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Mindi Abair '91: Fortuitous Encounters

 
  Mindi Abair
  Photo by Jeff Bender

"It was a crazy thing to see Herbie Hancock's album under mine on that chart," says saxophonist Mindi Abair. "I just about fell over." The chart she refers to is the Billboard contemporary jazz chart where her third and latest Verve/GRP album, Life Less Ordinary, entered in the number one spot.

It's one more reason why last year was indeed "less ordinary" for Abair. In addition to solidifying her status as a staple of smooth jazz and contemporary adult radio stations and logging thousands of miles for appearances at festivals, clubs, theaters, and music cruises to support the new disc, Abair married composer Jason Steele. "The material on the CD reflects the things I felt last year," she says. "I wrote 'Rain' for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and 'The Joint' for the old funky clubs I used to play in Boston. In the love songs, I found that I thought differently about love after getting married."

Abair has arrived at this phase in her career through hard work, some luck, and a few fortuitous encounters. After earning her degree in performance at Berklee, the St. Petersburg, Florida, native set her sights on Los Angeles. She packed her things in her Honda and headed west.

She had no contacts or gigs lined up in Los Angeles. To pay the rent, Abair worked as a waitress and took other odd jobs. "But all I wanted to do was play," she says. "I went to clubs to sit in, but it's hard in L.A. just as it is anywhere. So I started playing a cappella saxophone on the street in Santa Monica. Musicians generally play in places like clubs or theaters where the people aren't so close and there's not a crazed person dancing around in front of you or rolling on the ground. As odd as the experience was, it did teach me a lot."

Beyond the sheer novelty of playing on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, Abair made an important connection there. "Bobby Lyle, a veteran jazz pianist, came up one night and told me he'd hire me someday," says Abair. "I was a huge fan of his music. He took my card, and sure enough, he called me. I toured off and on with his band for five or six years going across the country and to Japan and Korea. He'd often tell the story of finding me playing on the street. At first it was embarrassing, but later I felt it to be a badge of honor."

After the transition from the street to the road, Abair got to know more musicians and other doors opened. "I started hiring really good musicians I'd met around town for gigs that ranged from playing my original music to doing weddings," she says. "Some of the must unlikely gigs led to other things." At a wedding where several musicians, including fellow saxophonist Dave Koz, happened to be among the guests, Abair stood out. A few weeks later, when Adam Sandler was looking for a singer and sax player, a wedding guest told Sandler to call her. The Backstreet Boys, who were seeking someone to play percussion, keyboards, and saxophone, also got a recommendation about Abair's work. She was on the road with the Boys three days later.

"I did their Millennium tour," Abair says. "While some snooty musicians looked down on that, to me it was a life experience. How often do you get to go on the road with a band playing in front of 60,000 people a night? They would have me play a long solo whenever the singers had a clothes change. That tour was when I learned that every time you play, it doesn't always have to be serious or about playing the hippest substitutions. Sometimes it's just about having a good time."

Another encounter led to Abair's recording contract with Verve. "I played a New Year's Eve party with Jonathan Butler," she recalls. "Bud Harner, the A&R man for Verve, was there and later called me saying he was interested in doing a record. I told him that when I finished the Backstreet Boys' tour and I got a few tunes done, I'd get in touch. A few weeks after I'd sent him the music, we had a meeting, and I got signed. A few months later, I had an album out."

Harner has been the executive producer for all three of Abair's Verve records. Abair called on Matthew Hager '91, one of her closest friends at Berklee, to cowrite and produce the records. "Matthew and I had played in a progressive rock band back in Boston," Abair says. "He never thought that he'd be pulled into my pop-meets-jazz world. Some of the friends you meet in college end up being those you build your career with. It's been special to have this partnership from college into my professional life."

While in the past Abair backed such artists as Mandy Moore, Lee Ritenour, Keb' Mo', the Backstreet Boys, and Jonathan Butler, now she does the hiring and draws legendary session musicians to play on her albums (visit www.mindiabair.com for more details).

These days, fronting her own band and creating her own music on a big label is the bomb. "It's been great that Verve has allowed me to be myself and sing as well as play sax. They let me take some chances that other labels might not let me take. I get radio play on smooth-jazz stations, but my vocal songs get played on adult contemporary stations. All I ever dreamed about was being an artist and doing my own music. Whenever I hear something that I wrote on the radio, I get geeked every time."