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 changingshe 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?"
And why Jazz Alley? "We've played Jazz Alley for ten years over Valentine's weekend," states Abair. "It's home. It's home base. The audiences are just the best, just the best. It's so many friends and people that I've come to know. And such a forgiving, family audience at this point that I really wanted it to be that. I didn't want it to be somewhere new; I didn't want it to be somewhere strange. I just wanted it to be somewhere that was homey, that was comfortable, that we could just be in and feel at home and record the shows and feel good and get some great stuff down. So that's why I chose Jazz Alley."
She continues, "Reaching the potential for what it could be in those four nights, it was different than being in a rehearsal room. To actually see it, after you've rehearsed for four days. To actually step on stage and watch it happen. It was pretty amazing for us that day. I think for all of us. We all knew it was going to be good. But how good? And how are people going to accept it? It isn't really jazz. It's somewhat jazz. I don't know. It's good music. It doesn't matter."
Besides her talent, what is one of the things that Jacobs admires most about Abair? "Her bravery," he says without hesitation. "To make a record like Wild Heart
, most people have a hit record with a certain thing; they continue to make the same record the same way all the time. They don't want to take a chance. Mindi's brave that way. She took a total chance. By having Joe Perry come play 'Kickass.' To have Gregg Allman
on a song, instead of the sound that people sort of lock her into. I admire that in her, that bravery part. That was the thing that I admired in Don Was, when I was with Was/Not Wasunafraid to try things, unafraid to push a genre. Unafraid. That's what I admire most about Mindi."
When asked for a story to describe who Mindi is or what she means to him, Jacobs had to struggle a bit to pinpoint the exact right one. Instead, he started describing how much he admires her. "I'm really proud of her," he says. "The Grammy thing. To take a record like that ( Wild Heart
) that was totally different from any record she had done."
Abair thanked Jacobs in the liner notes on her Wild Heart
CD, even though he didn't play on the record, which some of his peers questioned him about. The guitarist responds, "I believed in her. I supported her. I didn't ask her a bunch of questions. Guys that were top players, they asked her a bunch of questions. 'Well how come I'm not playing on it?' I totally got it. She was looking outside her normal camp to see what she could discover.
"What I said was, 'You have to go for what you know.' And it paid off for her. So when people see, ' Special thanks to Randy Jacobs
' for a record I didn't play on, that's what it's about. It's about our friendship and me supporting her, believing in her. I totally get it." So there's your Mindi story. "There's my Mindi story, without even trying."
It would seem that the Newport Jazz Festival is a fortuitous spot for Abair, because in addition to being the birthplace of Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers, she also happened upon a collaboration with Weinberg, longtime drummer for Bruce Springteen's E Street band, as well as a bandleader in his own right.
According to Weinberg, "In 2011, I was introduced to Mindi at the Newport Jazz Festival with Bill Champlin. He and I put together a six piece group and played the festival. The promoter suggested to my manager that Mindi come down and sit in. I had heard of her, but hadn't met her. Being Mindi she just blew everybody away. It was fantastic. Right after that I said to Bill, we've got to get Mindi in the band. She came on the road with that group on the fall of 2011. And it was a good decision because she just tore it up every night."
Abair recalls, "I met Max Weinberg about six days after Clarence Clemons died. The promoter for Max's gig called me and asked if I'd play a little Clarence tribute with Max for his gig a few days after Clarence's passing. I was blown away and jumped at the opportunity. I'm such a fan. I ended up really bonding with Max and joining him on the road for a few weeks. We became friends and kept finding opportunities to play together. He called me one night and said that he was playing a benefit at the Beacon Theater called Stand Up For Heroes, and Bruce Springsteen was coming in to headline it. Max was the leader of the house band. He asked if I'd come in and play 'Spirit in the Night' with Bruce and play Clarence's part. I was just over the moon to get the chance to play the part of one of my heroes, Clarence. And meeting and playing with Bruce was really a dream come true. He's one of my favorite artists. I was on Cloud 9 for a long time after that!"
Seems Weinberg was taken with her, as well. "You just have to meet Mindi and friendships develop," says the drummer. "I've referred to her as three-hundred sixty degrees of happy."
He continues, "Going on the road with people, some people say it builds character. Some people say it reveals character. It certainly does reveal character and Mindi was just great to be around. She comes out of the elevator in the morning looking like diamonds, which is an indication of her professionalism, her personal discipline."
