Interview with marvelous Mindi Abair - one of the most recognizable saxophonists on the music scene today

"Jazz was born out of the Blues as well. They just widened the harmonic structure and put a different swing on it. But the basis for everything that became jazz is Blues."

Mindi Abair: Jazz-elicious & Funk-bulous

Mindi Abair is one of the most recognizable saxophonists on the music scene today. In a career that spans eight solo albums and countless collaborations in the studio and live on stage, Mindi has made her mark as one of the most recognizable saxophonists in the US. You may know her as the saxophonist on American Idol, or the only saxophonist to tour with Aerosmith since 1973. You may have seen her on stage with Bruce Springsteen for a historic night at the Beacon Theater, or tuned in as she joined Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra on the Late Show with David Letterman, or caught her appearance at The Grand Ole Opry. This powerhouse saxophonist/vocalist has made scores of friends along the way and earned the respect of top-shelf artists representing just about every genre of music. In addition to the years of hard work and dedication leading up to these successes, some of the credit is due to an impressive pedigree. Abair’s paternal grandmother was an opera singer, and her father was a saxophonist and B3 player in a band called The Entertainers – a gig that kept the whole family on the road for several years of Mindi’s childhood. By the time the band broke up and the Abairs put down roots in Florida, 5 year-old Mindi had already demonstrated musical aspirations of her own by taking up the piano. She picked up the saxophone in the fourth grade and took part in every band program available in elementary, middle and high school.

After a year at the university, she transferred to Berklee College of Music, where she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in woodwind performance. She took the advice and ran with it, all the way to the opposite coast. She landed in L.A., where she began a long dues-paying process that included touring gigs with Teena Marie, John Tesh, Bobby Lyle and Jonathan Butler. When she was home from the road, she booked her own band in just about any club that would have them. And on those occasions when none would, she played on the streets of Santa Monica. After eight successful solo albums, the two-time GRAMMY nominated saxophonist, singer, songwriter teamed up with powerhouse Detroit band The Boneshakers, led by guitarist Randy Jacobs and released the critically acclaimed debut Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers LIVE in Seattle in September of 2015. After 2 ½ years of non-stop touring with the five-piece band that includes vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson, drummer Third Richardson, keyboardist Rodney Lee and Derek Frank on bass, she called on the talents of renowned Blues Rock producer Kevin Shirley (Led Zeppelin, Joe Bonamassa, The Black Crowes, Aerosmith) to guide them into the studio for their first studio recording. They chose the famed Hollywood recording studio EastWest Studios, and recorded 11 new tracks of hard-driving blues, rock and soul in just five days. “The EastWest Sessions” (2017) includes guest appearances from Joe Bonamassa and the 2017 GRAMMY Best Contemporary Blues Album Winner Fantastic Negrito.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Special Thanks: Betsie Brown (Blind Raccoon) & Stephanie Gonzalez (Apropos Management)

How has the Rock, Blues and Jazz music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Music has been a constant in my world. I grew up with my father’s band The Entertainers. It was a high energy blue-eyed soul band. They were amazing. My father would shake and shimmy and knock his knees together playing saxophone. It was a fun way to grow up. My grandmother was an opera singer. She would sit at the piano for hours and play and sing. I’d sit with her and sing along.  Music was my normal, whatever style. I was a rocker girl growing up. I wanted to sing like Tina Turner and rock a stage like Nancy Wilson from Heart. I watched MTV constantly and loved the energy of rock ‘n’ roll. I started playing saxophone when I was 8, and it slowly became a part of who I was. I couldn’t sing like Tina Turner, but I could scream and emote on the saxophone like her. My saxophone made me bigger than I was. I loved it. It’s taken me a lot of places. I went to college at Berklee College of Music and moved immediately to Los Angeles. I played on the street to pay my rent for a while, and a jazz keyboardist Bobby Lyle hired me for his tour and record literally off the street. Amazing. From there I was hired by R&B artists Teena Marie and Jonathan Butler. I toured the world with The Backstreet Boys at the height of their career. I got paid to see the world and experience a much bigger life with them.  From there I started my own solo career, something I’d always wanted to do. I’ve recorded and toured with a lot of amazing artists along the way…I took breaks from my tour to join Duran Duran and Aerosmith because I couldn’t say no to them! I’ve had the great fortune to record with Gregg Allman, Trombone Shorty, Lalah Hathaway, Max Weinberg, Bobby Rush, Booker T. Jones, Keb’ Mo’ and more. The  last 15 or more years has been time spent with my band on the road seeing the world together and making friends in so many cities. I love my life and love the adventures music brings me constantly.

