Artist Spotlight: Mindi Abair - Saxophonist Extraordinaire

Mindi Abair has certainly paid her dues in the studio and on the road as an unforgettable live performance artist. Described as the most recognised and sought after saxophonist, Mindi has played all styles from jazz to r&b to rock, touring and recording with some of the biggest names in the music industry, including, Aerosmith, Duran Duran, Gregg Allman, the Backstreet Boys, Keb Mo, Smokey Robinson and Joe Bonamassa. Her list of awards and ‘best of’ titles are endless and she was the only one surprised when she walked away with 8 awards at the 2018 Independent Blues Awards, which included the well-deserved Artist Of The Year.

Mini Abair live

I catch up with Mindi on a chilly and wet evening in the UK. I’m cosied up with a hot tea, Mindi also has tea…iced tea, on a hot, sunny morning on the West coast of the United States... the wonders of Skype!

“Look, it just came in the mail”, says Mindi excitedly, as she holds up the sleeve of her new album Mindi and The Boneshakers, ‘No Good Deed’. “It’s our 4th now, but our 3rd studio album. It’s a snapshot of where we are right now and how we continue to gel as a band.

I’m already getting asked how it compares to our last album The EastWest Sessions, released in 2017 which we also recorded at the EastWest Studio on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, which was pretty much rock and blues all the way down the middle.

I never want to make the same record twice, so for ‘No Good Deed’ which is released in June this year, we expanded a little with a few covers. We even went punk man”, she laughs, “With our own version of a track by The Rascals and then back to my jazz routes with ‘Bad News,’ which is a Melody Gardot cover and ‘Seven Day Fool’ by Etta James, which is a big party. And I adore Etta James. We aren’t just blues rock, we have all these other facets that if we choose to, they can be out there in the record.

In the studio, it was all about getting the energy as it’s going down in the first couple of takes, and we recorded the band as one unit without adding drums or guitar later. We succeeded in capturing the energy The Boneshakers have on stage, we are a bit of a chained animal, unlock the chain on stage and we go nuts.” 

To save time in the studio, do you have a set list of songs, complete and ready to record?

“We had about 40 songs we’d written to choose from which I thought were finished, “she continues. “There are always changes, maybe we’ll add a solo section or someone might just make a mistake and we go ‘hey, that’s cool’ let’s keep that in. I might be in the vocal booth and suddenly think ‘that’s not what I want to say’ and I’ll be in there scribbling down new lyrics.

Our producer, Kevin Shirley is amazing, he’s produced for so many bands including Aerosmith, The Black Crowes, Led Zeppelin and Joe Bonamassa. He’ll listen to a song and see clearly what’s working and what needs changing. He might say, hey Mindi you need another verse for that song, and I’m thinking, are you kidding me, I gotta write another verse for this song today?”

You have an amazing track record and are regarded as one of the finest jazz saxophone players in the business. Looking back, how and when did you start to get a little more bluesy with a rocky vibe?

“It kinda started after I made my Wild Heart album which was released in 2014, I wanted to change my band to reflect a deeper feel of blues and rock, so I hired my long-time friend Randy Jacobs to play the guitar and give my band a different feel and energy.

There was a transition earlier though when I got a call to be the saxophonist in the live band for the American Idol TV series during 2011 and 2012. I was playing for a diverse range of artists that wanted us to play so many different genres of music, including pop, blues, r&band rock, so it was fun to get out of my jazz-influenced bubble and help create their own world.

Steven Tyler from Aerosmith was one of the judges, he could see I was having a blast and on the last day of the show, he called me to his trailer, put on the new Aerosmith album and said play sax along to that. Then he said that he’s heard I can sing, so he sang some crazy lyrics and says ‘sing it back, sing to me, sing to me’.

He said ‘We gotta do this, time is running out’, and I thought what are you talking about? He looked at me and said I’m hiring you to tour with Aerosmith, I mean….how can you say no to Steven Tyler?

