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A conversation with Mindi Abair

With her third CD, “Life Less Ordinary,” debuting at #1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart, Audio-Technica endorser Mindi Abair is quickly becoming the model for a new generation of breakthrough jazz artists.

Photo Caption  

Photo by Mick O'Brien. This photo is the property of Mick O'Brien.

Photo by Sherry Fisher. This photo is the property of Sherry Fisher.

Photo by Mick O'Brien. This photo is the property of Mick O'Brien.

The images of Mindi Abair on the Audio-Technica home page were taken (left to right) by Mick O'Brien and Tim Sabatino.

Unauthorized use, alteration or reproduction of these photographs is strictly prohibited.

With her third CD, “Life Less Ordinary,” debuting at #1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart, Audio-Technica endorser Mindi Abair is quickly becoming the model for a new generation of breakthrough jazz artists. Listen in on a conversation ...

Can you talk a little about what was it like growing up in a musical family? Do you have fond memories of being on tour with your dad when you were a child?

Mindi Abair: I was born on the road and traveled with my father's band until I was about 5 years old. All my childhood pictures are at hotels or "helping" the band pack the truck. It was really funny to see all this band gear ...amps and Leslie speakers and instruments....and then a tricycle and toys for me.

I was always around music. It was my normal. Many of my first memories are of music ...watching my dad play on stage or listening to my grandmother sing and play the piano. When we moved to Florida after the band broke up (every band breaks up, hmm?!), my father asked me if I wanted to take piano lessons. I guess I banged around enough on his as a child. He figured he should get me some real guidance. It was funny...I had a grandmother who was an opera singer and a father who was a professional musician as a keyboardist/saxophonist....but neither of them would teach me. They both believed that at some point a child hates their music teacher. They never wanted to be that person. They wanted me to find music on my own. I started those piano lessons at age 5 and took lessons for about 5 or 6 years.

At what age did you take up the saxophone? Why saxophone?

In fourth grade on the first day of school the band instructor laid out a bunch of instruments on the floor and just told us to choose one that appealed to us. I went straight for the alto saxophone. Some people's fathers are firefighters and they want to copy them. My father was a saxophone player, and I thought he was the coolest guy on the planet. He looked like he had so much fun up there on stage. I copied him! It was bigger than me at that point, but that didn't stop me!

I maybe took 5 or 6 private lessons on the saxophone from fourth grade until college. All that I learned was from what I watched my father do, or what I listened to, or what I picked up in school band.

How did you get your first big break?

After finishing my degree at Berklee College of Music in Boston, I decided to move to Los Angeles. I didn't know a soul. I got a job as a waitress and read the local papers for jam sessions at local clubs. I sat in everywhere they would let me. I was fearless! I couldn't get arrested, though. I was hoping people would hear me play and they'd hire me. Not so. I then started my own band. I figured...if they don't hire me, I'll hire them. I'd play restaurants and clubs for $30-$50 a night! My first paying gig in California was in San Diego. I used to waitress during the day and then drive to San Diego to play at night. I'd get off at around 2am and drive home (3 hrs) to waitress again the next day! It was crazy, but I just wanted to get out there and play.

My first break came when my band was playing at a small club in Sherman Oaks, CA named LeCafe. The whole club sat about 30 people. John Tesh walked in, and he stuck out like a sore thumb! The bass player in my band, Tim Landers, played in his band at the time. He had told him about me, and John needed a sax player to tour for his new cd "Sax By the Fire". At the end of the night, he talked with me for a while and asked me if I'd consider playing in his band for his tour. I eagerly said "yes", and I toured with him for the next 9 months!

Did touring with other artists help you develop your own voice? Who have you particularly enjoyed playing with?

I believe we're all products of our environment. There are so many things that make us the players/writers/musicians that we are. I grew up listening to everything. I grew up in my very young years watching my father play in an R&B/Soul band. My grandmother sang opera. I was a rocker girl listening to everything on pop radio from Blondie to the Police to Super Tramp, Toto, the Doobie Brothers, and the GoGo's. I was all over the map! When I was in college, I was in ensembles that ranged from funk to r&b to the music of Wayne Shorter to big band, and even 20th Century modernism. Once I got out of school, I was up for anything...I just wanted to play and sing and write! It was always my dream to have my own band and have my future be built on my music. I knew I needed to prove myself to get there, though. And I needed to make a living until the record labels would say "yes"!

