Why is life less ordinary for saxophonist/vocalist/composer Mindi Abair? Ask her fans from around the world — there’s not much ordinary about her. On Life Less Ordinary, her playful and sophisticated third release from GRP Records, Mindi Abair catapults her supercharged mix of pop, soul and jazz, — with its stellar melodies, insinuating rhythms, sultry sax, and seductive vocals — into the realm of the extraordinary.
Her 2003 debut CD, It Just Happens That Way, debuted in the Top 5 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Chart and remained in the Top 10 for 19 consecutive weeks. The hit single “Lucy’s,” was #1 on the airplay charts for a record-breaking eight weeks and Abair was hailed for leading a new movement in contemporary music. Abair has not only set sonic trends, but has broken all the boundaries as she continues to define the less traditional future of jazz.
For Abair, named the Best New Artist at 2003’s National Smooth Jazz Awards, it’s been a wild few years, and her 2004 follow-up disc Come As You Are — which dug into deeper emotional and stylistic territory while spawning two more hit singles — kept the momentum jetting skyward. Her songs have been featured on everything from Aaron Spelling’s hit “Summerland” to a Women in Jazz feature at the Grammys to Panasonic’s Jumbotron in Times Square. But as gratifying as these landmark career achievements are, that’s not what inspired her to view 2005 as a year in which she lived a “life less ordinary”.
Abair says, “The title comes from my feeling that a record should be a snapshot of where you are in your life at a specific time. This year was nothing less than extraordinary, and I think the music reflects that.” Abair’s own words from the CD liner notes covey this sentiment perfectly. “Life continues for me less ordinary, from unexpected hurricanes, to the similar unexpected power of love, to the passing of idols and friends to the new beginnings of families, from feeling on top of the world to feeling far away from it, to growing and learning and having fun through it all there is nothing ordinary about any of it. This music represents my journey over the last year, in a life less ordinary."
Once again helping Abair convey the emotion, groove and sparkle that puts her music over the top is Matthew Hager (John Taylor of Duran Duran, Simply Red, Scott Weiland, Mandy Moore), her friend from their days at the Berklee College of Music who has been a trusted collaborator and her producer since It Just Happens That Way. The two co-wrote eight of the new tracks, starting from the mindset of doing something completely different musically. Hager says, “I knew we’d struck a great chord when I started hearing other artists going after Mindi’s sound not only on the sax, but also guitar and the way we did the drum programming. From my experience working with pop artists, I know that the third record is a career record and we wanted to do anything but repeat ourselves. We both wanted to continue to grow and stretch musically. That meant not relying on the tools that have defined us. While we were recording the cd, I went to one of Mindi’s live shows, and people were on their feet most of the show. Mindi has a powerful energy on stage. That night I named it ‘stadium jazz,’ and I strived to capture that ‘live’ spark and power on the recordings. The songs have a bigger, broader presence, and her playing is looser and more live.”
Production-wise, Abair and Hager complement her core vocal-and sax-driven sound with contributions from a series of top L.A. session and touring players, a few personal heroes, and a couple of famous friends. First the famous friends: R&B vocal great and Abair’s old pal from Berklee College of Music, Lalah Hathaway, and Keb’ Mo’, whom the world knows as a Grammy®-winning blues superstar but who also once played dive clubs in L.A. with Abair when the two were starting out. Both contribute in unique ways to Abair’s poignant and sensual reading of Rickie Lee Jones’ classic pop-jazz seduction “It Must Be Love”—Hathaway on featured background vocals and Mo’ on a trippy dobro solo. “He can play one note in a solo and make you feel so much,” Abair says. “I’ve been a huge Rickie Lee Jones fan forever, but like her, I tend to shy away from covering other people’s songs. Some songs really stick with you, though, and you feel connected to them. I wish I wrote this song! I felt like I could sing this song and mean every word. It’s so beautiful and powerful. ” To further help them achieve the homespun, organic and soulful vibe they were aiming for on Life Less Ordinary, Abair and Hager recorded much of the CD in
Hager’s Hollywood bungalow. “It’s such a perfect thing to be able to make music with your friends,” Abair states, “You’re allowed to make mistakes and try things you might not try with record executives around and a studio clock ticking. I think that freedom definitely shines through in the spirit of the music. And it was perfect — the room we recorded the sax and vocals in had a great view of the hills, so it was inspiring too!” In addition to the bungalow sessions, they were joined by session greats Michael Landau who Mindi gave credit to for “guitar love” on a previous CD, versatile retro keyboard genius Ricky Peterson (David Sanborn, Prince), legendary rock drummer John “J.R.” Robinson (Michael Jackson, Steve Winwood), bassist Stan Sargeant (The Tonight Show), percussionist Paulinho Da Costa (Sting, Ella Fitzgerald), and, on “Far Away,” the passionately hypnotic, almost waltz-like closing track that plays like both a pop song and a powerful anthem, bassist Larry Klein. Klein was a well known sideman with jazz greats like Freddie Hubbard who went on to become a grammy winning producer for such artists as Joni Mitchell and the lesser known but one of Mindi’s favorites The innocence Mission. “The most fun about making an album,” says Abair,” is bringing in someone you idolize to take what you’ve created to the next level. Especially when it’s someone like Larry who has affected the way I play and hear music. It’s very inspiring just sitting there, being a fan.”
