pop radio and we would go to each others house and sing to the music on the radio and it was all pop and rock music. It went anywhere from Earth, Wind & Fire to the Police to Blondie.
I played saxophone in the band and in order to play you have to take note of what other sax players are doing. So I heard David Sanborn for the first time and said, Oh Wow! He was a sax player I didn’t know too much about who obviously came from a jazz background. But he played to music that was like pop music of the day. His songs sounded like something that would have been on pop radio. It was a great bridge for me as a kid to think ‘oh you mean a sax can be its own instrument with a rock band behind it’. That’s really cool. From Sanborn, that took me into a world of more jazz and I got into the Yellow Jackets. I’m a huge fan of the Yellow Jackets and from there I knew they were fans of Miles Davis. Then I wanted every Miles Davis record. You can spend your whole life going through Miles Davis records. He was such an amazing influence. I learned Wayne Shorter’s songs too. He was so musical. He didn’t really play licks but he kind of played these shapes. He was such an interesting player. So I really think I had a lot of influences from a lot of different genres which definitely shows up in my music today. It’s a mix of soul, jazz and pop.
JazzReview: If you were to name a saxophonist, past or present, which you admire and would like, or would have liked, to collaborate with, whom would it be?
Mindi Abair: Could I choose someone living or dead?
JazzReview: Sure (laughter)
Mindi Abair: If we’re talking about saxophonists I would love to do something with David Sanborn. I’m a huge fan. I love what he’s brought to this generation of saxophonists. I know the people before him were funky but, for my generation, he really had his own voice and you knew it was him when you turned on a record.
He was a great example of someone who was a great inspiration to a lot of people. I would love to do something with him. I played with him on a jazz cruise a couple of years ago. He asked me to do ‘Chicago Song’ and then he looked at me and asked do you know ‘Chicago Song’? I just laughed and played the song. So I would love to play with him. Also I would have loved to play with Cannonball Adderley. I was always a huge fan of Cannonball Adderley and he’s from right outside Tampa in Lakeland. He died before I really got a chance to be a fan but his brother Nat Adderley actually came to my college during my first year there and did a clinic at the University of North Florida. I got to play one song with him and that was definitely a high light of my life. I will always remember that.
JazzReview: What would you consider to be your first big breakthrough moment as a musician?
Mindi Abair: When I moved to LA I definitely had a hard time finding my way. You don’t just walk into LA and take over the place. I came from Berklee College of Music with a degree in woodwind performance and thought ‘hey I’ll go out to LA and get a record deal and go on the road with my band’. It’s easier said than done, they don’t just hand out record deals at the door. People have their own guys that they hire and people they are used to.
I basically decided I would play on the streets and book any club that would even feed us to play. (Laughter). So we ended up playing coffee shops and little jazz clubs and places like that. In the meantime I asked my friend to move out here because I needed a keyboard player and he did. So one night we were playing in a little club called La Café a Club in Sherman Oaks and in walks John Tesh. He’s pretty unmistakable. I mean he’s seven feet tall. He sticks out in a crowd and here we are in this little jazz club that probably seats thirty people and he sat and watched the whole show. He talked to me afterwards and asked if I would want to go on the road. I said yes. He told me he did Entertainment Tonight during the week but we could go out on the weekends. To have someone of that caliber ask you to join them and play the sax. I was truly taken aback. I had a couple of lucky breaks like that. I was out playing my sax on the street and Bobby Lyle walked by. I knew exactly who he was, and he told me he should hire me. I agreed and that lasted for about five or six years. You never know how you will be discovered.
JazzReview: You’ve been elected to the Board of Governors of the Los Angeles Chapter of NARAS, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Tell me about this.
Mindi Abair: I’ve been a member of the Recording Academy for a few years now and I have become more and more involved. It’s a lot of charity work and a lot of work when they put on the Grammy every year. That’s what they are best known for but what are they are not known for, but should be, is what they do for the community.
They have something called ‘music cares’ that really helps out musicians if they’ve lost their job or lost their insurance and are in need. They really come to the rescue in a lot of extreme cases. Also education for kids is such a huge part of what the Recording Academy does. They have a project called ‘Grammy in the schools’. I just played during the week of the Grammy&&&s for ‘Grammy in the schools’, where they brought in kids from all across the country and different artists like Boney James, Brian Culbertson and me bought in our music. We rehearsed them and put them through the paces of what they would experience in the music business as it is now. We put on a concert with these kids. Let me say if I could have played like that at sixteen or seventeen. Wow! These kids were from all across the country and were incredible.
JazzReview: What age group does the ‘Grammy in the schools’ cater to?
