Forget family, friends, fans and significant others — Mindi Abair’s closest, most enduring companion throughout her meteoric rise in smooth jazzdom is none other than her treasured Selmer Mark VI, the vintage alto she’s played exclusively since she was 13.
The saxophonist, whose second release Come As You Are is perched in the Top Ten on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart as its title single is all the rage at radio, remembers the way her father Lance — who played B-3 and sax touring with numerous R&B bands when she was growing up — tricked her into getting the horn that became her best friend.
When Abair’s school-issued sax had to go in the shop, she took the liberty of bringing dad’s instrument to school on the sly, and fell in love with its robust tone (“which filled up a room with its warmth”) and easier fingering. She continued sneaking it even after her own was fixed, till one day Lance caught on and forbade her to do it again. Then he had a great idea.
Over tacos at Lucy’s El Adobe in Hollywood, the namesake of her breakthrough 2003 single “Lucy’s,” which was #1 on Radio & Records’ airplay chart for a record breaking nine weeks (and declared by the publication as the “top played cut of the year”), Abair — who grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida — tells the sweet coming of age tale: “My mom, dad and I were visiting D.C. and walked by this store called Washington Music. It was like sax heaven in there, and dad and I started testing all sorts of models. He said he wanted to buy a new one for himself so I could have the one I kept stealing. He led me to the Selmer and told me to try it first. I liked it even more than his! He said, keep playing, it’s yours. My mom and I had tears in my eyes. It was like a Christmas movie. He tricked me, but he got his sax back and I’ve been playing the one he bought me ever since.”
Abair’s fans have gotten to know Lance pretty well this past year, as daughter has invited father to join her onstage for rousing versions of “Mercy Mercy Mercy” at the City of Lights Festival in Las Vegas, back home at the Come As You Are release party at Hollywood’s Garden of Eden, and over four nights at Jazz Alley in Seattle, where Lance and her mom currently make their home. The goosebump factor was undeniable each time.
“The first show in Vegas, my band was skeptical but in no time, they realized how good dad was and how, even unrehearsed, we played perfectly in synch, as if it were instinctive and somehow genetically ordained,” Abair says. “I remember watching my dad rock out when I was a kid, and it brought back great memories. He was signing autographs and everything.”
That sort of family spirit provides the underlying creative energy of Come As You Are, which — like her debut It Just Happens That Way — is produced by Abair’s longtime friend from her Berklee College days, Matthew Hager. Amidst the always spirited, just edgy and funky enough pop-jazz fare and three instantly likeable vocals are two decidedly straight ahead pieces which find the saxtress exploring deeper emotional, “real jazz” territory than ever before. “New Shoes,” a sly and soulful piece driven by the upright bass of Stan Sargeant and a piano harmony line by Russell Ferrante, features Lance on tenor and horn arrangements by Abair’s old college roommate Karen Guthery. Ferrante and Abair wrote the more honking, swinging Cannonball-esque affair “26 Hemenway,” which is included as a lengthy hidden track.
“My first album captured the quirkier aspects of my personality, and was all about exploring my pop sensibilities and having a good time,” she says. “A lot of it was fun ‘ear candy’ which made me smile. I felt like I wanted to go deeper on Come As You Are, to push myself into some new areas and show different aspects of who I am. I felt like it was time to open up more and explore what’s inside and some of my other influences. The vocal ‘I Can Remember’ was an emotional response to several good friends who passed away recently. ‘New Shoes’ expresses Matthew’s and my love for the Pink Panther and Henry Mancini’s theme. People forget I used to play a lot of gigs with jazz trios and quartets. Every song on here reflects some aspect of who I am. Album cuts like these explore more of an artist’s real soul.”
Lunch at Lucy’s is scheduled two days after a Tsunami Relief fundraising concert at Knott’s Berry Farm, sponsored by 94.7 The Wave Los Angeles and featuring a lineup of Dave Koz, Wayman Tisdale, Michael Lington, Jonathan Butler, Rick Braun, Peter White, David Benoit and Michael McDonald. Abair’s participation in this event prompts a heartfelt discussion about the spiritual and emotional role of musicians on a planet full of suffering: “Music’s not only something that can bring people together to raise money for crucial purposes, but it can also help people in ways that are less tangible. Music has the power to heal and make you feel, whether it brings out joy or a healthier way to grieve. My job is to get people in touch with their emotions, and touch them either by providing an escape or tapping into something deeper. You always wonder if what you do matters. But then people come up to me and tell me how my music played a role in their life, as a soundtrack for a wedding or even a funeral, and the answer is clear. What can I do to help? Do the thing I do best. Make music.”
After Pat Metheny’s vitriolic commentary on Kenny G’s 1999 Unforgettable-like “duet” with Louis Armstrong, the megaselling saxman probably figured that tandems with some popular living artists were a better way to go. At Last…The Duets album is yet another huge hit for the saxman, and might actually earn him a bit of credibility beyond the AC pop world since he’s working with no less than Arturo Sandoval on a beautiful rendition of the title track, and best of all, trading fours on his little heard alto with David Sanborn on “Pick Up The Pieces.” Old and new school soul never had it so good on Earth, Wind & Fire’s rendition of Outkast’s “The Way You Move.” Well-rendered cuts like these will probably appeal to folks inclined to dismiss the G-man. Generally, though, the project plays it safe but appealing as it teams him with numerous familiar vocal legends (Daryl Hall, Barbra Streisand, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan) and instrumentalists (Burt Bachrach, David Benoit) on adult standards both ancient and very recent.
The best sax album of early 2005 is, by a long mile, Paul Taylor’s Nightlife. Taylor’s been unstoppable this past year, with the title track from his 2003 disc Steppin’ Out becoming Radio & Records’ third biggest genre airplay cut of 2004 as he was on tour with the all-star Groovin’ For Grover gang. He also performed and made his acting debut on the soap One Life To Live. Nightlife, his fourth release on Peak Records, finds him playing slightly more alto than soprano, a nice change of pace. The collection also mixes retro soul with hip-hop, includes sizzling live horn textures, touches of Latin and reggae, a vocal by Maxi Priest and the production expertise of Rex Rideout, Barry J. Eastmond and ambient trip-hop master Dino Esposito.
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:
1) Pamela Williams, Sweet Saxations (Shanachie) – The soulful saxtress has been a smooth jazz favorite for years, but has never overwhelmed with the kind of in your face melodies, horn textures, retro-ambience and emotional pull she brings to this very inviting date.
2) Aj, Joy Ride (Integy Records)
3) Lisa Lauren, It Is What It Is (Planet Jazz)
4) Shapes, The Big Picture (Burnin’ Down The House)
5) Kazu Matsui, The Stone Monkey (Narada)