For some people, their Zen includes bells, fresh fruit, heated spas all that kind of thing, for me, it’s loud guitars. Loud music is my Zen. So my time with Aerosmith was my happy place. I’d been that way since I was a kid and there I was, playing rock and roll with friends. I thought to myself how do I bring this to my career, how do I fuse the worlds of rock and jazz together?

I invited rock musicians who I knew including Booker T, Greg Allman, Joe Perry from Aerosmith, Max Weinberg, Trombone Shorty and Keb Mo to come in and play and write with me and help me find my way with this new direction.

At the time Randy Jacobs was in The Boneshakers and we were on the same bill at a jazz festival in Newport Beach, and I sat in with both bands. It went so well and we were so inspired about what was going on, that we said we really need to do this every night. So we decided to join forces and that was the start of Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers of today when we veered more towards blues and rock. You could say that the Wild Heart album was the gateway drug.”

You grew up with rock and blues, your Dad was a saxophonist playing with some of the great USA bands during the ’70s? How much of an inspiration was that for you?

“I was on the road with my father’s band from birth until the age of 5.  His band was a blue-eyed soul band called The Entertainers. After that band broke up, we moved to Florida and he put together rock bands to tour the US for the next 14 years.  He also toured with Mark Farner from Grand Funk Railroad as his saxophonist.

Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers

I loved all those high energy bands and started playing myself when I was 8. When MTV came along I was just glued, I wanted to sing like Tina Turner and Anne Wilson from Heart, and play sax like Clarence Clemons in Bruce Springsteen’s band, it was that sheer rock and roll abandonment.

Some of the brass players I went to school with the thought you had to stand in the corner of a smokey jazz lounge and play sax to the wall…er no, you’re supposed to be dripping wet by the second song. I was looking towards Tina Turner for career advice, they were looking at the likes of Miles Davis, so there were certainly two different worlds.

I was lucky enough to go to a college later that covered rock, blues and jazz, which I really enjoyed. It did open my world and I bought jazz records by the likes of Wayne Shorter, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davies and John Coltrane.

My teacher said, that’s great, learn all the songs, but I don’t want you to just be another one of those guys, they’re already out there. I want you to form your own band and do your own thing because you're coming at it from a different viewpoint and that’s what’s going to make you special. So I started my own band, and I’ve never looked back.”

You seem to have been on the road forever, you toured for two and a half years across the USA promoting the album Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers, Live In Seattle, released in 2015. Do you think in this world of social media that playing in front of an audience is still the best way to promote yourself?

“Again, it’s my happy place. Being in front of an audience changes the way we play, there’s just no drug like it. Sure there are all the social media contacts which we have fun with, putting up crazy stuff we get up to on the road, but there’s just something about being in front of thousands of people clapping and giving you love. We’ll be out there for as long as they’ll book us and we’ll be burning it up during 2019 with the new record.”

Do you look back at the albums and awards as milestones in your career?

“It’s always nice when someone else says they like your records, you sit in the studio and think, yeah we’re making a kickass record here, but when I go home, the only one who's heard it is me, the rest of the world might think it sucks.

As long as I like it, I’m really cool, but to be nominated and win the 2018 Independent Blues Award, was crazy. I knew we had been nominated and of course, I was hoping we’d win one, but never expected to walk away with eight which included Artist Of The Year, that was just amazing.”

Mindi Abair Saxophonist

You play a variety of saxophones, is there one that’s special?

“All my saxophones are made by Yamaha. I recently bought a big baritone which is great and have it heard three blocks away! I also have my own signature mouthpiece which I’m really proud about. I worked with Theo Wanne who is the guru of all mouthpiece designs, to create the ultimate mouthpiece that not only makes the instrument easier to play but has a resonates, balanced, solid, sound and above all affordable as a mouthpiece for the people. We launched at Winter NAMM a few years ago and it’s remained one of his best sellers.”

I have to ask, are there any gigs that you have lost because you are a woman in the music business, if so, what are your feelings about this?