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Roll culture and what does Jazz & Blues mean to you?

When I started playing music, I never thought of myself as a rock or jazz or blues player. I just sang and played the sax and had a blast. I grew up listening to rock ‘n’ roll and R&B and that music definitely defined who I was as a player and performer. I aspired to be Heart, Blondie or Tina Turner and rock out with Aerosmith or Bruce Springsteen. As a sax player, though, you have to delve into jazz at some point, or you’re not paying attention to a huge part of the instrument’s heritage. I found jazz in college, when my classmate asked me if I was into contemporary jazz or traditional jazz. I was just into music. I had no idea of the monikers. He started playing me Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane. I loved it all and thought of it as blues and rock “gone to college”. I wanted to learn. I wanted to expand my repertoire and vocabulary as an instrumentalist. As a solo artist, I hear all these influences in my playing and writing. Much of my music is rock and soul based.  There are a few jazzy moments here and there. But the majority of the feel and approach is very much rock/pop and r&b/soul driven. “LIVE In Seattle” is very blues/rock driven… much more so than my previous records. My CD “Wild Heart”, which came out last year was very soul and rock driven, featuring Gregg Allman, Joe Perry, Keb’ Mo’, Booker T. Jones, Max Weinberg, Waddy Wachtel and Trombone Shorty. I made some big changes in my band, and it really affected the intent and tone of the music I was playing. I’m loving every second of this high energy set that we play. We really captured the feel of our live show and the sheer abandon of it with this recording.

"In my opinion, Blues started it all. It all comes back to the Blues. Ask the Rolling Stones who they wanted to sound like… they’ll tell you Muddy Waters and every other Chicago Blues man. Jazz was born out of the Blues as well."

How do you describe Mindi Abair sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I look at each CD I release as a snapshot of where I am in my life. I write from my experiences, and that translates differently to the music with each chapter of my life. My first few solo records were pretty shiny pop. I had come off the road touring with The Backstreet Boys and Mandy Moore and Duran Duran. I was immersed in super pop!  A few records in, my music started to feel a bit more organic and more rootsy. My In Hi Fi Stereo CD definitely hearkened back to the soul of the 60’s and 70’s. And more recently, I had a few years of a lot of rock ‘n’ roll and very organic music. I was the featured saxophonist for 2 seasons of American Idol. I took off for a summer tour with Aerosmith as their first saxophonist since 1973. I also got the chance to play with Bruce Springsteen for one nightat the famed Beacon Theater right after Clarence Clemons (a huge influence for me) passed away. I took all that energy and power and put it into my own career. I made “Wild Heart” and it was very rock influenced, with songs like “Kick Ass” that Joe Perry joined me for. That record made me rethink my live band, and I made some changes. My friend Randy Jacobs joined me on guitar, and after sitting in with his band The Boneshakers one afternoon at the Newport Beach Jazz Festival, we took his whole band out as my band. Hence, Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers Live in Seattle! I decided to just roll tape one night in Seattle because this band was so killer, and it was magic. That’s what you’re hearing with my previous cd. I’ve recorded, toured and collaborated with so many artists representing so many styles of music. I’m the luckiest person in the world to be surrounded by such talent and true artistry. I don’t care about labels or boundaries or preconceptions with music. I just want to play and create and keep moving forward.

How do you describe THE EASTWEST SESSIONS sound and songbook? What characterize album’s philosophy?

