So much for homeland security.While jazz singer-saxophonist-keyboardist Mindi Abair was performing on stage during her recent tour with Al Jarreau, her purse was stolen from her dressing room. Just four hours away from hopping onto a plane, she found herself without any identification, credit cards, even her beloved lipstick.
“But this is so rock star,” the St. Petersburg, Fla., native said recently, “I got on the plane with my police report on the robbery, the cover of R&R magazine and my CD. I can’t believe in this heightened security that that actually worked; I autographed the CDs for them and they let me on the plane, and it worked through four airports.”
She may have been a bit of an unknown at the time, but now – with the Feb. 25 release of her debut GRP album, “It Just Happens That Way” – Abair is certain to make a name for herself.
Produced by Matthew Hager (Mandy Moore, John Taylor), “It Just Happens That Way” reflects Abair’s wide-ranging musical tastes, from contemporary jazz to soul and pop. She co-wrote 11 of the 12 tracks (the exception being a cover of Eagle Eye Cherry’s “Save Tonight,” featuring background vocals from Taylor), and she performs with a stellar cast of players, among them Lenny Castro (percussion), Steve Ferrone (drums) and Peter White on accordion.
Going solo was always a goal for the Berklee College of Music graduate.
“Even in college, my saxophone teacher, Joe Viola, he would constantly tell me, ‘Get out there with your own band. Go for it. Do your own music,’ ” Abair said. “He knew I wrote a lot and he very much encouraged that.
“When I first moved to Los Angeles, no one would hire me or knew who I was. One of the only ways I could get out there and play was to have my own band. I’d write out charts for all my songs and hire different people and play all the clubs.”
The strategy paid off: It led to stints with Jonathan Butler, Adam Sandler, the Backstreet Boys, Mandy Moore and Bobby Lyle.
Abair comments on a few of them:
BACKSTREET BOYS: “I had such a good time on the road with them. It was a life experience; I had to soak it in, because who gets to do this, playing in front of 40,000 people?
“I played sax, keyboards and percussion for them. When they changed clothes, and believe me it took a while, I got do a sax solo. What was cool for me was a lot of girls in the audience loved to see a woman up there breaking the rules. I got so many e-mails and letters from girls and even their mothers saying ‘I’m practicing more’ or ‘I’m taking up an instrument and you’ve really inspired me to go after what I love, that it’s possible to do this.’
“There aren’t many role models to show girls that, ‘Hey, you can be whatever you want to be.’ “
MANDY MOORE: “She opened for Backstreet Boys when I was on the road with them, for about three months. She was 15 years old and she would go out there and just work it. She’s so good and so sweet. When she went to put together a band, I helped her start it and played in her band for quite a while. I sang and played keyboards and percussion for her.”
ADAM SANDLER: “I have to say that’s the most fun tour ever. He hired all these amazing musicians, like Waddy Wachtel on guitar, and we played these crazy songs that I could tell you the names of here if you could print them.
“These songs were so funny, so we didn’t have to take ourselves too seriously. We had a ball. I think the only reason we rehearsed was so we wouldn’t crack up during the whole thing. The stuff we were singing was hysterical, like ‘Piece of Shit Car.’
“We came up with choreographed parts for our background singing, like we were grabbing our crotches and flipping people off, making all these lewd comments. And the audiences loved it.”
Abair has come a long way from her marching-band days at Northside Christian School in St. Petersburg.
“I knew I wanted to do music, but it was a journey to get to Berklee,” she said. “My first year of college, I took a full scholarship to the University of North Florida. They were just starting a jazz program there, and they took a bunch of people from different states. It was a great place to get my feet wet and practice a lot and be shown what jazz was. The teachers were amazing.
“I applied to Berklee after a friend of mine went there. I realized that most of the bands that I loved were rock bands or more contemporary jazz groups. These guys (at North Florida) were telling me that (Berklee) was selling out, that it wasn’t the tradition and not true jazz. I disagreed; I really wanted a chance to go play a bunch of styles of music – R&B, rock, jazz. And I had heard Berklee was the place for that, that they let you do what you wanted to do.”
Abair is all over the musical map on “It Just Happens That Way,” but she admits she wasn’t so sure how jazz fans would react.
“When we made this, we really didn’t know if anyone was going to like it or not,” she said. “We looked at each other and went, ‘Wow, this is a little different than what people are hearing and people could hate this. Let’s be ready for that.’
“So now that the single (‘Lucy’s’) is out and people are embracing it, maybe they will embrace the whole CD, too. I can honestly say I’m already floored by how people are reacting to it. It’s beyond my wildest dreams.”
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