 “I think it can work for you and against you. I remember Tina Turner’s sax player was sick once and I was brought up as a replacement and swiftly turned down because she wanted a big muscle guy by her side. Then there was Adam Sandler who wanted someone who could play like Clarence Clemons in Bruce Springsteen’s band but had to be a girl, he had to tell everyone that I was really playing.

I don’t have a chip on my shoulder saying ‘I’m a girl, I get paid less,’ none of that. I go out every night thinking, ok folks, maybe you think you know how a girl plays sax, well, tonight you’re gonna find out that the way I play….is the way a girl plays.”

There’s a track on the EastWest Session album called ‘Pretty Good For A Girl, what’s the theme behind this song?

“During my career, I’ve sung my heart out, played sax and other instruments, toured and recorded albums and had numerous awards, and I’ve heard it said, ‘yeah, pretty good for a girl.’  

Mindi Abair Saxophonist

You hope that as a woman, you can kind of open up people’s minds and change the idea that we are a little timider or quiet. There’s a bunch of really smart powerful women out there doing amazing things, so I think the world is changing. It’s equal footing, it doesn’t matter if you are black, white, gay, straight, a woman, a man, young or old, if you can play….go out and play.

So I was inspired to write ‘Pretty Good For A girl’ which was produced again by Kevin Shirley and features Joe Bonamassa guesting on guitar. During the recording, Kevin said we should get Joe in as he’d be perfect for this track. Two days later Joe came in and rather than just laying down a solo, he hung out talking dorky guitar stuff with Randy and became a part of the band for the day. He had so much energy and I’m thinking ah, I’d better play something cool now, he certainly made me play up a few notches.”

You are also an accomplished author having written several extremely informative books, what’s the story behind “How To Play Madison Square Garden – A Guide to Stage Performance?”

“I’ve spent my life on the road, I’ve made all the mistakes on stage and I’ve watched the best performers in the world make the same mistakes and how they’ve handled them in front of an audience.

Mindi Abair with Fusion Gig Bag

There are books on how to play your instrument, how to get a record deal or win in the music business, but very few if any, about playing live. I just saw this gaping hole in the music education system as there weren’t any books that covered live performance. I have this mind that wants to pick it all apart and thought I was the person to write a real book in which I could talk about all the aspects of playing live. It explains how to walk on stage, deal with stage fright, make eye contact with the audience and make them buy tickets to your next show and not someone else’s. I had a blast writing this one and it’s a fun read.”

It’s important to you then that we keep the faith for youngsters who are considering a career in the music business.

“Back in the early days when I auditioned to get into college to play the saxophone, the sax professor said ‘I won’t let you into the jazz department as girls don’t really make it at this school, but you can go to the education department’.

Needless to say, I didn’t go to that school, but it lit a fire inside me and I’ve been back since to say you made a mistake, you should be letting girls into your jazz programme. He coyly agreed.

So yes, It’s so important to have instruments in kid’s hands, and while we are talking sax, the fact of the matter is, sax didn’t actually start out as a jazz instrument but more as a classical instrument, finding its roots in America in vaudeville, early rock and roll and soul, jazz came later. There’s a lot of grit and grief at the heart of the early sax with a lot of those guys screeching and playing the hell out of it and having fun.

So it’s great to honour that history and honk a little bit, so get out there and make some noise and be a little raucous.”

Interview by Lars Mullen



Lars MullenAbout the Author

With over 30 years in the music business, Lars Mullen does indeed wear many hats, as a writer, journalist, photographer, press person for his own company Music Media Announcements. As an extensive traveller, he's a familiar figure reporting from music trade shows around the world. Spending many years touring as a professional guitarist, Lars has also interviewed a host of top bands and artists, continues to write articles for magazines globally and still finds time to track down Fusion artists for our Artist Spotlight column.


Artist Spotlight Interview Lars Mullen Saxophone Women in Music
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