When I first moved to LA I was hired to play in a rock band in Hollywood. I showed up and Randy Jacobs was on guitar. He was mid guitar solo when he did a backflip into a full audience. I thought… I’ve got to stay friends with this guy. We have… I’ve always been a fan of his band The Boneshakers. It was born out of Was Not Was and Bonnie Raitt’s band. Bonnie Raitt named the band when she said “You guys are boneshaking!” We’ve played on each other’s records for our entire careers. But things changed when I sat in with them off the cuff a few years ago when we were playing the same festival. It was magic.  It was inspiring. We decided we should join forces and feel that way every night. We became Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers. We recorded our first show ever and it became our live CD that we released in September 2015. We’ve toured non-stop for the past 2 ½ years and decided to make a studio record. Our sound is a mix of our influences. Randy brings a Detroit rock/funk to it. I bring my voice from soul and rock ‘n’ roll. The band is high energy and a lot of fun. Everyone’s a character. It’s blues at the heart, with soul and rock mixed in for a little color. I look at us as a modern day Junior Walker and the All Stars.  We’re weaving saxophone and vocals in a way that hasn’t been done in a while. This is not your dad’s jazz sax… this is a gritty rock band with a lot of heart singing about real issues… heartbreak, lessons learned, and ultimately triumph and confidence. I wrote over 50 songs for this record wanting to find the right fit… the magic that would feature the specialness of the band. We rehearsed for 3 days and whittled that 50 songs down to about 14. We recorded for 5 days at EastWest Studios and played and sang everything as a band.  It was amazing. This record is a really honest representation of who we are and what we sound like live. I love that.

"When I started playing music, I never thought of myself as a rock or jazz or blues player. I just sang and played the sax and had a blast. I grew up listening to rock ‘n’ roll and R&B and that music definitely defined who I was as a player and performer. I aspired to be Heart, Blondie or Tina Turner and rock out with Aerosmith or Bruce Springsteen."

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

One of my greatest memories is sitting in with Buddy Guy a few years ago. We were opening for him at a huge festival in Florida, and when we finished our show I walked right off the stage and asked to meet him before he went on. He asked me into his trailer and we talked for a while. He poured me a glass of Cognac. He said it helped with his stage fright. I think he just liked the Cognac! He invited me to play a song with him. I of couse said “Yes” and mid way through his set he called me out on stage. I’m such a fan… this guy is history… he’s rock ‘n’ roll and blues through and through. He’s a lion on stage. And I had so much fun playing off him… what a life experience!

While we were recording our new record at EastWest Studios, we had amazing inspiration on either side of us. The Foo Fighters were mixing their record in the studio behind us. And Justin Timberlake was recording his new record in the studio beside us. I actually had to go fish my drummer out of Dave Grohl’s car to get him to record. They were headbanging to a new mix from the Foo Fighters record. I could hear it 40 feet away from the car! It was inspiring to know we were surrounded by greatness. And Justin Timberlake was so complimentary… he hung out and listened to a few songs we were recording.  How cool is that?!

What moment changed your life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

We all have people we’d love to play with. I think a lot of saxophone players would count Miles Davis or John Coltrane at the top of their list. My dream has always been to play with the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith or Bruce Springsteen. I haven’t played with the Stones yet… maybe someday!  But when I was American Idol’s featured saxophonist, I got a crazed call one morning from Steven Tyler. He said something like “It’s time… we have to do this… right now.  Where are you?” I agreed to meet him later that day even though I had no idea what he was talking about. He played me the new Aerosmith Record and I played along to it and sang to it with him.  He hired me right there and that was the beginning of my summer vacation with Aerosmith. 40 years of great rock ‘n’ roll… I never got a setlist… never got one rehearsal… it was just full immersion.  I loved every second, and I already knew most of the songs!!