The first major artist I toured with was John Tesh, and I learned a lot. He let me be me. He let me take solos the way I wanted to. He let me run around the auditoriums and rock out!

I then toured with Bobby Lyle. He really showed me the ropes. He was a real jazz artist. His band was filled with "the cats" and they were like big brothers to me. It was all about being an excellent musician and a competent and respectable artist.

I toured with Adam Sandler and recorded both sax and vocals for his cd "What's My Name?". Besides having the time of my life, I learned a valuable lesson. [Until then] I was really all about being respected as a player/writer/instrumentalist. Adam Sandler just wanted to have a good time playing. Sometimes you can lose sight of the fun of playing while focusing on trying to be the best you can be. I took the chance while I was with him to focus on just having a good time and being in the moment.

After that, I went on the road with Jonathan Butler. I played saxophone, keyboards and sang with him. He is a mix of South African, Jazz and R&B. He's a phenomenal artist. He wanted me to step out and be myself. I got so many new influences. I had never delved into South African music. The rhythms and the harmonies are amazing.

After Jonathan Butler, I was called to tour with the Backstreet Boys. What an amazing experience. I played saxophone, keyboards and percussion for a year with them on the Millennium Tour. After a lot of jazz and R&B it was really interesting to delve into super pop. I's OK to write an amazing hook and drive it home.

All these bands influenced who I became as an artist. I can look back at the music I've made and see the influences come out. There's a bit of jazz ...a bit of rock n roll...a bit of R&B ....and I'm not scared of the coming together of all those sounds. Now I just sit down to write a song and think...I wonder what's going to come out today?! Now it's fun to see whether it's lyrics that I'm hearing in my head or just a melody on saxophone. I'm comfortable with it all, and I know that it's the sum of my experiences coming through in my music.

Who are your major influences?

I have so many influences. It's hard to narrow it down. I'll name off some big ones, though. My father was and is a huge influence. I never took a lesson from him, but he'll sit in with my band from time to time and it's very hard to deny the influence! We sound an awful lot alike! My favorite saxophonists include Wayne Shorter (his sense of melody and harmony are incredible ...he never relies on "licks" that other players do. It's all just what's flying through his head at the time!), Maceo Parker (he can play one note and just make you dance to it. He has so much soul), Cannonball Adderley (he has such a great sound, such great melodic ideas and an intensity that I love), David Sanborn (he bridged the gap for me between growing up the rocker girl and coming around to jazz. He played saxophone, but played it to pop rhythms and harmonies. He had so much intensity and emotion in his phrasing, tone and his compositions). Some of my favorite artists of all time: Miles Davis (he constantly changed and wasn't ashamed of it. He went with his heart musically, and changed the world as he went), Rickie Lee Jones (her voice is so authentic and personal. Her music is like no one else's. You always know it's her. She patterned herself after no one!), Nancy Wilson (my favorite cd is Cannonball Adderley/Nancy Wilson), the Beatles (wow...the songwriting! ...the knack for making the obscure or the sublime seem simple and singable).

When you were working on your last album was there any particular music you were listening to that influenced your writing?

One of my major influences for my new cd was Rickie Lee Jones's "The Magazine". I couldn't stop listening to it! I ended up covering one of her songs "It Must Be Love". I changed it quite a bit, but it's a tribute to her and what a great writer and artist she is to me. I also couldn't stop listening to the Brazilian Girls cd. I think it's fun and lighthearted and it just always puts me in a good mood. I think that's what music should do...make you feel...take you some place.

Any advice for performers who are just starting out?

When I was in high school, they had something called All-State band. Everyone in the state of Florida could audition for the All-State bands, and it was a huge honor to be chosen. I decided that I wanted to be in the All-State jazz band. It was cooler to me than the symphonic band. There were only 2 alto saxophone spots for the whole state. They gave us songs to play for an audition. I practiced for a while, and finally gave up. I told my dad that some guy was going to go in there and just blow me out of the water. I might as well give up now instead of endure having to go in there and be intimidated and be outplayed. My dad said, "Fine. Give up." Ouch. The reverse psychology of that kicked in for me, and I decided not to give up. At least I'd try. I auditioned and won first chair alto saxophone in the Florida All-State Jazz Band my senior year in high school. I told my dad I was so happy I hadn't given up. He told me that many times it's not the most talented people who achieve greatness. It's the people who go for it... who put themselves on the line and try ...that achieve. I've found that to be true in every aspect of life. Everyone will tell you every reason why you can't do something, or why you shouldn't. If I'd have listened, I wouldn't be doing what I love today.

