Mindi Abair: Game Changer

Trish Richardson By

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I literally never take it for granted, because it wasn’t easy to get here. It’s not an easy business to this day. But it’s not about that. It’s about getting to do what you love. And getting to do what moves you. —Mindi Abair
You know a dream is like a river,
Ever changing as it flows.
And a dreamer's just a vessel,
That must follow where it goes.

—"The River," vocals by Garth Brooks, lyrics by Victoria Lynn Shaw

You know what it's like to wake up in the middle of the night with a vivid dream? And you know that if you don't have a pencil and pad by the bed, it will be completely gone by the next morning. Sometimes it's important to wake up and stop dreaming. When a really great dream shows up, grab it.

—Larry Page, cofounder of Google, Inc.

Dream on,
Dream until your dream comes true.

—"Dream On," vocals by Aerosmith, lyrics by Steven Tyler

Sometimes a dream is planned for, worked towards, obsessed over and sacrificed for. Other times, a dream shows up as unexpectedly and as easily in the waking hours as it does when we are asleep. For saxophonist Mindi Abair, her talent and determination have enabled her to be blessed with both in her multi-decade career. The unexpected kind of dream has taken form in a multitude of ways, including a gig on American Idol , which led to a summer tour with Aerosmith. Another annual appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival led the twice Grammy-nominated musician to a tour with drummer Max Weinberg and keyboardist/vocalist Bill Champlin and their big band, which in turn led to a gig with one of her idols, Bruce Springsteen. And most recently, again at the Newport Jazz Festival, another gig led her to reconnecting musically with friend and guitarist Randy Jacobs, which led to forming her newest endeavor, Mindi Abair and the The Boneshakers. The band is comprised of Abair, Jacobs, vocalist Sweetpea Atkinson, bassist Derek Frank, keyboardist Rodney Lee, and drummer Third Richardson.

One of the many positive results of the collaboration is the creation of her first live album, which was recorded in six live shows over four consecutive days at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley in Seattle in February 2015 and is currently in production.

So why has she waited until now to record the first live album? "Why not?" she chuckles. "You know what? I've always wanted to make a live record. I've toyed with the idea. We made a live DVD four or five years ago (Live In Hi-fi Stereo , Medialink, 2011) but I've never made a live CD. I think it is something that every band should do at some point. I look at my band as a total kickass live band. That's what we do. We go out and play live and have fun and create a party. And why not capture that?"

Although many of Abair's fans hadn't yet heard about the Boneshakers, for Abair they were the perfect choice. Says Abair, "I've played with Randy Jacobs, who's headed up the Boneshakers, for over twenty years on and off. He's just incredible and I'm a huge fan of his and the Boneshakers. So to try and meld the two together and come up with something together that's common, that's ours, is really, really fun. And I want the world to hear it!"

The musician continues, "I just think this new incarnation of Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers is really special. It's fun, it's organic, it's honest. I'm loving playing with the Boneshakers and that energy. It's good energy. I'm definitely going to ride that and have a good time with it."

Her latest album, Wild Heart (Heads Up, 2014) has a bit more of a rock and soul edge to it than her previous recordings. According to Abair, " Wild Heart set me on a path of a little more rock and roll, a little more soul. A little more bluesy, organic nature to my records and I loved that turn. It really brought me back to what I grew up with."

Abair first met Jacobs at the beginning of her professional career. "When I moved to L.A., I was just looking for places to play and looking around, trying to get booked anywhere. I played on the streets. I played anywhere they would let me. But finally someone told me about a gig that happened at a rock club called The Mint. Every Thursday night there was a band headed up by Oliver Leiber." Leiber is the son of Jerry Leiber who, as part of Leiber and Stoller, penned many great hits for Elvis Presley.

Abair continues, "Oliver was one of the guitar players and Randy was the other. I joined this band and we played every Thursday night to such a packed house. You couldn't even move in there! It was people dancing, drinking, smoking, sweating, screaming. It was just loud rock and roll, and soul, R&B. It was just over the top. Randy Jacobs would be doing back flips off the stage. I was running around, playing, just having a blast. By the time I would get home, I would be dripping wet with sweat from running around. It was an event!"

Jacobs played guitar on Abair's 2010 release In Hi-fi Stereo (Heads Up, 2010). He has also played with her band on and off throughout the years. Additionally, the two share a strong friendship and mutual respect and admiration for one another.

