Mindi Abair Interview

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Saxy Lady: Mindi Abair struts her stuff.
Kate Bredimus
Wednesday May 26, 2004

Mindi Abair got her first real taste of fame from a source that few jazz musicians could claim to share -- a slot playing sax on the Backstreet Boys tour. Not to say that Abair hadn't already blown the horn for other famous musicians before her year on the road with America's biggest boy band -- but let's be realistic, a John Tesh show doesn't usually involve pyrotechnics and screaming 13 year-old girls.

You could say that Abair was destined for the stage. Less than a week after she was born, her parents packed her up, diapers and all, and headed out on the road. For the next five years Abair toured with her father, a professional saxophone player and keyboardist. At five she was playing the piano, at eight she had already switched over to the sax.

After graduating from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Abair moved to Los Angeles and began taking on session work for artists like Adam Sandler, John Tesh, Mandy Moore and Jonathan Butler. Her own music blended contemporary jazz and pop music, inspired by the work of crossover artists like David Sanborn and the Yellowjackets. On last year's It Just Happens That Way, Abair showed her knack for playing both original, instrumental jazz fusion and covers of one hit wonders like Eagle Eye Cherry's "Save Tonight."

Abair will perform at Fridays at Sunset on Friday. We caught up with her at her home in Los Angeles to ask her who her favorite Backstreet Boy was. Just kidding.

You just finished recording your new record. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

We finished a couple of weeks ago. Yes, finally! It's going to be called Come As You Are.

Have you changed your sound at all since It Just Happens That Way came out? How will the two compare?

As an artist you want to develop, you want to change your music as you mature. I always like when people do something a little different on their next record. I really wanted to open up a little more, show more of my influences stretching out a little more. It became a very interesting project. I wanted to focus on composition and coming up with great songs. I was very hard on myself. I wanted to make sure it was better than the first record, and do something I was really proud of. There are more vocals on this record. After the first record there were a lot of people who came up and said "You have to sing more!" There are a few different directions, more traditional straight-ahead jazz, and some of the quirky pop stuff I do.

Most jazz musicians just starting their career don't cut their teeth on a mega tour with the Backstreet Boys. What was that experience like?

Interesting. Before the Backstreet Boys I had toured with people like John Tesh and Jonathan Butler. I also toured with Adam Sandler, and his audience is so crazy wild and fun. We'd be up on stage and it would be like a huge rock concert. So I thought I knew what I was in store for. It was unbelieveable. The screaming didn't stop for two hours. And it's not the way you and I would scream; it was 13-year olds screaming. We couldn't have made it through the show without the in-ear monitors. I asked the guys at one point, "Why are we even playing?" But it was an incredible life experience. Not only did they feature me a lot -- you know, I would go out and do sax solos when they changed clothes, which was a lot. But I got to experience what they did for a year. It was interesting insight into fame and into the music biz. A very cool education, fun.

You were basically born on the road into a musical family. What was your childhood like?

I was born in St. Petersburg, Fla.. My parents took me back out on the road right after I was born, and we lived on the road for my first five years. Just traveled. Then we moved back to St. Petersburg. My father had a studio in the third bedroom. I would come home from school and there would be drums set up or some band playing into my closet. It was a really cool childhood. I didn't get the normal stuff that most kids get. I was a kid who listened to radio or listened to what my dad was recording, which was a lot of different types of music. R&B, pop, jazz -- there was a broad cross section. My father used to put records in my bedroom and say, "Listen to this, it's really cool." Of course there's no way you think what your father listens to could be cool.

But eventually you did come around and discover jazz for yourself. Were there any artists that opened your eyes?

I came at jazz from a popular music stance. David Sanborn -- I thought he was awesome. The pop and jazz was really accessible for me. Then I learned about the Yellowjackets. I started picking up records my dad gave me -- Cannonball Adderly, Lee Morgan. All of a sudden my eyes were opened to this incredibly amazing music. I just immersed myself in it.

I have to ask about the duet with John Taylor from Duran Duran on "Save Tonight." How did that collaboration come about?

Actually, John co-wrote the title track, along with the producer Matthew Hager. Matthew co-wrote and produced John Taylor's last solo CD, so they'd be hanging out at Matthew's house. I live across the street, so I'd come over and be like "Hey guys, what are you doing?" I talked to Matthew and we agreed we really should do something together since we're all here. The next time John came over I said, 'You want to write something?'

You've already played with some big names. Who else is on your wish list?

My wish list is not the norm. David Bowie-- I'd love to do something with him. He's a great, interesting artist and has used sax so greatly. Eric Clapton is a genius, he is amazing. Rus Ferrante from the Yellowjackers co-wrote a song and played on another song. I was so geeked. It was so fun to sit in the room and write with him. He really influenced me as a player.

You’re a woman playing the sax in a male dominated field. Has that been a challenge for you?

I didn't know what to expect. Growing up playing saxophone, no one tells you. By the time someone mentioned "Hey, you can't do that" it was too late. It was already what I had become. I really found there's not a lot of people who are going to count you out cause you're a woman. You do have to prove yourself. You have to go up there and go, 'No really, I can play.' But once you prove yourself it's a level playing field. There aren't that many girls. I would like to see more women out there. I get so many emails and calls from younger players who haven't had a female role model.