How would Weinberg best describe the saxophonist? "Fun, fantastic performer, always willing to stretch herself. She is always willing to say, 'Yeah, I can do that.' Or 'I'll do that.' Or 'I'll figure out a way to do that.' That's the kind of people you want around you, in life generally, but specifically in bands. Who can do that? She's got the first hand up in the air.
"A lot of timesand I don't have any judgement of thisbut the first thing is, 'Talk to my manger and what does it pay?' And that's all very important, but that just wasn't her style. She just wanted to play. It was all about the music. We could work out the other details, which obviously we did. But I could tell immediately that the focus was on the music and performing and contributing."
What was it like on the road with the beautiful blonde saxophonist? Recalls Weinberg, "We were playing small clubs, theaters, where you could see the whole audience. When Mindi came out obviously there was kind of a reaction from the gentlemen in the crowd. But then when she played the sax, forget it. Everyone in the building picked up on that. As I said, it's like three-hundred sixty degrees with Mindi Abair."
How does Abair onstage compare to Abair offstage? "Very similar," states Weinberg. "She's got an incredible personality. Generally, in my experience, you can go one of two ways. You can be completely different off stage and then come alive when you are onstage. But Mindi's up all the time and the stage is just another facet of her engaging personality. And approach to life. And she hasn't had it easy."
In fact, according to Abair in The Soul of Jazz: Stories and Inspiration from Those Who Followed the Song in Their Souls
(Grayson James Press, 2011).
When I came to L.A., I immediately got a job as a waitress because no one would hire me as a musician. I would walk into jam sessions in Los Angeles and ask if I could play. They wouldn't even think I was a musician. I looked like a cheerleader at that point. I was twenty-one years old, and I'm sure I didn't look the part of what I was trying to be. It was interesting. I learned you kind of have to make your own.
And because no one would hire me, I made my own. I did everything from playing on the street to pay the rent, to booking myself as a solo saxophonist and playing in lobbies of hotels or parties. I even played with a trio, or a duo, and hired guys I wanted to play with. Whatever they wanted, that's what I had.
I played all the little dirty rocker clubs in Hollywood, and any jazz club or restaurant that would let us in. Everyone was playing for free. We moved up slowly to getting paid maybe thirty dollars to fifty dollars a night. We definitely paid our dues. We even played on the route of the L.A. Marathon (for free), just to play. We didn't say no to any moneymaking opportunity or any opportunity to get in front of people and play. You never know.
But then, as luck/talent/being-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time would have it, Abair got her big break. According to the musician, "At one point, I was playing on the street alone in Santa Monica, and Bobby Lyle
walked past me. He is a veteran jazz musician. He is incredible, and I recognized him immediately, since I was already a fan. He walked by and stood and watched me play for a while.
"I am thinking to myself, 'I've got a college education, and I am out here on the street playing, and I've got Bobby Lyle watching me. This is a little embarrassing.'
"He stayed to the end of the song, and then he walked up and said, 'You are really good. I should hire you for something.'
"And I thought, 'Well, maybe this isn't embarrassing. Maybe this is pretty cool.' He did hire me, and I played on one of his albums, Power of Touch
[Atlantic/WEA, 1997], and toured with him on and off for years. We'll still do stuff together every once in a while. He was a huge part of my coming up the ranks. It all came from his walking up Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and seeing me out there with my case out."
Weinberg adds, "Mindi played every kind of gig she could think of and putting no boundaries on what she would do. A lot of people do that, [set boundaries]. Sometimes it works for them and sometimes it doesn't. They cut themselves off from other musical experiences that would broaden them. And Mindi can do it all. And in tune, which also could sometimes be a little bit unusual. In tune. And I think that is a good description of Mindi. That she is "in tune." And not just on her instrument. She is in tune."
When asked to compare Springsteen and Abair, since Weinberg has played beside them both, how would he compare the two? "I wouldn't necessarily compare them," he responded. "What I get [from both Bruce and Mindi] is that they both take their fun very seriously. And when you dissect that phrase, it's about having fun, but it's not an excuse to be sloppy and party, although it is a party. So she brings that same kind of enthusiasm that I see in Bruce. Completely fearless in front of an audience, which he is, and what I have noticed about her. That's a hard quality to get. If I am speaking about Mindi and Bruce in the same sentence, it's their professionalism, their dedication and that idea that we are going to take our fun very seriously."