I understand that “Life Less Ordinary” was recorded in the home of your producer and co-composer Matthew Hager. Can you talk about the experience of recording there?

We recorded most of "Life Less Ordinary" in Matthew Hager's house. It's a small bungalow hidden up in the Hollywood hills. The beauty of recording there was that we could take our time ... make mistakes ... try things that maybe we wouldn't in a big studio with a clock ticking or people watching. Matthew and I went to Berklee together and have been best friends since then. We've seen each other through a lot of music and a lot of phases and experiences. It's great because I'll play a solo and he knows me so well that he'll say, "Take it again. It didn't sound like you. It has to be something you'd play and only you'd play!" Wow. Who else would know what makes me me as a player, but a friend who's been in the trenches with me the whole time as I evolved and learned and became who I am? That's incredible. And recording in his house in a familiar place is priceless. There's no pressure to be something I'm not. There's no pressure to play perfectly. We're just there to create. Some of the best "takes" on the record are takes that we were just playing around as we wrote the song. We went back in a bigger studio later to "recreate" those tracks more perfectly, and it wasn't the same vibe, the same spirit. We’d end up using the “demo” because it had more heart and soul and spontaneity. There's a spirit to friends writing a song together and just having fun in the moment.

Do you have much of a hand in the recording process—or are you strictly on the music side of the business?

I'm a part of everything involving my cds and music. I have pro tools and recording equipment in my house, but I hate to press the buttons. I really am the creative type that loves acoustic instruments with no knobs involved. Funny, though, as much as I don't want to turn the knobs, I'm there tweaking effects and coming up with fun sounds and parts for the music. I like sound. I usually have a very specialized idea of what I want to hear. I'll go through mic after mic to get the right sound. I'll try out all kinds of crazy mic techniques from piling up pillows against the wall and playing into them (we used that for my 1st cd) to getting just the right mic in the right corner of the bathroom with the right rug placed under the mic gets insane! I'm involved in every mix and mastering session. I love to play with effects ...delays ...eq's can really help create a mood. When I write music, I have it in my head what I want it to sound like. So I stay involved until it becomes that. Technology is so important in making that happen.

What part does Audio-Technica play in getting your sound across in the studio or live?

I started using Audio-Technica's wireless systems in the early 1990's. There was one tour when I used another company's wireless unit, and it didn't sound like "me". I thought ...could it be the mic? It couldn't have that much of an effect, could it? Well, I went right back to my Audio-Technica mic and stuck with it. It's part of my live sound. It's part of how I hear myself. There's a certain compression that comes along with it that just works for me. I love the sound it creates. For me, sound is everything. I'd rather be the player that plays one note and makes you feel something than 100 notes and just wows you with technique.

In the studio, a mic can change everything. I tried so many mics when we recorded my first cd "It Just Happens That Way" for Verve/GRP Records. When I heard the AT4060 I just knew it was right. We recorded everything on it ...all the saxes, all the vocals, most of the acoustic sounded like I heard myself sounding. It didn't color my sound. It just portrayed it as I heard it in my head. That's what I wanted from a mic. We've now used that on almost every recording I've done. On my second cd for Verve/GRP, "Come As You Are", we branched out and used an AT3060 on my soprano saxophone. We also used it on a few of my vocals. But we went right back to the 4060 for this cd. I wanted "my" sound, and the 4060 was it. It's such a pure representation of what goes down in the studio. That makes all the difference.

When’s your next tour?

I released my third CD for Verve/GRP in April 2006. My band and I have been on the road pretty solid since then. We’re opening a few shows for Michael Bolton. I’m also doing a few jazz cruises coming up. I have to say, that’s a fun time! It’s great …I love to be out there on the road and sharing my new music with people. That’s my favorite part of all this. Tour dates are always on my website,, on the tour page. I also keep a daily diary of my adventures on the road. I put in pictures from almost every place we play. I think it’s fun to share the experience of it all with everyone.