My biggest “pinch me” moment was getting a call from Max Weinberg from Bruce Springsteen’s band one afternoon. He said Bruce was playing “Stand Up For Heroes”, a huge benefit at the Beacon Theater in NYC.  Clarence Clemons had passed away only a few months before, so he had no sax player that knew the parts. Max knew I knew every Clarence Clemons solo and asked if I could come play. I was a blur to the airport.  Standing on stage with Bruce was magic. He’s one of the greatest songwriters in history with unlimited heart and soul. It was awkward filling in for a sax giant (literally), but I was flying high for a long time after that. Playing with Bruce and Aerosmith made me take my band to the next level. I wanted that energy, power and abandon in my own project. They inspired to me to push myself.

Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice has given you?

I’ve learned so much from all the artists I’ve played with through the years.  In the early days of my career, I was a sideman and I played in some incredible bands from Bobby Lyle to Duran Duran, The Backstreet Boys, Keb’ Mo’, Mandy Moore, Teena Marie, Jonathan Butler and The Gap Band. You have to delve into an artist’s music when you’re playing for them, and for me that gave me a depth of musical knowledge to draw from for my career. I also had to find myself in each of these artists shows and music. And that helped teach me who I am as an artist.

I think the best advice I got was early on.  I was in high school and I wanted to be in the Florida All State Jazz Band. There were these elite bands that they chose people from all over the state to be in. There was a Symphonic band and a Jazz Band. I wanted nothing to do with the Symphonic Band.  I wanted to play with the cool kids! So I started practicing, but I realized I really didn’t know what I was doing playing jazz. I didn’t really know what it all was.  I just loved to play. So I gave up thinking that there were guys that were going to play so much better than me… why should I even try? My father came in and talked me into auditioning. He called me a quitter, and I didn’t like that! So I tried out, and I got 1st chair alto saxophone in the Florida Allstate Jazz Band.  I was stunned. My father said, “Sometimes it’s not the most talented people that get what they want. It’s the people who put themselves on the line and try and go for it day in and day out.  Remember that.” Thinking back, those were very wise words! I’ve worked for it and put myself out there ever since.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I love the days when saxophone was as integral an instrument as the guitar. Think back to early blues and rock ‘n’ roll. I mean, Junior Walker and King Curtis topped the Pop Charts, not the jazz charts. Saxophone has been relegated to a jazz instrument now, and I hate that.  I miss the grit and the power of that era of saxophone. Let sax be a main instrument and rock! I’d like to be a part of bringing that spirit back to music and to the modern idea of saxophone.

"I never went into music thinking that I’d be treated any differently as a woman than as a man. I’ve landed gigs because I’m a woman, and I’ve been dismissed from gigs because I’m a woman. We’re not on equal footing yet, but I feel as though the glass ceiling as a woman musician is shattering around me."

What has made you laugh from Gregg Allman and what touched (emotionally) you from Bobby Rush?

Bobby Rush is a force of nature. And he’s a true blues man… singing about things meaningful to him. And there’s the bus… c’mon!  I played on Bobby’s record with Blindog Smokin’ and it was a scene in the studio! There were girls hanging out, producers, the band. Bobby was on fire. It was his world. It was a party! Bobby inspires me to just be me… sing about what I’m thinking about! He’s always been a gentleman to me, and there aren’t many of those old school blues guys left standing to carry on the tradition… he’s the real thing!

I met Gregg Allman playing a few songs with him for Paul Allen’s 60th birthday in New Orleans. I was singing the harmony of Midnight Rider with him and just vibing with him. He’s all heart and gives everything to what he’s doing. I knew I was going to be making a record soon so I asked him if we could write something or collaborate on something for the record. To my amazement he said “Yeah, darlin’. I’d love to. Call me when you’re ready.” I did, and he invited me to his house outside Savannah. I stayed there 3 days and wrote with him. His house is beautiful, and right on the water with big oak trees with moss hanging down. It was definitely the vibe to write to. He had an anti-gravity boot machine that I climbed into and as I flipped over upside down I saw this huge skull painting. I asked about it and he said the the artist painted it with blood… the whole thing. Wow. Who has blood paintings just hanging around? It’s interesting that his last record is “Southern Blood” and the cover is a painting of him done in his blood that he gave the painter before he passed away. It was incredible working with him… at 65 he had his 25 year old girlfriend over, and of course his drug dealer (another young blonde girl) showed up to hook him up. It was rock star central. That guy lived the life up until the end! And the song we wrote and recorded together is one of my all time favorites that I’ve ever written. He’s amazing… playing B3, guitar and singing. He’s a consummate musician.

