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Mindi Abair: Behind the Beats

Each week we'll take you 'Behind the Beats' to learn more about the artists that play on our airwaves. This week: Mindi Abair.

Mindi Abair has enjoyed a 21-year career as a recording artist and 2021 saw Mindi’s return to the smooth jazz scene with her first ever “Best Of” compilation, which featured two new tunes that rocked the smooth jazz charts. We spoke with her in 2021 Year-End BEATS magazine but there were quite a few questions we weren't able to include. Check out the original article below but keep scrolling for the full version of our conversation.

Read the rest of the BEATS magazine here.

Mindi, welcome back to smooth jazz! I say it jokingly, but you did depart from the mainstream of ‘smooth jazz’ for a bit…

I took a turn in 2014 and made a few albums I’d always wanted to make as an artist. But I never left smooth jazz in my heart, and I was so lucky to have so many of my smooth jazz fans and family follow me on my musical journey. I grew up with many musical influences. My father played in a very high energy blue-eyed soul band called The Entertainers. I grew up on the road watching his band play every night. And then he put together rock bands that toured the US for the next 15 years. My earliest influences were soul and rock. There came a point in my life that I realized I was moonlighting on my time off playing with the members of Fleetwood Mac and The Rolling Stones and Neil Young’s band. I was running off to play with Aerosmith for a summer and then touring with Max Weinberg and sitting in with Springsteen. I felt the pull of bringing that part of myself into my own career, instead of just playing blues and rock in other people’s worlds. So I asked my friends for help. I wanted to write and play music that represented that part of myself… a little edgier, a little bluesier… and I did just that. I released Wild Heart in 2014. It featured Gregg Allman, Keb’ Mo’, Booker T. Jones, Max Weinberg, and Joe Perry from Aerosmith. I received my first GRAMMY nomination from this album, and it was the gateway to starting Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers with my friend Randy Jacobs. Randy and I made 4 albums as Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers and had so much fun making music together as a band.

The entire package for this “Best Of” project is stunning. The liner-notes and PICS are such a nice accompaniment to the music…

Thank you so much. During the pandemic I did something I never do… look back. I’m always looking forward to what’s next. Where are we going? What song am I writing this week? What will my next album sound like? I took the time to look back at the last 20 years of my recording career and listen and think about it. 20 years is a long time, and I realized my life has been lived song by song… each song I wrote was a snapshot of where I was in my life. So I decided to make a compilation of The Best of Mindi Abair album. I included my hits, and also a few new songs like “April” that we released to Smooth Jazz radio. I wrote the story of each of the 19 songs on this album… how it came to be… what we were doing in the studio… I told my story song by song to create the liner notes. And I went through so many photos from my private archives from my history as an artist. I chose photos from all eras of my career and included them in the 16-page booklet. And we remastered the entire album.

Any tracks on the album have a special memory attached?

I included songs that were meaningful to me on my journey…. one being a brand new song “Make It Happen” that I wrote and recorded with one of my musical heroes Booker T. Jones. I also included “Just Say When,” the duet that I wrote and sang with Gregg Allman and recorded in the back of a pharmacy in Savannah, GA. I could talk all day about writing and creating this song with him. And I added “Be Beautiful”, a song that has become a mainstay of my live show. I first recorded it for a CD called United We Cure that gave its proceeds to fight breast cancer. The lyrics say “Be Free, Be Strong, Be Beautiful.” It’s become a reminder to me to always know that I’m beautiful no matter how I might feel, and to “Be Beautiful” to everyone, as we are all beautiful every day. I went back to the very beginning of my career and included a song “True Love” from my very first album Always and Never the Same that was released in 2000.

The first time we met was in Catalina many years ago. You were playing in Jonathan Butler’s band.

I toured with Jonathan Butler as his saxophonist for a few years back in the late 90’s. Touring with Jonathan was a great chance for me to grow as a saxophonist and performer. He let me do my thing and be myself on stage. I gained a lot of confidence as a performer in his band. I have so many amazing artists to thank for allowing me to back them up in their bands on my way to becoming a solo artist …. Bobby Lyle literally hired me off the street and I toured the world with him. Teena Marie gave me a new respect for funk and R&B. Adam Sandler taught me that you don’t have to take everything seriously… sometimes you just have to go out and play some rock ‘n’ roll and laugh and have a great time! And touring with the Backstreet Boys allowed me to see the world as part of the world’s biggest band at the time… it was empowering and amazing to realize I could be a role model to young girls around the world as an instrumentalist.

It’s been a fun and successful road with two Grammy nominations and loads of recognition throughout the industry. Any stand-out moments you’d like to share?

I’ve had so many stand out moments. I’m the luckiest woman on the planet to have shared the stage with so many incredible players and artists. One moment I remember like it was yesterday is playing at the GRAMMYs with Summer Horns. It was Dave Koz, Gerald Albright, Richard Elliot, myself and we had Verdine White from Earth Wind and Fire join us on stage. It was epic. We were nominated for a GRAMMY that year for our album Summer Horns. We didn’t win it, but I have to say we had the greatest time losing! We partied drinking champagne and just soaked it all in. Sometimes it’s just being there and knowing you made a great record and playing with your friends in front of a bigger-than-life audience. It felt so good! It still feels good!