What quality of Abair's does Weinberg most admire? "Her work ethic. She works hard and keeps going, in various areas. She just keeps going and that is sort of the key to success in any field. Don't stop. Sometimes individuals in bands or bands as a whole, sometimes they can be their own worst enemy. And Mindi's not. Mindi just keeps going."
The drummer continues, "If you ask her to do a gig with you, she's there for you. When she does her own gig, she is very generous with showing the audience what her band or the people she is playing with can do. She is a great performer on stage. She is beautiful. She sings fantastically. She really does kind of have it all."
Besides playing incredible lead sax, Abair's double threat (although it wouldn't be all that surprising to find out that she has some hidden dance moves as well!) includes soulful vocals, which although she wasn't all that certain about at first, she has incorporated more of in recent years.
Abair says, "I think I was hesitant to add too many vocals to my set early on because I knew people knew me as a saxophonist primarily. I didn't want to shake them up too much. But now I just don't care. You know what? You are going to like this music. It's gonna be cool. Just go along for the ride with me. Buckle up. I swear you are going to have a good time. Because I
am! Let's not think too much about this."
Her latest record, Wild Heart
, has four vocals on it. "I've been really loving getting those vocals out there. They've been fun songs to sing live. They're up, they're fun. I think they add a lot to the show. They add a lot of depth and the possibility for a journey into the show."
Abair's life seems to be blessed with her ability to snowball one gig into another that-much-more-fun one. Like playing onstage at the Newport Jazz Festival. Or making a supposed one-time appearance on American Idol
. One of the judges happened to be vocalist Steven Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith, when Abair made her first appearance in a duet with contestant Paul McDonald in 2011. Tyler was quoted as saying to McDonald after his duet with Abair, "Forget you, who's your saxophonist?"
The gig on American Idol
turned into Abair making another appearance on the show's finale. Abair recalls that hectic morning and an unexpected turn of events. "It was the last day of American Idol
, the last finale for American Idol
. I wasn't hired to play. I was home in bed, checking my email and I get this call at ten in the morning from the producer of American Idol
. 'Get down here. As soon as possible, get down here. You're on the show.'
I was like, 'OK. Don't you tape in a couple of hours?'
'Yup, get down here.'
I get up, I have no make-up on. I'm putting stuff together. And I get another call, about five minutes later. 'OK. We need you down here, bring all of your horns. All of them.'
I'm like, 'What am I playing?'
'I don't know. Just bring everything and you need to be here now.'
'I'm trying. Believe me. OK. I'm going, I'm going.'"
Trying her best to get to the set on time, Abair gets yet another phone call. "I pick up the phone and it's Steven Tyler. Unmistakable voice. He's like, 'Mindi. Steven Tyler.'
"And I was like, 'Hey?' I was thinking, oh my gosh, is he calling me to get me down there to do the show?
"He's like, 'We've got to do this. It's time.'
'What are we doing?'
'It's time to play, man. We've got to make this happen.'
I'm like, What are you talking about?
He said, 'Come to my trailer. We've got to do this.'
"I have no idea what was going on. I'm just being slapped in the face by American Idol
then I get a call from Steven. I'm like what is going on?"
Finally Abair gets to the Idol
set and finds out she will be playing on the last show. Afterwards, she gets whisked into Tyler's trailer and according to Abair, "He's right up in my face and he starts singing. Then he turns on the new Aerosmith record and starts playing it for me. I was like, 'This is great! Wow!' Yet she still had no idea what the iconic vocalist wanted from her.
Tyler told Abair, "I want you to tour with us. But I've got to see if you can really do this. All I've seen is you do American Idol
. Play." Tyler had her play along to the record. Abair says, "He's having me play different stuff on the record. He's having me play in and out of him. Then he's like, 'I know you sing. Sing this.' Then he would sing something crazy. And I would sing it back to him.
According to Abair, Tyler told her, "OK you're hired. The guys in the band, they have no idea. You've got three gigs to make it happen and then they are going to take a vote. They'd say no right now, but you're going to play. It's gonna happen. I really want you there. We need this. We need to make this bigger than it is!"
Abair was hired for three shows, unbeknownst to the other members of Aerosmith, having been given no music, set list, charts or direction.
