Jazz saxophonist Mindi Abair

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Jazz musician explains the challenges of being a female saxophonist and talks about her new release.

Mindi Abair has spent more than a decade writing, recording and performing songs. After the contemporary jazz saxophonist paid her dues on touring gigs and doing session work with such diverse artists as the Gap Band and the Backstreet Boys, she took the advice of her sax teacher at Boston's Berklee College of Music to "be your own person" and created her signature pop-jazz style. She released her debut CD in '99 and hasn't looked back. She also plays flute and keyboard and hosts the nationally syndicated radio show Chill with Mindi Abair.


Tavis:  Mindi Abair is a talented jazz saxophonist who’s made a name for herself in a field long dominated by male artists. Her latest CD is called “Mindi Abair in Hi-Fi Stereo.” In just a moment she’ll be joined by Layla Hathaway for a song off the new project, but here she is performing “Any Way You Wanna.”
Tavis: So why the saxophone?
Mindi Abair: (Laughs) You know what? My dad played the saxophone and I always watched him. I grew up on the road with his band. So from my earliest recollections I’d watch him on stage and he just looked like he was having a blast, so I’m a product of school band and they set out a bunch of instruments in fourth grade and said, “Choose one,” and I chose saxophone. I wanted to have that much fun.
Tavis: Did you start with sax immediately or you worked your way into it?
Abair: No, actually, I started on piano when I was five and so I think that gave me kind of a basis for being able to kind of see music, and then sax when I was eight, and I probably only had a handful of lessons from the time I was in fourth grade until the time I went to college. But yeah, I just went for it with the sax. I thought it was fun, it was an extension of myself. I could scream with it, and (unintelligible).
Tavis: This is an unfair question, I guess, on a certain level, because you could ask this question of anyone who plays any instrument that’s been played by a gazillion other people, but since we’re talking about the saxophone here, so many folk have played it, so many folk have played it well.
How do you go about creating your own style when you’re a woman, number one, in a field dominated by men, and when so many men have played this thing so well? How do you find your own niche, so to speak? Your own lane?
Abair: I think that, as any artist, is what’s important. You have to find your own voice. I was really lucky to have people give me great advice early on. My sax teacher at Berkeley College of Music, every time I walked in his office it was like, “I need you to start your own band. You should start your own band.” Every time.
I finally did, and he just said, “You write your own music and you can come out of this school sounding like David Sanborn or sounding like John Coltrane, but there’s already a David Sanborn, there’s already a Wayne Shorter, there’s already a Cannonball Adderley, and these were the guys that I was loving and listening to their records.
But he said, “You have to find yourself, and when you find what your voice is, do it, because no one will be able to do it as well as you.” So that’s always what I put my heart and soul into, kind of finding what spoke to me as a musician.
Tavis: I would think the flip side, Mindi, of trying to make it in a male-dominated field where there’s a certain level of competition is that given who you are and how you look, you stand out. That’s got to be an advantage if you play it right, I would think.
Abair: Well it’s interesting. No one told me it was odd for a girl to play a saxophone until it was too late, which is great. (Laughter) You believe what you’re told as a kid, and they were like, “Hey, play any instrument, and if you practice hard enough you’re going to be fine.”
So I just kind of did what I did, but absolutely as a woman you have to prove yourself more than a man. You walk into a room and people aren’t going to expect you to be a good musician. So I always find that it’s fun to walk on stage. I almost look at it as a quest.
I walk on stage and maybe some people will be sitting back like, “Yeah, okay, what are you going to do?” But if I can make them unhook their arms and go, “Oh,” and be up there having fun, then I’ve done my job and maybe broken down a few of the stereotypical barriers that we as women have.
Tavis: To your point about Sanborn and Cannonball Adderley and any other — Wayne Shorter — others we can mention, for those music aficionados, you put their stuff on and you know it’s them.
Abair: Yeah.
Tavis: I can hear a Sanborn tune that I don’t even know Sanborn did, but I know the Sanborn sound. I know the Cannonball Adderley sound. I’m pretty good at telling you what’s a Wayne Shorter cut.
When people hear your music here and into the future, how will you know that they will know that’s Mindi Abair?
Abair: I think they know it’s Mindi Abair. That’s one thing —
Tavis: How?
Abair: I think my sound is somewhere in between pop and that old jazz sound. I was very influenced by Junior Walker, Cannonball Adderley. I always liked people who had a big sound, so I very much patterned my sound after a big, fat, old school kind of thing.
But I also liked those players like Macio, who they could play one note and make you bounce up and down, or play one note, like Layla Hathaway, who’s singing with me today — she could sing one note and make you cry.
I was very much a fan of people like that growing up, so I think when people hear me, I think they’re going to hear emotion, they’re going to hear kind of a gutsy feel. I put everything into what I play, so it’s a mixture of rock and pop and some old soul.
Tavis: Tell me quickly about the new CD, “In Hi-Fi Stereo.”
Abair: The new CD is fun. I’ve done a lot of CDs in the past that have been very produced and you use what the studio has to offer. This particular one, I picked James Gadsden on drums, who’s 71 years old and he’s played on every Bill Withers hit.
I wanted to make a soul record, and I wanted to make that record that you sit in a room with people and you create the magic together. It’s not just like here, bring the drummer in and then we’re going to bring the keyboard player in tomorrow and we’re going to bring the guitar in the next day.
I wanted everyone in the room, same time, working off each other. I had the blueprint of the songs written, I had what I wanted, but these guys came in and they really worked off each other, and we made some magic. It’s kind of like an old soul record.
Tavis: Well, it’s time to hear some magic, so enough of me. Up next, Mindi will be joined by an amazing artist, Layla Hathaway, for a special performance. Mindi, congratulations on the new CD.
Abair: Thank you.
Tavis: Stay right there. Here they come, in just a moment.
From her new CD, “Mindi Abair in Hi-Fi Stereo,” here is Mindi accompanied by Layla Hathaway and Cassandra O’Neill, performing the James Brown classic, “It’s a Man’s, Man’s World.” Enjoy.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm