Her solo career has yielded six albums that have topped the Contemporary Jazz charts, along with producing 10 No. 1 radio singles.
But saxophonist Mindi Abair is definitely no stranger when it comes to rock and roll. A product of the public school music program, Abair has shared the stage with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Duran Duran.
But it was Abair’s performance as part of the American Idol band that caught the attention of then-Idol-judge (and Aerosmith frontman) Steven Tyler, and ultimately led the band to add its first sax player in 30 years for last summer’s Global Warming Tour.
On Abair’s latest album, Summer Horns, she’s joined by fellow saxophone greats Dave Koz, Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot in covering some of the greatest songs of a generation; including infectious renditions of the Beatles' “Got to Get You Into My Life” as well as others made famous by the likes of Chicago, Tower of Power and Sly & the Family Stone.
Abair also is busy with her next solo album project and was recently elected president of the LA Chapter of NARAS, the company that oversees the Grammy Awards.
I spoke with Abair about Summer Horns and her time on the Aerosmith tour. We also discussed the importance of keeping music-education opportunities alive in schools.
GUITAR WORLD: Where did the idea for the Summer Horns album originate?
Dave [Koz] and I have been friends for many years. We were out to dinner one night and started talking about how even though we had performed on stage together in the past, we’ve never actually recorded an actual album or toured together. So we started shooting ideas back and forth and Dave was the one who came up with the idea of making a core horn section record and taking it out on the road. It was a great idea and something we had never done before.
We talked to Gerald [Albright] and Richard [Elliot], and they were both immediately on board. Before long, it started to take on a life of its own. I remember we were like kids in a candy store throwing out ideas for songs we should do. But we did it in such an organic way. There was so much camaraderie and inspiration and it was amazing just being in the studio with those guys.
You’re also working on your next solo album. What can you tell us about that?
I’m working with producer Don Was [Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St./ Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time]. He has a beautiful, hippie spirit, and I love the music he makes. It’s very honest and organic. What I’ve been writing has been a lot grittier and bluesier, but will also incorporate some of the rock I’ve been playing. From touring with Aerosmith to getting to sit in with Bruce Springsteen for a song, those experiences gave me the permission to go a little more rootsy, and I’m going to run with it! [laughs]
Tell me how you got involved with Aerosmith for their summer tour last year.
Steven [Tyler] called me up the morning of the Idol finale and said, “Hey Mindi, it’s Steven Tyler. We gotta play! You’ve got to come in and play and sing with me!” At first, I thought it was a prank. I knew the band was making a new record and planning a tour, but I had no idea what he was talking about. So I went to his trailer and he played me the new record and started singing it to me. Then he asked me to play along with him. So I started playing and he was jumping up and down. He was like a butterfly, running around all excited! [laughs]
He said, “OK, Waddy Wachtel [guitarist] told me you can sing too. So let’s go!” He starts singing; doing some crazy run and I followed along. Then he says, “Alright, you’re hired! But the guys in the band don’t know that I’m hiring a saxophonist. They would never say yes to this. So I’m hiring you for three gigs, and you have those three to try to convince the band to say yes."
The funny part was, they didn’t send me any music or charts or even a set list. I just showed up cold with 40 years of Aerosmith music that they could throw at me. But the guys were great! Joe Perry was such a gentleman. He told me he had already checked with Waddy, because he didn’t want to just take Tyler’s word for it! [laughs].
What was that experience like for you?
I’ve toured for years with a lot of different bands, but to all of sudden to be playing arenas with this great music and larger-than-life personality was amazing! I lived rock stardom for a few months doing their summer tour. It was rock and roll pandemonium, and I loved every second of it!
Tell me about your position in NARAS.
We look at what it takes to win a Grammy; making sure all of the songs are the right category and that the process is fair and where it should be. We also do a lot of charity work. Advocacy, lobbying members of Congress for copyright protection and performance rights. Through the Grammy Foundation, we’re also able to work with kids in schools and inspire them. It’s not a paid position, it’s a service one and I’m honored to be a part of it.
What are your thoughts regarding music programs being eliminated in public schools?
It’s a tragedy to have arts cut in school. I discovered something in music class that was cool and exciting, and I think every kid needs to be able to find themselves in that kind of way. They need to explore and try different things. One of those things is going to inspire them and show them that they’re special. That’s what I found in music and I wouldn’t have found it if it wasn’t for the school band program.
What makes jazz such a great form of music?
It’s improvisational and can change and morph every night. It has a framework, but can be whatever you want it to be. With me, it’s more pop/rock with a little edge. With other players, there’s more R&B to it. I love that about the form. You can make it whatever you want. It’s open to experimentation, and that’s a beautiful thing.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.