Recalls Abair, "[There was] no 'you play on this song, or this song, or this song.' No 'talk to our music director.' No. None of it. It was like forty years of material just hanging out there. And I was supposed to sing on it, too. So when I arrived at the first gig, it was five minutes before the show and I got called into Joe Perry's dressing room. Joe could not have been nicer. He was like, 'We are really happy to have you here. Thank you for doing this. What can I do to make your life easier or make you happy here? We just want you to be comfortable. Thanks for joining us.'"
Her request was simple: a set list, which she received "about five minutes before the show. There was one song I didn't know that I was listening to on my phone as the intro to the show was starting. Oh, and we didn't rehearse. No rehearsal. Sometimes you just have to hang by the seat of your pants and go with it and hope that it all turns out all right."
And indeed it did because Abair wound up doing the whole tour with them. Abair says with enthusiasm, "It was absolutely fantastic. Those guys are total rock stars. Steven's backstage, running around with no clothes on. And Joe is just cooler than cool. Just kind of appears before the show in a puff of smoke. It is exactly
like you think it would be."
How has touring with both Max Weinberg and Aerosmith redefined her own music? "I think the last couple of years of my life has definitely been influential in bringing this style into my new music and letting me expand who I am. And to kind of push the boundaries of what I have been doing. Touring with Aerosmith and Max Weinberg and getting to play with Springsteen, doing American Idol
for a couple of years, it really allowed me to, how do you say this? It allowed me the freedom to kind of break outside of myself."
"It's this great gift that we have as artists that we get to write our own music and play our own music and direct our own band and tour. You become this caricature of yourself. That I really do think it helps to walk outside that bubble sometimes and get influenced by other people and get pushed into different directions then you would think of yourself.
"I don't write songs like Aerosmith writes. I don't do that. So to immerse in forty years of Aerosmith and to take on that tradition, you really gotta give a thousand percent every night. Those guys are just sweating and bleeding up there for the audiences. I love that! When I did get off the road with them, I thought how do I bring this energy, this sheer power
, this abandon that they play with? How do I bring that back to my career and have it make sense? Because I always felt that I gave a hundred percent to my audiences and my records, but there is a different kind of abandon with rock and roll and popular music."
Abair is looking to bring back the days when saxophone was more rock and roll, back to the days of King Curtis
or Junior Walker & the All Stars
. Even back when Aerosmith first started and some of their first songs had sax solos on them. Says Abair, "It was just this raucous, fun, saxophone that totally fit with rock and roll. But we seem to have lost that. Saxophone has become an instrument that you only are a fan of if you are a jazz fan. I thought twice about that, being on the road with Aerosmith."
She continues, "I'm bringing some rock and roll sax back. Let's do this! Let's not pussyfoot around here. Let's get a little grittier, let's play some guitar licks. I'm like, no, Justin Timberlake brought sexy back, well, I'm bringing some saxy back!" The saxophonist adds, "I think Aerosmith was really influential, along with Max Weinberg, Springsteen and American Idol
. I had a dose of it for a couple years. It was pretty serious of the Universe telling me, it's all right to just go for it. To give your heart and soul every time you play. And just let it all out. So that's what I did. I was lucky enough to have friends like Joe Perry and Max and Greg Allman and Trombone Shorty and all of those guys to help me on that path. And make it more fun, too!"
Was she able to envision her life as big and as cool as the one she is now living? "I always loved the rock band. I didn't grow up thinking I wanted to be Charlie Parker
. I didn't even know who Charlie Parker was until I was in college. I grew up watching MTV. I wanted to be Tina Turner. I wanted to be out there dancing and screaming and singing. I wanted to be in the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith or Springsteen. Those were the bands that I really loved to watch. I loved that energy. I loved the visual of it. I told Joe Perry when I joined the band, 'This may sound weird, but I learned how to work a saxophone from watching you work a guitar.' He's like a gunslinger. It's part of him. It rolls around with him. He's kind of like a cowboy with it. I wanted to be that with the saxophone. I didn't want to be Sonny Rollins
, I wanted to be Joe Perry with a saxophone."
Another dream in the back of Abair's mind had been to do something on a professional level with her passion for fashion. She found a way to merge the world of music and the world of fashion with her latest venture, Mindi Abair Jewelry.
