Mindi Abair and TheBoneshakerS BY GREG ALLEN Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers, Hollywood, California. 22 April 2017.
Mindi Abair BY JAMES RAGAN
Mindi Abair in Nashville BY JOSH DAUBIN
No one ever told Mindi Abair that girls don’t really play the saxophone.
By the time she got wind of that message, it was too late. She’d already embarked on her dream of fronting a band that would pay homage to the blues, rock, and soul musicians she’d admired growing up, and there was no going back. It took some time, perhaps longer than she’d anticipated as a starry-eyed youth, but for the past four-plus years, she’s been touring as the leader of Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers, bringing lead vocals and her own twist on the traditionally male-dominated instrument to audiences across the country.
Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers will make their first ever appearance at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Friday, April 5, in what promises to be an energetic, raucous show. The show will feature some of their most popular songs, as well as music from their newest album, “No Good Deed,” set to be released by the label Pretty Good For A Girl on June 28.
Ms. Abair is 49, but has the youthful vitality and enthusiasm of someone much younger. She plays the saxophone with a kind of ecstatic, unbridled energy, long blond hair flying, radiating joy. Ms. Abair—a two-time Grammy nominee who has 10 number one radio hits, six top-five solo records, and two number-one spots on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Album charts—took time out earlier this month to talk about her band, her roots in music and the saxophone, her journey from “sideman” to center stage, and her dedication to giving back to the music industry while also working to uplift other women with musical ambitions.
Ms. Abair’s earliest and perhaps most powerful influence was her father, Lance Abair, who played the saxophone with his soul band, which toured the country for the first five years of Ms. Abair’s life. Ms. Abair said she “grew up on the road” during that time, her family traveling so frequently that they did not even own a home in that period. She loved it, and she loved what her father was doing
“My dad looked like he was having a blast playing the instrument,” she said. “He was out there shimmying and shaking and knocking his knees together. I wanted to have that much fun. No one told me it was odd to be a girl playing the sax.”
She remembers being in fourth grade, joining the school band. When the teacher laid out the instruments and asked her to pick, she did not hesitate, grabbing the saxophone.
While many accomplished saxophonists have a deep background in jazz, Ms. Abair says her earlier influences were different. She grew up watching MTV and rock bands, admiring Clarence Clemons from Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, and Tina Turner, who always had “muscle-y guys” playing the sax.
“I was a rocker kid who listened to top 40 radio,” she said. “I thought I wanted to be the third member of Heart.”
Choosing a male-dominated instrument, while drawn to a traditionally masculine style of saxophone play did not seem odd to her, she says, because of the way she was raised.
“Sometimes you tell your kids they can be anything they want to be, and sometimes they believe you,” she said. “And I totally believed them.”
Armed with that fierce belief in herself and her abilities, Ms. Abair made her way from her native St. Petersburg, Florida, before enrolling in the Berklee College of Music in Boston. It was in college that she found an affinity for jazz music, which, she said, “opened up a whole different part of my brain.” Many of her hit records and solo records have charted at number one on the contemporary jazz charts. But in the last few years, since teaming up with Randy Jacobs, founder of The Boneshakers, she’s gone back to her blues/rock/soul roots.
Ms. Abair says she “never intended to be a sideman,” but looking back, she appreciates the years she spent doing just that. After moving to Los Angeles, she discovered that she might need to take a different path to her dreams than she originally intended.
“When I moved to L.A., no one knew what to do with me,” she said. “They’d say, ‘you sing and play sax and you’re a woman? We have no idea how to market that. You have to choose one.’”
She went on tour with an eclectic mix of big-name acts, from Adam Sandler to Aerosmith to the Backstreet Boys to Duran Duran, but she also played with jazz musicians like Bobby Lyle and Jonathan Butler. She was also the featured saxophonist for two seasons of “American Idol.”
Playing for other bands, she said, gave her a “depth of musicality,” while allowing her time to figure out what she wanted to say as an artist.
“For me, it wasn’t my dream to play with Miles Davis,” she said. “My dream was to play with Springsteen or the Stones. I think it worked in my favor to dream differently than most of my contemporaries. I could still do jazz tours, but loved being on the road in front of 60,000 people per night with Backstreet Boys or Duran Duran.”
For Ms. Abair, it’s clear that what it all boils down to is her love and intimate connection with the instrument that has been part of her life since birth. The way she talks about the saxophone is evidence of that fact.
“It’s the instrument that’s closest to the human voice,” she said. “You can really emote through it; you can scream through it.”
A Perfect Partnership
Ms. Abair’s longtime dream came together in 2015, when she officially paired up with The Boneshakers. She was drawn to the group after becoming friends with Randy Jacobs, the founder of The Boneshakers and a highly respected rock/funk musician who has played with Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson, among others. She remembers seeing him play for the first time, watching him do a back flip off the stage and into the audience during a guitar solo, and then continue playing.
She describes the band and their music as high-energy, and a mix of all the genres she admired throughout her life.
“This is not your father’s jazz band,” she said. “We’re a really high energy, fun band that probably heavily skews blues and rock, but there’s a lot of soul, and there is a lot of jazz. The guys in my band are immense musicians. It’s fun to listen to them and just explore and go and change the music every night.”
The band features Ms. Abair on sax and vocals, Mr. Jacobs on guitar and vocals, Rodney Lee on the keyboard, Derek Frank on bass and vocals, and Third Richardson on drums and vocals. Their first live show was on Valentine’s Day in 2015.
One of the band’s signature songs, “Pretty Good For A Girl,” is a not-so-subtle nod to the gender norms that Ms. Abair has rejected while building a career as a standout saxophonist. The song’s title is a reference to a common back-handed compliment she’d hear after performances.
“People would say that, and the guys in my band would just shake their head and laugh,” she said. “I grew up being told that it didn’t matter if you were a girl or boy, black or white, gay or straight, that whatever you do, do it well and it will be cool. But that’s not always the case of course. I had to write a song about it at a certain point.
“I probably took it too far,” she added, laughing.
The song, which features famed guitarist Joe Bonamassa, won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Blues Song.
The Bigger Connection
While she’s officially “made it,” Ms. Abair isn’t sitting back. Clearly, that’s not in her nature. She’s become deeply involved with the Recording Academy, the group that puts on the Grammys each year, and after becoming more and more immersed in the organization over the years, is now currently a national trustee. Within that role, she focuses her energies on helping encourage both children and women in the industry, and helping them flourish. She’s been part of efforts to demand equal pay for women in the industry, and has a website, prettygoodforagirl.net, that serves to share women’s stories and uplift and inspire other women trying to make a living and thrive in the music industry. The energy she applies to making the music industry a better and more equitable environment springs from the same well that has powered her musical career, and that she delights in bringing to the stage every night. She said she’s excited to return to New York and put that energy on display with her bandmates.
“I’m so excited,” she said. “People are always asking us when we’re going to be back in New York. We are a band that loves to tour. Playing live is our perfect scenario. And we love New York and love the energy of it.”
Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers perform at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach, on Friday, April 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets $48 to $58 at whbpac.org or 631-288-1500.
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