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Mindi Abair: A Contemporary Jazzer Cuts Loose

The "Heart" of rock 'n' roll

Saxophonist Mindi Abair made her fourth consecutive appearance at the Punta Gorda Wine & Jazz Festival
Mindi Abair

“If given the chance to bring Charlie Parker back from the dead and play with him or to play with Bruce Springsteen,” says Mindi Abair, “I’m probably the 1 percent of sax players who would say Bruce. But that’s what makes the world go ’round.”

That statement might have longtime fans of the 45-year-old saxophonist and vocalist scratching their heads, but only until they hear Wild Heart (Heads Up), Abair’s new album. Although she’s been a superstar for years in the contemporary/smooth-jazz world, playing the cruises and festivals associated with that genre and releasing highly regarded if sometimes subdued albums, Wild Heart marks an abrupt turn in Abair’s approach. By any standards, it’s first and foremost a rock ‘n’ roll record, touching upon R&B, pop and, yes, jazz, but unmistakably rock above all.

For the occasion Abair recruited as co-producers the L.A. trio known as the Decoders (Adam Berg, Itai Shapira, Todd Simon) and a team of A-list guests, among them Gregg Allman, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, Stax keyboard icon Booker T, E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg, Trombone Shorty and guitarist Waddy Wachtel. Abair co-wrote with some of them, and for other tracks she teamed up with Jim Peterik, best known as co-author of the Survivor hit “Eye of the Tiger,” the theme from Rocky III. Abair couldn’t be more thrilled with the results. “I wasn’t trying to make a rock record; I was trying to make a record that harkened back to when saxophone was a mainstream instrument. Remember those days when King Curtis was the shit? I miss those days and it’s a shame when your instrument, which happens to be the saxophone for me, turns into something that only jazz fans listen to. I love jazz and I’ve spent a lot of my life playing jazz and jazz-influenced music, but I think saxophone has a bigger voice than that.”

Although Wild Heart is her most pronounced move away from smooth jazz to date, the St. Petersburg, Fla., native has been something of a musical polyglot since her arrival on the scene. Upon graduating from Berklee College of Music in 1991, she formed her own band but also began taking sideman and guest artist work with everyone from the Backstreet Boys to comic Adam Sandler to bluesman Keb’ Mo’ (who also appears on Wild Heart). While serving as musical director for pop singer Mandy Moore, Abair signed as a leader to Verve Records, finding success as a solo artist in the 2000s with albums such as It Just Happens That Way and Life Less Ordinary, the latter debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart.

Even within the harder setting of the new release, Abair’s playing is immediately recognizable as her own: There may be more raunchy honks and squeals than on her earlier releases, but the technique and soul are intact. “I love the loud guitars,” says Abair about the project. “I love the power of it all. It puts me into this beautiful Zen-like place. I realize that other people’s Zen is making it through networks of cool chord changes and this and that. My happy place in recent years has been this beauty of just rockin’ out and playing with sheer abandon and letting it all hang out.”

Wild Heart comes four years after In Hi-Fi Stereo, Abair’s previous release as a leader. Since then she’s spent two seasons as featured saxophonist on American Idol, toured with Aerosmith, gotten that chance to sit in with Springsteen and otherwise branched out beyond contemporary jazz-although she did notch up a Grammy nomination for her participation on Summer Horns, an album she made last year with fellow saxophonists Gerald Albright, Richard Elliot and ostensible leader Dave Koz. That quartet set out on an extensive summer tour in late June, and Abair is quick to point out that she is not abandoning jazz, just following her muse where it takes her.

“I’m going with things that inspire me,” she says. “I never set out to be a rock artist or a jazz artist or a soul artist, and if you listen to any of my records, there’s not a lot of jazz on there; it’s a lot of pop and soul. I set out to be a saxophone player and a singer and have been really lucky to play with and next to great people. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have jazz radio embrace my songs because there’s no other place for creative instrumentalists, whether they skew jazz or skew soul or R&B, to get played on the radio. I’ve had this beautiful home with jazz and people I consider monumental artists. I’m always honored to be by their side at festivals and cruises and all of it.

“But the artists that I look up to,” she continues, “all broke out and did things that were unexpected. It didn’t mean that they were any less a jazz musician or any less a rock musician or any less a person. I watched Miles Davis play with Prince and record a Scritti Politti song [‘Perfect Way’]. ‘Ooh, he can’t be a jazz artist, he’s left jazz behind!’ That’s bullshit, I’m sorry. I don’t subscribe to that and I don’t live my life by that and I don’t create art with that in mind. I create music that inspires me. Sometimes it’s jazzier than other times; sometimes it’s more rockin’ than other times.”

Abair credits the rapidly shifting nature of the music business itself-and that would include the near-collapse of the once ubiquitous smooth-jazz radio format-with giving her more freedom to move in new directions. “A lot of people are freaking out that the sky is falling and there’s no more music business, but I think the exact opposite, that it’s a really beautiful revolution,” she says. “The days are gone when radio guys would come to me and say, ‘You can’t have that high saxophone note up there or that crunch guitar-people don’t want to listen to that on the radio; maybe you want to take that out for the radio edit.’ We’re making the music that we want to make. Screw what a record label or a radio station wants you to do. It’s all about what makes us as artists happy. I think that can only be good for the business of music.”

She doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how she’s gotten to the place she’s now in or where she’ll take her music in the future. “I’ve had so much fun making this record,” Abair says. “I just want to make music that makes people feel. Music is a lifetime journey that we take and to really find ways that you can expand and grow and keep inspired-how fun is that?”

Originally Published