The dream unexpectedly came to fruition one night after a show in New York when celebrity jewelry designer Carrie Dawes approached Abair about the two creating a jewelry line together.
Dawes liked what Abair was wearing and her personal style, so she asked Abair if the saxophonist would like to start a fashion jewelry line. Typical Abair, she said absolutely. Yet Abair quickly told Dawes, "I don't really know where to start with that, I know music." Fortunately Dawes did. Abair describes the line, "It's fine jewelry, but it's definitely not your mom's fine jewelry." (Unless your mom is incredibly stylish and cool, of course!) Abair continues, "It's really fun stuffa little edgy, but still really pretty." (Words that could aptly describe the jewelry line's namesake.)
Never far from her mind, Abair thought about her first love, her music, while designing it. According to Abair, "I drew from my sense of style, yet wanted the line to be practical for me as a saxophonist and performer. I like a little rock n' roll in fashion, and I wanted a line of jewelry that rocked. I needed it to work onstage, though, and be practical with how physical I get performing. So the rings are big, but light. And even the knuckle rings move easily. They're all so comfortable. The bracelets are tight to my arm so they don't hang into the sax keys. And the necklaces work around my sax strap and where it hits me. I even have arm bands coming out. I've been testing them on the road!"
Which piece is her favorite, so far? "Probably the hand jewelry piece that I wore to the Grammys. It's stunning to meall triangles hooked together that climb from a ring all the way to where it attaches up the hand as a bracelet."
Have her fans embraced the idea of Abair as a jewelry designer? "I've actually had a couple of people come to show wearing the jewelry! They had bought it off the website. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, that's my jewelry. Cool!' I almost jumped out of my skin!"
Growing up, Abair never found the competiveness of sports appealing. "I wasn't a sports girl, I was definitely a music girl. It seemed like catching a ball was much harder than playing a musical instrument." Yet she manages to quench her competitive thirst while onstage. For example during the Summer Horns tour, no one was aware of the onstage competition between Abair and saxophonists Dave Koz and Gerald Albright, when they would back up saxophonist Richard Elliot. She recalls, "There was one point where we all held out a note, very soft. We all held it out to see how long we could hold it out and who would win every night. I would win every night and they would all curse me!"
What is her secret? How is she able to physically play that hard and then have a conversation with the audience? Simple. "No one told me it was hard."
As someone who has literally wrote the book on how to be comfortable while performing ( How To Play Madison Square Garden: A Guide To Stage Performance
, Not More Saxophone Music, Inc., 2011) Abair admits to still having occasional stage fright, most recently playing a gig at the Grand Ole' Opry earlier this year. "I was in Nashville and my friend Pete Fisher, who runs the Grand Ole Opry, (27.10) said, 'I think it would be really cool for you to come down and just play a song.' I was like, 'At the Opry
? Well, OK.'
"It was a daunting thing for me. Playing the Grand Ole' Opry is like playing Madison Square Garden, in my mind. It's huge. The history that's there, all of it. It's really unbelievably huge. Just getting there and seeing it. There was a magic there.
"In the country world, the artists are fans of each other and they're hanging around. They're getting to know you. It's a really, really special world. I felt that specialness and I felt that history. I felt I had to live up to it to stand on that stage and be worthy. I felt really lucky that they let someone like me in. The country world doesn't really smile on a lot of saxophonists. It's not your quintessential country instrument. I sang 'Always on My Mind,' a Willie Nelson song, and that's a pretty daunting task in the halls of the biggest country music venue in the world. I was nervous and I normally don't get nervous. I wrote a book how to not be nervous and give a great stage performance. So it definitely hit me, the gravity of it. And how cool it was. And how much I should be honored to be thereand not screw it up! I was just giddy. I was in hog heaven. It was great."
How did she get past the stage fright? Abair replies, "As I walked out onstage, I just reminded myself to soak it in. Forget being scared. Just stop it. You are going to ruin it for yourself. You've got this beautiful moment in front of you and there's all these people here. And they want to have a good time. Sing your song. Enjoy it. Soak in the great band that is playing with you. Just be in the moment. I kind of chided myself as I was walking onstage. Don't go into your mind and have it spin. Just get into it and be in it. And love it. And soak it in. And that's what I did. I reasoned it through with myself. "
Yet with all the professional accolades and recognition by both other musicians and her fans, Abair remains humbled and inspired and feels blessed to be able to do a job she loves every day. "I never did have a 'Plan B' if music didn't work out. I had friends I know in college that got a teaching degree in music, just thinking they would be a teacher. Or they got a music business degree or they took the bar exam, thinking they would be a music attorney. Something like that and be on the peripheral side. I just always probably had a very naïve confidence that it was all going to work out somehow. It wasn't easy, but it has all worked out somehow. I just keep chugging ahead and making music. And getting out there and having fun. 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. And trying to be inspired all the time."
