By Brian Soergel

Back in October 2002, Mindi Abair made the cover of Smooth Jazz News four months before her major-label debut even hit stores. She graced the cover partly because she was headlining the prestigious Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival. That’s how hot her buzz was before anyone had even heard her music.

More than three-and-a-half years later, Abair’s on the cover again. And she deserves it. Abair is headlining at two major events that kick off outdoor jazz festival season this month: The Lexus Jazz Festival at the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach on May 20, and 31st Anniversary Harrah’s Rincon Smooth Jazz 98.1 Gaslamp Festival on May 27. And she’s just released her third CD, Life Less Ordinary, the title of which truly reflects the speedy rise to fame she’s earned since her debut in 2003 and, even more so, her imprint on pop culture.

During the past year, both personal and public events have greatly shaped Abair’s life. She performed with 1980s modsters Duran Duran on the Sunset Strip. She was the musical entertainment at a benefit comedy show in Hollywood for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Her video to the song “Every Time” played for a month on the world-famous Jumbotron in Times Square. Her song “I Can Remember” helped usher in a new season of Summerland on the WB. She traveled to her home state of Florida to help family and friends rebuild after the destructive hurricane season. She also purchased a second home and got married.

And she performed at this year’s Governor’s Ball after the Oscars. “It was so cool to look down and see George Clooney dancing to my playing,” Abair says. “I mean, how awesome is that? It’s a really cool night to peer in and see celebrities being themselves, just drinking and having a good time. We were definitely not the entertainment that night––they were!”

Abair says Life Less Ordinary is a snap-shot of the last year of her life. “It’s fun to have music reflect what’s going on in the world and in your life. I think it’s honest. Each song on the CD reflects a different time from the past year, from getting married and the power of love to hurricanes and looking at the horror that Hurricane Katrina and the other hurricanes caused. I thought it was the perfect title.”

But, more importantly, what Life Less Ordinary does is show that there’s much more to Abair than her appearance. It’s easy to focus on her physical attributes ––she’s replaced her blond-with-black-streaks hairstyle with a silky, platinum-blonde look––and she doesn’t seem to be doing anything to stop that. Her specially designed Oscar dress, which she showed off at a recent gig at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle, didn’t leave much to the imagination. But the fact is that Abair seems intent on forging a musical path more in common with the varied styles and sounds of someone like David Sanborn or Pat Metheny than those who produce essentially the same CD year after year.

“I tried to push myself on this CD,” Abair admits. “I wanted to delve deeper into myself and see what I wanted to say. All the artists I’ve admired have developed and changed. I mean, my records are always going to sound like me, but I’d be bored if I just made the same record over and over again.”

Abair’s passion for music began early while growing up in Florida. She began piano lessons at age 5 with the encouragement of her father, Lance Abair, who played sax and keyboards and performed nationwide with a band called the Fabulous Entertainers. (He later joined a band called the God Farmers, which was led by Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad.) Eventually she switched to sax when her father gave her an instrument at age 13––she finally bought a new one recently. Abair graduated from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston and made her way to Los Angeles.
She performed with soul singer Teena Marie and also on high-profile tours with Mandy Moore and the Backstreet Boys. She and writing partner Matthew Hager released her debut CD in 2000, a self-produced and marketed work called Always and Never the Same that showcased Abair’s vocals more than her sax. But it was with her smooth jazz CD called It Just Happens That Way, released by Verve/GRP, where she really found her voice, so to speak. Although there were a few vocal tunes––as there are on all of her CDs––it was the instrumentals that struck a nerve. Her debut single called “Lucy’s,” named after her favorite Mexican restaurant in L.A., spent eight weeks at No. 1 on Radio & Records’ smooth jazz national airplay chart. The follow-up, “Flirt,” made it to the top 5.

In September 2004 Abair released Come As You Are, which had another Top 5 hit with the cover song. A video to a vocal track from that CD, “Every Time,” is the one that landed on the Jumbotron in the heart of Manhattan and was just one of the many memorable moments from 2005.

