In a career that spans seven solo albums and countless collaborations in the studio and live on stage, Mindi Abair 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 rock legends 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.
Her solo work has garnered ten #1 radio hits, 6 top 5 spots and 2 #1 spots on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz album chart. Abair received a 2014 GRAMMY® nomination in the Best Pop Instrumental Album category for Summer Horns, a #1 recording with her friends Dave Koz, Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot, and more recently received a 2015 GRAMMY® nomination for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album for her solo cd Wild Heart.
For her newest musical pursuit, she plunges headlong into vintage rock and soul territory, harkening back to the days when saxophone was as integral an instrument as the guitar in the early days of rock and soul with her newest recording, Wild Heart.
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 St. Petersburg, Florida, five-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 of North Florida, she transferred to Berklee College of Music, where she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in woodwind performance.
Abair recalls some wise counseling she received during her college years: “My saxophone teacher Joe Viola told me every week, ‘You have to start your own band. You’ve got your own sound. Don’t practice a bunch of David Sanborn or Wayne Shorter licks. Go out and make your own mark.’ It was the best advice anyone could have given me.”
She took the advice and ran with it, all the way to the opposite coast. She landed in Los Angeles, 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. “I didn’t want to wait tables when I had a music degree from the foremost contemporary music school in the world. I came here to play,” she says. “I’d take my horn down to 3rd Street Promenade and just play. I paid my rent for quite a few months by doing that.”
Abair released her first album, the independently-produced Always and Never the Same, in 1999, while touring with the Backstreet Boys. By the beginning of the new decade, the combination of nonstop performing and her well-received indie release had helped solidify her musical identity. “By the time I signed on with Verve in 2002,” she says, “I really knew who I was as an artist. I knew what I wanted to say, and every artist I’d toured with on the way here helped me shape who I was.”
Known for writing the bulk of her own material, It Just Happens That Way, Abair’s major label debut in 2003, was the first in a string of chart-topping solo recordings on Verve that also included I Can’t Wait for Christmas (2004), Come As You Are (2005) and Life Less Ordinary (2007). She made the move to Peak, a division of Concord Music Group, with the 2008 release of Stars, an album that showcased – more than any of her previous recordings – her attractive vocal work as an engaging counterpoint to her solid saxophone chops. In Hi-Fi Stereo, released in 2010, paid tribute to the sounds of the ‘60s and early ‘70s harkening back to artists such as King Curtis and Junior Walker, icons that influenced Mindi from a young age.
Her two seasons on American Idol in 2011 and 2012 led to her joining Aerosmith as their first saxophonist since 1973 for their 2012 Summer Global Warming Tour. And Clarence Clemons untimely death led to her touring with Max Weinberg and a night at the Beacon Theater with Bruce Springsteen.
“I got off those tours and I had this burst of electric energy to make some music of my own,” says Abair. “Those tours really affected what I was feeling and what I was writing. I had spent so many nights on stage with these guys who were sweating and bleeding and giving it all for their audience. I wanted that strength and that abandon on my record, and I was inspired to make that happen.”
As Wild Heart was starting to take shape, Abair joined a group called Summer Horns, assembled by fellow saxophonist Dave Koz for a record and tour. The lineup also included Richard Elliot and Gerald Albright. The resulting sax foursome crafted a record that paid tribute to the great horn bands of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, including Tower of Power, Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire, Sly & the Family Stone and Blood, Sweat & Tears. The Summer Horns recording scored a GRAMMY® nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Recording, a validation of not only the collective talent on the record itself, but also of the lasting impact and influence of the music of that era.
And if writing, recording and touring weren’t enough, Abair authored the book “How To Play Madison Square Garden – A Guide To Stage Performance” and she launched her own fine jewelry line http://www.mindiabairjewelry.com in December of 2014. She also began a two-year term in 2013 as President of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). “It’s been a very eye-opening and inspiring role,” she says. “What an honor to serve as a leader in the most preeminent organization of the music business. This is a group of people who give back constantly to inspire and strengthen the next generation of music makers, and they remind me daily what beautiful power we hold as creators of music.”
That sense of power and reach has become part of Abair’s creative philosophy in recent years and has made its way into her music as well. “I’ve recorded, toured and collaborated with so many artists representing so many styles of music,” she says. “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.”