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Mindi Abair: Game Changer

Trish Richardson By

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Which piece is her favorite, so far? "Probably the hand jewelry piece that I wore to the Grammys. It's stunning to me—all 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 there—and 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."

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