In a career that spans seven solo albums and countless collaborations in the studio and live on stage, Mindi Abair has made her mark as one of the most recognizable saxophonists in the US. You may know her as the saxophonist on American Idol, or the only saxophonist to tour with rock legends Aerosmith since 1973. You may have seen her on stage with Bruce Springsteen for a historic night at the Beacon Theater, or tuned in as she joined Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra on the Late Show with David Letterman, or caught her recent appearance at The Grand Ole Opry or as Al Pacino’s sax player in Danny Collins.
Her seven solo CDs have garnered ten #1 radio hits, six top 5 spots and two #1 spots on theBillboard Contemporary Jazz album chart. Abair received a 2014 GRAMMY® nomination in the Best Pop Instrumental Album category for Summer Horns, a #1 recording with her friends Dave Koz, Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot, and more recently received a 2015 GRAMMY® nomination for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album for her solo cd Wild Heart.
After Wild Heart, Abair wanted to translate its edgier rock/soul sound to the stage. She called longtime friend Randy Jacobs (Bonnie Raitt, Was (Not Was), Willie Nelson) to join her live band. Randy brought his Detroit blues/rock edge to her music. In June, Randy’s band, The Boneshakers, was playing The Newport Beach Jazz Festival on the same bill as Mindi’s band, and she hopped on stage to "sit in” with The Boneshakers. "There was so much electricity on stage. We all felt it. The blues and rock just pulsed through me. Everyone played with complete abandon,” Abair said. "It felt like home. And most of my band was also playing with Randy’s band. It was really only about hiring longtime Boneshakers vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson (Bonnie Raitt, Was (Not Was), Lyle Lovett). So we made it official and hit the road as Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers.” Which brings us to Mindi Abair & the Boneshakers Live in Seattle, set for release September 25, 2015 on Heads Up, a division of Concord Music Group.
Tracked at Jazz Alley over Valentine’s Day weekend (Abair’s standing gig for a dozen years), this album captures the intent of a rock band, the grit of a blues band and enough energy to light a stadium. Fourteen sizzling tracks include eleven originals and two dramatic covers, which feature the exceptional combined skills of Mindi Abair (alto saxophone, vocals, producer), Randy Jacobs (guitar, vocals), Sweet Pea Atkinson (vocals), Rodney Lee (keyboards), Derek Frank (bass, vocals), and Third Richardson (drums, vocals).
The album opens with a bang on the throbbing "Wild Heart” featuring Mindi’s melodic saxophone. The band flows right into "Haute Sauce,” which features a driving beat and a joyous Eddie Harris vibe. On "I Can’t Lose,” Mindi adds some swagger singing "It’s my time, it’s gonna go my way,” then breaks into a screaming saxophone solo. "Ball and Chain” is a gutsy, bluesy Boneshakers classic with Sweet Pea Atkinson growling and grinding his appeal, "I never want to be your ball and chain.” And the house lights up with Sweet Pea, Mindi and the rest of the band on the uplifting heart-grabber, "Be Beautiful.” Abair also adds three new songs to the set, including her haunting original "Gone,” "Make it Happen,” a powerhouse rocker penned by Abair and icon Booker T. Jones, and an indelibly original take on George Gershwin’s "Summertime,” which roars with Jacob’s fiery Hendrix-inspired rock riffs and Abair’s soaring alto work.
Mindi’s ode to stadium jazz, the anthemic "Bloom” takes off like a jet engine with Jacobs and Abair front and center. And there’s nothing but old Memphis soul when Abair and Jacobs trade vocal lines on "I’ll Be Your Home” (which featured another longtime friend, Keb’ Mo’, on her Wild Heart version.) On her funk guitar-driven song "Flirt,” Mindi struts her stuff. And Randy’s muscular funk-rock arrangement of "Cold Sweat” — which pays as much homage to BB King as it does James Brown — closes the album with raucous exuberance.
"I’ve always felt that my band is a live band first and foremost,” says Abair. "I’m happiest on stage. And The Boneshakers just brought it to a whole new level. I’ve always been a fan of Randy’s band. We’ve been friends and have played with each other on and off for over 20 years. The marriage of me with The Boneshakers has been an infusion of blues and rock into my sound that is beyond inspiring. I’ve never made a live record, and this is why you make one — because your live show has magic, and you want to capture and share that magic.”
Abair regards Live in Seattle, which she produced, as an extension of the energy she poured into Wild Heart following the experiences that led to it, all of which reawakened her beloved rock ‘n’ roll side. (Even the Los Angeles Times noticed, labeling Abair "the Joan Jett of saxophonists” in its coverage of the January NAMM’s She Rocks Awards.) Wild Heart tapped talents including Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, rocker Gregg Allman, guitar hero Waddy Wachtel, Trombone Shorty, Keb’ Mo’, Booker T. Jones and E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg.
Abair’s first inspirations came from her musician father, who towed his family on tour until she was five, and her opera-singing grandmother. Once the family settled back home in St. Petersburg, Fla., her birthplace, she began her own musical explorations, first with piano, then sax. Though even today, female sax players are treated as anomalies, she reflects, "I was never told that it was odd for a girl to play saxophone until it was way too late. What a great gift to be taught, ‘You can be anything you want. Go play any instrument you want and it’s going to be cool.’”
And if writing, recording and touring aren’t enough, Abair authored the book "How To Play Madison Square Garden – A Guide To Stage Performance” and she launched her own fine jewelry line www.mindiabairjewelry.com in December of 2014. She also serves as a National Trustee for The Recording Academy, the company that puts on the GRAMMYs. "It’s been a very eye-opening and inspiring role,” she says. "What an honor to serve as a leader in the most preeminent organization of the music business. This is a group of people who give back constantly to inspire and strengthen the next generation of music makers, and they remind me daily what beautiful power we hold as creators of music.”
It helps that she’s still so inspired to push her own boundaries as a musician and writer. Abair says, "A record is supposed to be a snapshot of where you are in your life. Well, that’s what this is. It’s a band that I absolutely love playing with, and the audience is as excited as I am every night. That’s what it’s all about. As long as I can make great music and have so much fun with these guys, I’m going to do it. Life is short. Play music that makes you happy. Play with people that inspire you. I’m doing that every night. It’s just amazing.”