Abair, Mindi (Contemporary Musicians)
At a time of sagging sales for contemporary and smooth jazz, pop-inspired saxophonist Mindi Abair has brought the cool factor back onto the jazz scene, boosting not only her own popularity, but that of an entire genre as well. With her heavy emphasis on the sounds of R&B and dance music as well as pop and rock, her jazz tunes defy categorization, and have attracted many new, young listeners to the genre. Although most clearly defined as a jazz musician, she cut her teeth playing the saxophone for pop superstars the Backstreet Boys. That connection showed clearly in her 2003 major label debut, It Just Happens that Way. "Lucy's," a single from the album, debuted at the number one position on the Radio & Records chart for most airplay. Following on the single's heels, the album itself landed in the top ten on the Billboard contemporary jazz chart.
Abair grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, in a family of musicians. Her father, Lance, was a saxophone player and keyboardist. His band, the Entertainers, frequently played on the road, and Lance took his family along with him, including Abair and her mother, Linda. Abair was the third generation of musicians in the family; her grandmother had been an opera singer. Young Mindi Abair learned to play the piano when she was five years old, while on the road with her father. She soon fell in love with the saxophone, again following her father's example. She had learned to play the sax by the time she was eight years old, and that same year she began writing her own music.
By the time she reached high school, Abair was an accomplished musician, playing in her high school marching band, in which she also played drums. There was never a point at which she decided to make music her life, she recalled later, she simply always was a musician. Her early influences were not only the music of jazz musicians such as Bill Evans, Miles Davis, and others, but top 40 hits as well, and this blend of tastes defined her work in later years.
After graduation from high school, Abair won a full scholarship to the University of Northern Florida to study music. But she soon found that the music department was not receptive to her interest in contemporary jazz. "It was a great experience," she later explained to Kevin Walker in the Tampa Tribune, "but they were very traditional." After a year she transferred to the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston. There she found herself at home with instructors and fellow students, who appreciated her desire to fuse jazz with rock, dance, and pop sounds. Among her most influential teachers was famous saxophone instructor Joe Viola, who helped her further hone her composition skills. After class she got even more experience playing in jam sessions with classmates in the dorms.
Following her graduation from Berklee, Abair moved to Los Angeles. Unlike many of her peers, she chose not to get a day job to help support herself; she expected her music to support her immediately. To this end, she put together a band to play in clubs at night and, lacking other work, she played on the streets of Santa Monica during the day. The gamble paid off when new age recording artist John Tesh spotted her in one of her club gigs and invited her to join a concert tour he was putting together. She accepted, and her career was off and running. More job offers rolled in, and soon she was playing with such acts as the Gap Band, Adam Sandler, Mandy Moore, Teena Marie, and perhaps most significantly, from 1999 to 2001, the pop group the Backstreet Boys.
Bud Harner, a Verve record label representative, caught one of Abair's acts in concert. He later described the scene to Dave Scheiber in the Chicago Sun-Times: "The whole place was just mesmerized by her, this beautiful, young, blond woman just burning on the horn." Abair was already committed to a long-term tour with the Backstreet Boys tour, so she and Harner agreed to talk when she returned.
For Abair, the gig with the Backstreet Boyswo years on the road as the band's featured sax playerarked a major milestone in her career. She played in 50,000-seat venues throughout the United States and Europe, making professional contacts and gaining valuable experience that would serve her well in her later career as a soloist. After her return from the tour in 2001, she sent Harner a demo CD, and Verve gave her a contract. The result was an album called It Just Happens that Way, Abair's major label debut. The title of the album came from a 1962 live album by jazz saxophone great Cannonball Adderley, on which he can be heard saying, as quoted on the Verve Music Group website, "Hipness is not a state of mind. It's a fact of life. You don't decide you're hip. It just happens that way."
The album debuted to brisk sales and to critical acclaim. A single from the album titled "Lucy's" hit the number one spot on the Radio & Records chart for most airplay, and the album itself climbed to the top ten on the Billboard contemporary jazz chart. The record label began receiving fan letters from teens, an accomplishment normally reserved for pop stars. Abair has said of her debut that it was the culmination of a lifetime of work, that all of her playing and practicing and performing had been leading up to this achievement. She couldn't have been happier, too, with the success of the album at music stores and among critics, who praised it for its fresh approach to jazz. Abair was proud, not only of landing her own recording contract and playing her own compositions, but for having achieved success in a field largely dominated by men.
Abair has continued to live in Los Angeles. As for the future, she has said she plans to produce many more albums, and to one day start a family. "I grew up on the road," she explained on the Verve website, "so I think I can pull it off.But I have to meet someone first."
Always and Never the Same, Abair, 2003.
It Just Happens that Way, GRP, 2003.
Chicago Sun-Times, May 2, 2003, p. 7Nc.
St. Petersburg Times, February 25, 2003, p. 1D; April 1, 2003, p. 2B.
Tampa Tribune, April 25, 2003, p. 6.
"Mindi Abair," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 2, 2004).
"Mindi Abair," Verve Music Group, (March 2, 2004).
"Mindi Abair Interview," ContemporaryJazz.com, (March 2, 2004).
Mindi Abair Official Website, http://www.mindiabair.com (March 2, 2004).