The biggest moment, though, came with her marriage to Jason Steele on April 23, 2005, in Florida. Abair’s father escorted her down the aisle, and good friend and blues musician Keb’ Mo’ serenaded the new couple with a song. Abair met Steele a few years ago when recording jingles for Los Angeles smooth jazz radio station KTWV-The Wave at HUM Music + Sound Design. The recording studio is owned by Jeff Koz, saxophonist Dave Koz’s brother.

“Married life agrees with me,” Abair says. “You find the right one and have a blast. I knew if the guys in my band agreed on him and were OK with it I was good. They’re like big brothers to me, and boy they haven’t liked anyone until Jason. So he passed the test and gets to stay.”

After her wedding and honeymoon, Abair hooked up with the popular Guitars & Saxes tour, becoming the first female in its history. But it was later in the year when real life events would intrude on Abair’s life with the devastating round of hurricanes. In September, Abair spent planned vacation time instead in the greater St. Petersburg/Tampa area where she grew up. She and her husband helped friends and family members repair homes damaged by the hurricanes by draping tarps on roofs and ripping up carpets ruined by flood damage. “It was a disaster area down there,” Abair says. “It was so horrible and you just wanted to stay down there and help these people because it could have been you.”
Shortly after, Abair and Steele purchased a 1926 fixer-upper in Punta Gorda, Florida, which they’ve since renovated and are renting. “We had a bunch of friends help us fix it up, and we’re nuts enough to think that’s just fun. We added a bathroom and gutted the kitchen. We landscaped and were all dirty from head to toe. We have a great renter and being a landlord is fun. We haven’t had any problems yet, but maybe they’ll turn on me and it’ll be like that movie ‘Pacific Heights.’”

In addition to her Florida home, Abair continues to renovate her main home in Hollywood, California––a 1916 Craftsman she purchased in late 2001. She recently installed an outdoor fire pit. But what really makes Abair feel at home these days is to have her parents not too far away, in the town of Westlake Village, where they moved last year from Seattle.
“Now they can come to more of my shows,” Abair says. “And my dad even sits in with me sometime when I play. I introduce him and people probably don’t think he can play. You know, they’re probably thinking the old guy will blow a few notes and get it over with.” But don’t look for Lance Abair to join his daughter on tour like pianist Brian Culbertson’s father, Jim Culbertson, did last year. “He doesn’t have the time to actually go out on tour with me full time,” Abair says. “I don’t know that it would work out anyway. You know, a daughter and a father. He would be like, you know, hovering over me. What are you doing? Should you have that second drink? I think he might have a problem with some of my outfits.”

But Abair’s father would certainly approve of how far his daughter has come in the past few years. The rest of 2006 looks promising for the saxophonist as she will continue to bring her music to her fans through headlining performances with her band and on both the Dave Koz & Friends at Sea in November and the cruise hosted by Warren Hill and Wayman Tisdale in January 2007. And Abair just about promises that this is the year that she’ll release a Christmas CD in time for her annual holiday tour with guitarist Peter White and Rick Braun. In fact, it might be a trio project with White and Braun.

That would make for a very merry Christmas, indeed.

Mindi Abair is scheduled to perform on May 20 at the Lexus Jazz Festival at the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach, located at 1107 Jamboree Road in Newport Beach, California. For tickets or more information on this event, call (714) 740-2000 or log on to www.lexusjazzfestival.com. She’s also starring on the main stage at 31st Anniversary Harrah’s Rincon Smooth Jazz 98.1 Gaslamp Festival on May 27 in San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter. More information on this event can be accessed online at www.kifm.com.

Additional information on both of these festivals can also be found at www.jazzconcerts.com.
For more information on Abair, including her current tour schedule, visit her website at www.mindiabair.com

DISCOGRAPHY 
2000 Always and Never the Same Abair/Hager
2003 It Just Happens That Way Verve/GRP
2004 Come As You Are Verve/GRP
2006 Life Less Ordinary Verve/GRP

 

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