Mindi Abair: The Grammy caters to all age groups. For me becoming a Governor for the Recording Academy was just a case of getting involved even more and having a say as a musician and artist as to what happens to music education in the future. I’m looking forward to getting more involved on all those levels, to being able to help with the Grammy’s but also to help make decisions on what our community as musicians and artists do to further those things. It’s very important to me and I felt it was the right time in my life to start giving back like that and spending more time and energy on things like that. It feels great and is definitely inspiring for me.
JazzReview: Tell me about the new CD, ‘In Hi- Fi Stereo’. It’s excellent, it’s energetic and it’s funky.
Mindi Abair: I really wanted to make a record that was just fun. I didn’t want to make a meaningful, reflective, thoughtful record. I wanted to make a record that you’d groove to and your head would be bopping to. I wanted to make a record where you felt like you were in the club with me and my band. I didn’t want to rely on production. I didn’t want to sit around for days in the studio and come up with keyboard products and this and that. I really wanted to rely on the interplay of the musicians in the room and just capture the spirit that results when great musicians come together. So I brought some amazing musicians together and we had such a party in the studio and I really think that spirit made it into the music and into the record. I’m just so proud of it and really think it’s one of those records you have to smile and bop your head to.
JazzReview: You did a TV special in tribute to Diane Warren on April 8.
Mindi Abair: The PBS special was such an amazing night to be a part of. As a song writer I admire Diane Warren so much. It was such an honor to be in her presence and to be able play her songs as well as being on stage with such great artist as Toni Braxton and Gloria Estefan. As a musician they are people you love to listen to and that you admire. I have been such a fan of Estefan for so many years.
It was fun to even meet Diane back stage. LeAnn Rimes was amazing and she introduced me. I thought as she introduced me, wow, LeAnn Rimes is introducing me. This is such a good night. They told me I would be playing a medley of her movie hits and I thought to myself ‘who writes better songs than Diane Warren’. The medleys are so beautiful they just soar. Even when these medleys are played on saxophone, without the words to emote the songs, it is still so powerful. It was an amazing night and made for such a beautiful special.
JazzReview: You are quite the busy person. You are going to be in the wedding band as part of Adam Sandler’s new movie.
Mindi Abair: It was a fun call to get. I’m always running around the country with my band playing concerts. To get a call saying ‘hey, you want to be in Adam Sandler’s new movie’ was great and I said, ‘yes I do’. I have done stuff with Adam for many years. I toured with him when he did the summer tours. We had such a great time and following that I played on his next record. I sang and played sax on it. You know every once in a while he will give me a call and he’s someone that always uses his friends and people surrounding him in all his movies and records. I’ve always admired him for that. He called me and they recorded the song for the movie and the next week we shot it. It was fun to be on a movie set. We made it the rocking movie set. I don’t speak but I play my saxophone and it’s a fun scene.
JazzReview: What advice would you give a newcomer to the music industry?
Mindi Abair: There’s no magic pill or magic phrase that can tell you how to be successful and have a career in music. I do get asked that question all of the time. What would you say to kids to help them have a career and do what they want for a living? I always tell people what it was like when I was a kid. The most important thing I ever learned was from my dad. I was about to audition for the Florida All State Jazz band. I was a senior in high school and I really wanted be in this jazz band. It was where all the cool kids were and it was an honor to be there. I was practicing and practicing for it and we had to play a couple of jazz tunes before I went for the audition. I finally went in and put my instrument down and said to my dad ‘I’m not good enough’. There are going to be guys there who play better than me and with a lot more experience. I think I’m just going to hang it up. My dad said, ‘okay quit, you can quit, that’s cool’. At first I said I would quit but he said just go and try. I went back in the audition and I made it. I went to my dad and he told me sometimes it’s about putting yourself out there, going out and doing what you love and giving yourself a shot at it. Sometimes the most talented people give up or they’re scared to go try and give themselves a chance. If you give yourself a chance at least you know you tried. You had a chance to succeed. I thought that was the best advice ever. Just put yourself out there. Succeed or fail, at least you know you tried.
JazzReview: What else can we expect from Mindi Abair?
Mindi Abair: I think this new record opens up a lot of doors. I think making an organic record like this and just putting myself out there as a player and taking a really honest organic look at what my band looks and sounds like. It will definitely open a lot of doors for touring and getting together with different musicians. I just played on Keb’ Mo’s latest record and what I heard on the track I played on was just beautiful.
Musically, expect a lot of fun things from me. It’s just the beginning. Every album has it own distinctive sound so in the future expect something different from me.