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Mindi Abair: Game Changer

Trish Richardson By

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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!"
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