Tell us about your wine and music club.

A few years ago my husband Eric and I sat down with a bottle of wine and a few magic markers and a white board. We wanted to live our very best lives. We both already had dream jobs. I’ve spent my life making music. He’s spent his life running iconic wineries like Mumm Napa and Kendall Jackson. What we learned… We love to travel. We love being together. Eric wanted to share wine in a more personal way than being in the winery as an executive. I loved touring with my band and being around people. We decided that he should quit his corporate job as a wine executive and we would start our own wine + music company Reserve Tastings. We did just that 2 years ago. Eric now finds amazing wines that are exclusive to us. I curate the label artwork and come up with a perfectly paired music playlist for each wine. We ship incredible new wines to our members four times a year and put on two week-long adventures each year in amazing wine regions for very intimate groups of people. So far we’ve done Mindi Abair’s Wine + Music Adventure in Sonoma and in Tuscany, Italy. We’re living our dream drinking great wine, eating amazing food, making killer music and sharing it with our friends.

And you have your own signature saxophone mouthpiece…

A few years ago my horn was stolen after a show in Los Angeles. I was so devastated. A horn is so personal… and possibly more personal than my horn is my saxophone mouthpiece. It’s a huge part of any player’s sound. My mouthpiece was a highly customized one-of-a kind piece. It was not possible to replace it. Sometimes the universe works in mysterious ways. I had started work on a mouthpiece with a mad scientist mouthpiece maker Theo Wanne. We’d worked on it for about 2 years going back and forth on fullness of sound and timbre and evenness across the whole horn. It was almost there, but we had no pressure to finish it… we were tinkering. He’d come out on the road with Aerosmith while I toured with them and we’d play back and forth and he’d file and mold things and try different shapes. Well, when my horn was stolen I called Theo and told him “The Universe is telling me it’s time to finish our mouthpiece.” We met up the next week in Seattle and finished it. It’s an incredible mouthpiece, and I’m so proud of what we accomplished. It’s so resonant, and it’s a rocketship… so fun to play. I played it for a year and then we started selling it across the world. It’s one of his best-selling mouthpieces, nearly 5 years later.

“Pretty Good For A Girl” … tell us what that means for you.

Early on I never thought twice about being a woman in a man’s world. I just followed my passions and believed everyone was equal. Sometimes that was the case. Other times it wasn’t. Those times that I’ve been judged for being a “girl” I’ve tried to use as character strengtheners. I believe the words that have been used against me can become my battle cry, and every moment I’ve been pushed down I can use to light a fire underneath me to be better and stronger. The phrase “Pretty Good For A Girl” keeps coming around in my world. I see so many women create and accomplish incredible things every day. It’s inspiring for me to watch Misty Copeland dance and Serena Williams dominate a tennis game and Adele bring a room to tears with her voice. But many times there is someone to add to any celebration of achievement… that’s “Pretty Good For A Girl.” It just takes the wind out of your sails, doesn’t it? Well, I’m here to turn that into a term of empowerment. That’s right it’s “Pretty Good For A Girl.” I’m proud of being who I am and representing women. I wanted to tell my story through writing a song… that’s what I do… and make it into a celebration of sheer Woman Power. I sat down with Randy Jacobs and we wrote the song “Pretty Good For A Girl” together. When we were going over songs for the recording sessions, Kevin Shirley mentioned that he thought Joe Bonamassa would kill it playing on this song. I thought… “But he’s not a girl.” No he’s not, but Joe came in one night, hung out, and recorded the whole song with us, not just a solo. He was in it from note one. And it inspired me. What a cool thing that he could come in and take this song to the next level with me… push me towards greatness. It’s a meaningful song for me and I love that he joined me for it. I hope it inspires you the same way it inspires me.

You have delved into the genres of Blues and Chill. How does your creative process differ for those styles compared to smooth jazz?

My songs are always a reflection of where I am in my life. I use my every day… what I feel… what I see, what I experience, as inspiration for my music. I don’t feel that the creative process is any different for me with different styles of music. I feel that my life changes and morphs and my music reflects that. I’m an artist that wants to grow and expand and emote all of it on stage and through my albums.

What’s on tap for you in 2022?

I’ll be busy in 2022. I’ll be playing 3 nights in London in January, then celebrating my 20th anniversary Valentines Week residency at Jazz Alley in Seattle playing 4 nights, then touring a bit with my band around the country, and heading out in April to my Mindi Abair’s Wine + Music Adventure in Sonoma. I’ll be releasing a brand-new album Forever that is so special to me. I recorded it as the world shut down in 2020. It’s comprised of songs that I’d been writing over the past few years and had held on to, as they weren’t right for other albums. They were personal, reflective, hopeful and they seem perfect to come out now. I have a few special guests on the album including Steve Perry (Journey,) Raul Malo (The Mavericks,) Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Rick Braun, and my friend Abraham Laboriel, Jr (Paul McCartney.) Apart from that, I plan to stay on the road and spread the love and soak in the love that we couldn’t for the past few years!

Keep up with Mindi Abair online here.

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