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Mindi Abair: Game Changer

Trish Richardson By

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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 Was—unafraid 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 times—and I don't have any judgement of this—but 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."
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