“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview”
One of contemporary jazz’s most popular recording artists and live performers since releasing her debut album It Just Happens That Way in 2003, Mindi Abair has been keeping some exciting musical company these past few years. She was the featured saxophonist on “American Idol” during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, jammed with Paul Shaffer on the Late Show with David Letterman and – after meeting Steven Tyler during his year as a judge on Idol – was invited to tour with rock legends Aerosmith in 2012. She played with Bruce Springsteen at the annual Stand Up for Heroes benefit at the Beacon Theatre in New York in 2011.
This past year, the St. Petersburg, Florida raised, Los Angeles based saxophonist and vocalist was nominated for her first Grammy for her participation in the all-star Summer Horns project with (speaking of inspiring company!) Dave Koz, Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot. A longtime member of the National Academy Recording Arts and Sciences, aka the Grammy organization, Abair is currently in the second year of her term as the President of the Los Angeles Chapter.
While not completely shying away from the infectious melodic pop vibe that has driven some of her best loved hits like her breakthrough “Lucy’s,” “Flirt,” “True Blue” and “Bloom,” Abair’s recent collaborations with rockers inspired her to amp up the power and play with abandon on her seventh album, the perfectly titled Wild Heart. While alternately keeping her horn and always-charming vocals front and center, she invites some high caliber musical talent to the party, all of whom help her take her artistry to the next level: Trombone Shorty, Gregg Allman, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, Booker T. Jones, Keb’ Mo’, Max Weinberg, famed sessions guitarist Waddy Wachtel and others.
JazzMonthly: Congratulations on receiving your first Grammy nomination as part of Summer Horns. What made that project special to you?
MA: I have so much respect for Dave, Gerald and Richard. When we first started talking about the project, I was really excited to be part of it. What a great opportunity to record and tour with these guys. It struck me as a fresh idea, of us being the horn section playing songs by bands that had inspired us through the years and in some cases, helped put us on our initial musical paths. The first album Dave ever bought was by Tower of Power, and Richard played with them early in his career. It was incredible finding a way to make this music our own. I was really surprised at the power we could create with four saxes. We wondered if we would need a trumpet or trombone to make a complete horn section, but when you put four determined sax players in the studio or onstage together, they can peel the paint off the walls! Summer Horns is also an album none of us would have made in our solo careers, because we all have a different niche. So it was fun to come together. It also allowed me to rise to the occasion, stretch a lot and up my game as a musician – something I’m continuing to do on my new album. I can’t wait to tour with Summer Horns again this summer.
JM: What did the Grammy nod mean to you personally as far as a career milestone?
MA: I’ve loved the Grammys since I was a kid, and it’s the quintessential award for a musician to achieve because it’s not given by fans or press but voted on by a select group of peers, musicians, those who create the music and others paying attention to what’s going on in today’s industry. To have so many people voting for us to earn us this nomination is exciting. I think every musician who puts out albums has the goal of winning a Grammy someday, and a nomination is really a great honor. But for Summer Horns, our Grammy experience went beyond that. We got to open the pre-telecast ceremony at the Nokia Theatre, playing “Got To Get You Into My Life” along with Earth, Wind & Fire’s Verdine White.
JM: I believe you’re in the middle now of your two year term as President of the L.A. Chapter of the Recording Academy. How did this position come about and what is your main focus in that capacity?
MA: I started doing things a few years back for the Grammy Foundation, visiting schools like a lot of artists have done, teaching and bringing music to kids in any way possible. It was very rewarding flying around the country speaking to and playing with students of all ages and hopefully inspiring them to really love music. I also played Grammy Week events like Women In Music, and early on participated in their Grammy in the Schools event. So I got drawn into that world because of my desire to give back to these kids. I got more involved and worked my way up, first as part of the Board of Governors. My chapter has 6000 people, and I preside over a board of 50 people and help make decisions that affect us, help solve individual and corporate problems and organize events and showcases.
On a bigger scale, I do a lot of advocacy, and recently went to Washington DC to lobby Congress on our behalf for music makers everywhere. The annual project is called Grammys on the Hill. The issues this year are performance rights for musicians, because right now when a song plays on the radio, only the songwriter gets a royalty; artists and musicians are shut out and shouldn’t be. Most other countries pay their artists. We’re also fighting for more bandwidth frequencies for our onstage wireless systems, which is a big issue for musicians like myself who use wireless units. Many of them are used up by TV and radio stations and cell companies right now. The more frequencies we can access, the more wireless possibilities there are for our mics.