Abair's music seems to be a happy, musical bridge between jazz and all other types of music. And she takes pride in not following the traditional jazz path. "I actually have a lot of people come up to me after shows and say, 'I'm not a jazz fan, but I like you.' Or 'I didn't think I liked jazz, but I like your band, I like your music.' And I take that as a nice compliment. Because we are termed 'jazz' and we are in the jazz community, but there's not really much jazziness, jazzy stuff, going on with my music. It is mostly based in pop and soul and rock and blues. Every once in a while I will throw a jazzy chord in just to keep it all cool. I think we can be the missing link for people sometimes. If they come from a pop or rock world, a more mainstream word, that we can get them into a few different genres. We are their gateway drug into the world of jazz. We won't scare them off."
She also uses her talent and name towards helping others in the music industry, both newcomers and veterans. "I really love the work that I do with NARAS (the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences), the company that puts on the Grammy's."
Abair was elected as a Governor on the Board of the Los Angeles Chapter of NARAS in 2009, where she served for three years until 2012. She was then elected Secretary and served for a year. In 2013, Abair was elected as the President of the Los Angeles Chapter to a two-year term. "It's fun to serve and to try and make our community better."
Abair also enjoys her work with The Grammy Foundation, which gives resources to students and to schools, to increase their music programs. She also donates her time to MusiCares, another charity that branches out from the Grammys, and which offers musicians assistance and resources for medical, financial or personal emergencies. According to Abair, "I've had a good time serving as governor and president of the chapter, and in leading some of those efforts and getting involved in advocacy for artist rights and the rights of the creators of music. We've lobbied in Washington, D.C. and here in Los Angeles to try and really change those laws, the copyright laws, the laws that protect us as writers and creators. I really get into that kind of work. I love that. And I think I am good at it. And it does good for all of us as a community of music. I dig that."
While Weinberg observed that Abair seems to have it all, her dream come true life still has its occasional nightmarish aspects, as well. For instance, she had some misfortune when her car was broken into while running errands just a few minutes from home earlier this year. "My alto saxophone, mouthpiece, and oh everything, was stolen. At the very beginning of the year, they were stolen out of my car about five minutes from my house in Hollywood. It was in there for five minutes unattended. Five minutes. My sax was taken. My mouthpiece that I played for ten plus years, that was customized, there's not another like it on the planet and it was taken. My wireless system, Ipad, Iphone, everything. I kind of realized that the saxophone was the last thing I was really hanging onto. And once that was stolen, I realized that 'Wow, I am just full Buddhist now. Complete un-attachment.'"
She continues, "I don't need the 'stuff.' I do need a saxophone and a mouthpiece, and that appeared magically. Yamaha was just great. They gave me a new horn. They shipped it in from New York and they found something close to the model that I have, which is an older model. It's a beautiful new horn."
Though Abair had lost items that were irreplaceable, both personally and professionally, she looked at this as another dream opportunity. "Nothing like getting your mouthpiece stolen to light a fire under you to finish the prototype that you've been working on for two years." Abair had been working on a new, customized Mindi Abair mouthpiece for a couple of years with Theo Wanne, a premier mouthpiece designer and manufacturer in Bellingham, Washington. She continues, "While I was up in Seattle, I met with him again and we finished it. That mouthpiece is going to be a signature Mindi Abair mouthpiece. That will come out, I believe in the fall of this year. That will be my first mouthpiece with my signature on the top of it. That's like my baby. So some good things came out of losing the last things I was attached to. Hopefully you take something bad and try and create something better from it. You take it and try and one up yourself and do better next time. And make something good out of it."
And what's next for the saxophonist / vocalist / jewelry designer / musical philanthropist / mouthpiece designer? "Obviously, the live record will be the next thing to sink my teeth into. But as far as what comes next, boy, I couldn't have seen Aerosmith coming, so there are certain things you just can't plan."