Any artist who takes his or her craft seriously will inevitably reach a point on the journey when history can no longer be overlooked. The direct line between the music of now and the music of then becomes too important to ignore, and the riches of generations past are suddenly rediscovered – and eventually reinterpreted for a new era.
Saxophonist Mindi Abair has reached that critical juncture. After more than a decade of performing, songwriting and recording, she has taken a step back from the more polished sensibilities of contemporary jazz and embraced the sounds of past decades – specifically the ‘60s and early ‘70s, a period widely regarded as the golden age of R&B, soul and funk. The result is In Hi-Fi Stereo. The album captures the raw and edgy aesthetic of that golden age, when a slab of vinyl could instantaneously put band and listener together in the same room and establish a visceral and enduring connection. Loaded with infectious grooves generated by a high-caliber crew of players, In Hi-Fi Stereo rekindles that spark for a new generation of ears.
“This album is a reflection of some of the older, more soulful records I’ve been listening to in the last couple years,” says Abair, firing off a list of favorites that include Al Green, Alain Toussaint, Junior Walker, King Curtis, Archie Bell and the Drells, and many others. “I think it all kind of seeped into me over time. I wanted to move away from a more produced sound and just get into the studio and play. It didn’t have to be perfect. It didn’t have to be shiny and new. It’s not an intellectual record. It’s a fun, feel-good record inspired by some of those great sounds and grooves from that period, but recast for a modern audience.”
Co-produced by Abair and R&B mainstay Rex Rideout (who also lays down keyboards on nearly every track), In Hi-Fi Stereo includes a roster of players representing the old school as well as the new. In addition to Abair’s touring band, the album is seasoned with a number of guest players: veteran drummer James Gadson (a frequent session player for Bill Withers, Amos Lee and Nikka Costa), bassist Reggie McBride (Aretha, Rickie Lee Jones and Keb’ Mo’), Mindi's Berklee classmate and friend Lalah Hathaway, nominated 2010 R&B Female Vocalist of the year, Ryan Collins and David Ryan Harris.
Hanging with talented musicians is nothing new for Abair. Her paternal grandmother was an opera singer, and her father was a saxophonist and B3 player in a blue-eyed soul group called The Entertainers – a gig that kept the whole family on the road for several years throughout the early ‘70s. By the time the band broke up and the Abairs put down roots in St. Petersburg, Florida, five-year-old Mindi had already demonstrated musical aspirations of her own by taking up the piano.
She made the switch to saxophone in the fourth grade, and took part in every band program available in elementary, middle and high school. After a year at the University of North Florida, she transferred to Berklee, where she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in woodwind performance.
Abair recalls some wise counseling she received during her college years: “My saxophone teacher told me every week, ‘You have to start your own band. Don’t try to be someone else. Don’t practice a bunch of David Sanborn licks or Wayne Shorter licks. Go out and be your own person.’ It was the best advice anyone could have given me.”
She took the advice and ran with it, all the way to the opposite coast. She landed in Los Angeles, where she began a dues-paying process that lasted nearly a decade and included touring gigs with keyboardists John Tesh and Bobby Lyle and guitarist Jonathan Butler. When she was home from the road, she booked her own band in just about any club that would have them. And on those occasions when none would, she played on the streets of Santa Monica. “I didn’t want to wait tables when I had a degree in music,” she says. “I’d take my horn down to 3rd Street Promenade and just play. I paid my rent for quite a few months by doing that.”
Abair turns the James Brown classic, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” on its head with the help of Lalah Hathaway’s silky vocal delivery. “Lalah thinks like an instrumentalist, and she has always made her way around a song that way,” says Abair. “So for me, as an instrumentalist, that was ideal. We wanted to record this song as a duet. We didn’t want to follow the typical structure of one person singing the song and the other person playing the saxophone. We made it more of a back-and-forth experience.”
Start to finish, In Hi-Fi Stereo is something classic and something new at the same time. “It’s a vintage sounding record, a modern take on a very classic sound,” she says. “We didn’t make your father’s jazz record. We didn’t set out to make an ‘old’ record. It’s not about doing what’s been done before. It’s about drawing on what and who inspires you, and bringing it into your world and making it your own – and then putting it out there for a new generation of people who love jazz and soul.”