JM: Wild Heart is a great name for the rockin’ nature of the new album. Was the overall edgy rock vibe by design or, to paraphrase the title of your debut album, did it just happen that way?
MA: Every record has to be a snapshot of where you are in your life. With me, that changes and morphs as I grow and do different things. Since my last solo album In Hi-Fi Stereo, I’ve delved into different things, playing on Idol with winner Phillip Phillips, getting on the road with Aerosmith and Max Weinberg, doing that show with Springsteen and playing all the Clarence Clemons parts. This sound may be new to my smooth jazz fans, but rock is something I grew up and moonlighted with my whole life, including playing with Waddy Wachtel’s group in LA. Standing onstage with Aerosmith every night, I watched those guys sweat and bleed for their audience as they ran around onstage. I saw and heard the power and energy these guys exude with every note. I have always felt that I and my band are the rockers of the jazz world, but I had never brought that type of sheer abandon to a record. I wanted to do that – give it all, leave nothing on the table and pour out everything inside me, but in an organic rock-soul way. I didn’t start out with a concept to do a rock, soul or jazz record per se. I just wanted to make music that I could have a blast with and feel that power of rock and roll.
JM: Fans who love our trademark poppy hits are in for a real whirlwind. You have a few gentler moments but that sense of abandon adds a whole new dimension to “MindiWorld” (the name of Abair’s fan club).
MA: I don’t think it’s that much of a left turn. Anyone who has bought my records before will know it’s me, and those fans who have seen me and my band play live know we rock the older songs pretty hard. We give a thousand percent every night and I’m seriously soaking wet by the third song. So in that sense, I don’t think Wild Heart will shock many people. I just went a little further and kicked it up a notch and put in some distorted guitars. A lot of my fans are smooth jazz enthusiasts but they’ve probably seen some Rolling Stones shows in their day as well. When I do a Stones cover, it goes over well. I just have to make music that inspires me. The artists I respect most have made careers for themselves because they didn’t fit into a specific mold. Booker T, who worked with me here on “Addicted To You,” had his breakthrough hit with “Green Onions” when he was 17. Nobody was playing B-3 at the time and suddenly everyone was. It’s important to forge your own path.
JM: He’s part of a pretty exciting guest list. Did you start with a wish list of performers or did opportunities to work with these greats emerge along the way?
MA: Everything happened organically. I wrote 40-50 songs and chose 11 of those to record. I wanted a cohesive project that encompassed the vibe I was after, and for the most part ideas for bringing guests on board hit me when I felt like songs needed an extra kick. (Longtime friend and producer) Matthew Hagar and I wrote “Kick Ass” and started to record it when I just decided it needed more. I had just come off the Aerosmith tour and I visualized Joe Perry with his shirt flying open playing crazy rock guitar on it – and I made the call and he was up for it. Keb’ Mo’, who joins me in a vocal duet on “I’ll Be Your Home,” is an old friend and I called him when I couldn’t quite get the vocal harmonies down on the chorus.
I wrote the opening track “Amazing Game” with Jim Peterik (Survivor) and we were going to do it as a vocal but I liked the way the sax sounded better. But I wanted to make it more raucous so I called up Troy Andrews, aka Trombone Shorty. He’s always on the road and he recorded his part in a hotel room in Lafayette, Louisiana. I met Gregg Allman when we performed with people like Chrissie Hynde, Dr. John and Joe Walsh at (Microsoft Co-Founder) Paul Allen’s 60th birthday party. I asked him if he’d ever want to write and record with me and he took me up on it. I stayed at his house outside of Savannah and we hung out in his living room and wrote “Just Say When.” Opportunities just seemed to present themselves and everyone did a wonderful job.
JM: How do you feel you have grown and evolved as a composer, musician, artist and performer since you emerged as a smooth jazz artist in 2003?
MA: I definitely feel I’ve grown in a lot of ways. On the first record, I had all this music inside me and I felt like I succeeded at making an album that was reflective of what was in my head at the time. As I have evolved as a human being and artist, I always try to take the same approach, create the music that’s in my head, but take it to the next level each time. I’m constantly inspired by the music I am listening to and the musicians and artists I work with at any given time. They’ve helped challenge me and take me places I couldn’t go without them. I always want to surround myself with musicians who are better than I am because that’s the best way for me to evolve. I feel I have taken a journey that’s true to myself and have always made the most honest music I can. Every time I do an album, I want to be in love with it, psyched to share it with the world.
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