In your opinion, what is the biggest revolution which can be realized today? What do you think the major changes will be in near or far future of the world?

I think music has the power to change people, and to change the world. I know that sounds trite, but I really do believe it. Look at the 60’s and 70’s in the US… it was musicians writing about the times and standing up for what they believed in. I believe they changed the world.  And it can happen today. It’ll take great artists standing for what they believe in to change minds and change hearts.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I’d love to see musicians/writers/performers get paid what they’re worth. When I started out as a recording artist, if you had a hit, you got paid as a writer and for your mechanical royalties. Now… just about 15 years later, my royalties have diminished by 90% easily. I have 2 Grammy nominations, tons of fans that come and see me live, and my music is more popular than ever. But the business has changed and everyone I know has suffered dramatically with the changes in the way we all get paid… or don’t get paid. I go in front of our government every year and lobby for our rights as creators of music. We need to be able to make a living at what we do to keep the creativity flowing and keep great people creating great music.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Jazz with the Blues and continue to Rock n’ Roll and Soul music?

In my opinion, Blues started it all. It all comes back to the Blues. Ask the Rolling Stones who they wanted to sound like… they’ll tell you Muddy Waters and every other Chicago Blues man. Jazz was born out of the Blues as well. They just widened the harmonic structure and put a different swing on it. But the basis for everything that became jazz is Blues. I have immense respect for the Blues... I just produced my first record and it is a Blues record. I couldn’t be prouder of it. Check out The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You. It’s all vibe. It’s Junior Wells and Muddy Waters meets today. We recorded it in Shreveport, Louisiana!

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from your gigs and studio sessions?

It’s the best thing in the world to play your own music with your own band and get to be yourself all the time.  I’m soaking it all in with my new band The Boneshakers. We did a version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” that really pushes the boundaries of what’s acceptable, I think. We were a little scared to play it the first night in Seattle, Washington because that’s where Jimi Hendrix is from. And our version is very Hendrix – esque. We got a standing ovation after the song, and we all stood on stage and just laughed.  We had such a great time playing it, and it was such a surprise and relief that everyone in the audience loved it as much as we did. We’ve gotten a standing ovation every night after that song, and we still look at each other and laugh because we feel like we’ve gotten away with something! in my website you'll find a free download of Summertime.

What is the impact of music to the racial and socio-cultural implications? What is the status of women in music?

You’re asking some deep questions here! I love it. I never went into music thinking that I’d be treated any differently as a woman than as a man. I’ve landed gigs because I’m a woman, and I’ve been dismissed from gigs because I’m a woman. We’re not on equal footing yet, but I feel as though the glass ceiling as a woman musician is shattering around me. There are a bunch of great women out there that are helping me break down barriers.

There will be a time when it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, woman, man, transgender, gay or straight…you’ll be respected if you can play/perform/write. That time is near, and I’m constantly cheering on the new generation of women musicians telling them… represent us well... be a strong force… be excellent at what you do… and go take over the world! You can truly change the world. 

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I’d love to go back to the Stax days in Memphis and see Booker T and the MGs back up all those amazing artists and create this sound that we all love. I’ve written a few songs with Booker in the last few years… one is on my Wild Heart CD “Addicted to You”, and one is on my new LIVE CD “Make it Happen”. I think he’s a phenomenal musician… he’s what I aspire to be… someone who breaks all barriers of genre. Is he soul, rock, jazz, r&b, blues?  He’s all of those things. And I love him for it.  I’d love to see him work it all out as a young man and see how he created his sound and his approach and led his band to change the world.

Mindi Abair - Official website

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