Jacobs began the Boneshakers in 1996, with vocalist Atkinson. The name was given to them, albeit unintentionally, by vocal powerhouse Bonnie Raitt. The Boneshakers have worked with Lyle Lovett, Don Was and Raitt, among others.

According to Abair, "I've always been a fan of his band, the Boneshakers. It's been kind of a little family. I've have known these guys for so long and we've each had our own little worlds that we fit very neatly into. We come cheer each other on. And we play with each other, moonlight with each other. But I love the fact that after so many years of being friends and being fans of each other that we can come together and really make music together again on a regular basis. Fuse those two worlds in a really fun way! It really, really works so well and it's just fun."

Jacobs recalls, "I met Mindi about 1991, when I was working with guitarist Oliver Leiber at The Mint. I always say I knew Mindi before the hair and make-up!"

The guitarist continues, "She could play. You could tell. Oliver told me, this chick can really play, you have to check it out. And when she came around, I said, 'You sure she's a girl?' She was just so shy. Her jacket was all buttoned up. She was just trying to fit in with the guys."

Besides her fashion sense, what are the greatest changes that Jacobs has seen in Abair over the years? "I think she is more freer," says Jacobs. "She is getting to be more of that girl that I first met. More free. More letting it go. I think especially with the Boneshaker aspect, I saw it at Jazz Alley. She was playing her ass off!"

Jacobs continues, 'Let's Straighten It Out' is a song that, with the Boneshakers, I usually take the solo. [At Jazz Alley] I let her have it, especially after hearing her do it in rehearsal. It was perfect for her because it opens up a whole new door of her playing, that sort of old school R & B saxophone. And she's got that.

"Vocally, she's starting to push it out there more because she's not trying to be like, well, I don't want to scare the wine drinkers at the table if I push the rock element too hard. She is just letting it fly, you know?

"We did 'Summertime' and she wanted to see something happen. She said how can we take it and make it more dangerous? And that's where she is changing—she wants to be something more dangerous."

Abair coming more into her own is allowing those around her to be more free with their own playing. According to Jacobs, "Our drummer, Third, [Frank 'Third' Richardson] was talking about how something is different. Yeah, the something different is that I am playing with Mindi and the Boneshakers, which is more me . So now I not trying to be this 'jazz' guy, I am just letting it fly. I am just letting me be me. We are helping each other out."

Jacobs muses, "I think we all get affected by it. You put a record out and it's in a genre. How much do you have to be in that genre before you offend somebody or scare them off? But I always told her, you have to stick to your guns. Your real fans will accept you. I always wanted her to do what she thought was best, not what the market calls for. I believe in her. I've always believed in Mindi."

"[The collaboration] was a fluke," Jacobs continues. "Last year, we played at the Hyatt Newport and played on what they call the second stage. Mindi played the night before, sort of a record release for Wild Heart and I sat in on a couple of songs. So the next day the promoter asked if we could have a guest, and I said Mindi's here, Mindi can be my guest. There was not even a lot of rehearsing, it was just 'Mindi's going to come.' The band knows a lot of Mindi's songs, so we will make it like a Boneshaker/Mindi show."

Once they rehearsed together, the potential that the group could reach together became clear to both them and the audience. Jacobs recalls, "We saw what could really go. After the Hyatt, her manager, Bud Harner, called me and asked if I would collaborate with her." Jacobs' response? "Of course. But Sweet Pea had to be a part of it because he is the Boneshakers. Sweet Pea loved it. Sweet Pea loves Mindi, he just thinks she's amazing. And he's a tough sell. If he doesn't think you're real, he doesn't buy it."

What about the Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers collaboration most appealed to Jacobs? "It's just the soulful aspect. She has a soul and rock thing. I grew up playing in horn bands. And I was used to that. I've always been attracted to horn players. But she was different in the sense that her aspect was definitely from the R&B/rock perspective, as opposed to the jazz perspective. And that was what attracted me to her right off."

How have the fans responded to this new marriage? According to Abair, "The audiences have been eating it up, just screaming and yelling. It's becoming a kind of raucous, blues, rock show." Jacobs simply says, "You've got the legend of Sweet Pea and you've got Mindi. How can you go wrong?"
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