Life Less Ordinary launches its seduction of the listener’s senses with the cool, clubby/soulful chill of “Do You Miss Me,” a track that, for Abair, captures the mood of the whole project. “The reason it’s first is that if you like it, you’ll like the rest of the album,” she says. “It’s got a little of everything, it always makes me want to dance, and the title is a perfect sentiment about me being on the road all the time.” With its swirling mix of nouveau-old school percussion, trippy atmospheres and energetic horns, the next song chronicles her “Long Ride Home” perfectly. “It’s a great driving song, a Euro-inspired tune we had a lot of fun with,” she says. “The Joint” is a down and dirty, rock/soul jam that’s both retro and raucous; Robinson keeps it swinging, while Abair’s alto takes a sexy low road over Peterson’s Wurlitzer and organ harmonies. “I’ve come up the ranks playing in so many little dives. There’s an energy to being in a broken down vibey club and feeling like you’re one with the audience. I wanted to capture that feeling of a smoky dark room filled with people shaking their bodies to the beat.”
Abair takes a 180-degree turn emotionally for the next track, the darkly ambient and emotionally wrenching ballad “Rain,” which was inspired in part by the victims of Hurricane Katrina. “It starts out with a melancholy air, but as it emerges, it becomes more optimistic,” she says. “It captures the way we respond to a tragedy of that magnitude, with sadness that gives way to determination and strength to survive.” Songs like the peppy and playful “True Blue” (which features some of Abair’s most catchy and mouthwatering wordless harmony vocals ever) and the boldly produced, jangly pop-rocker “Bloom” have the joyful feel of Abair’s most familiar pop hits, while the percussive, crunch-funk hip-hop grooves of “Slinky” propel her further into a new sound that will no doubt become the standard for the ever evolving fusion of instrumental jazz, chill and pop.
Perhaps more than any other track, the sweetly-rendered Brazilian-tinged vocal track “Ordinary Love” sums up Abair’s attitude towards love. Where most love songs address the intense passion at the beginning or the heartbreak at the end, Mindi pens a playful and endearing song which celebrates the sustaining beauty and freedom of every day, or ordinary, love. In what is now a Mindi Abair signature, she ends the CD with a lonely heartfelt ballad “Far Away”. “It started out with me singing the melody and playing it on piano to demo the song. I always envisioned it with soprano saxophone as the main instrument, but when we recorded the saxophone track, we forgot to mute the “guide” vocal that I had put down. The two were so haunting together. We kept it!
When asked about their childhoods and musical influences, many artists look back fondly on a certain album or song they heard, or certain moment of epiphany where their future came clear. "Not me," says Abair, a St. Petersburg, Florida native who spent much of her early life on the road with her father's band. "Between watching my father onstage and spending time with my grandmother who was an opera singer, music was always around me. My parents gave in to my constant banging on the piano with lessons at age five, and when I was able to choose a band instrument in fourth grade, I copied my father and went straight for the saxophone. Music was always my normal. I never considered doing anything else. And by the time someone told me it was odd for a girl to play an instrument for a living, thankfully it was too late."
Abair was never handed success, though. After graduating from Berklee College of Music, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams. After months of waitressing, bouncing back and forth from odd jobs, and sitting in at every club that would let her, she decided to forgo the usual "day job" approach and take a different one. She decided to play her saxophone acapella on the street in Santa Monica, CA. "I was desperate to play, and it wasn't easy to break into the L.A. music business as a newcomer. I decided to "do what I do", no matter how unglamorous the situation was. It paid the rent for a while!" It didn't take long for people to recognize her talent and get her off the street. Jazz veteran Bobby Lyle took her card as he walked by one day and hired her to record on his Power of Touch CD and tour with him. Since that time, Abair's impressive career as a sideperson has included touring and/or recording with a wide range of artists Mandy Moore, Jonathan Butler, Lee Ritenour, Bobby Lyle, Adam Sandler, Keb Mo, and The Backstreet Boys on their famous 1999-2000 Millennium Tour, which found Abair playing keyboards, percussion and saxophone, soloing before thousands of screaming teens every night. More recently, she sat in with 80s pop icons Duran Duran for a handful of dates on their last American tour; John Taylor from the band co-wrote and played on the title track to It Just Happens That Way, and she joined Josh Groban as his opening act for his 2004 sold out fall tour.
"I sincerely believe that we are all the sum of our musical experiences, and every person I played with along the way affects the music I make now," she says. "I didn't know that this would happen when I started out, but suddenly I had this really cool, diverse resume and it made total sense. I grew up listening to so many different kinds of music. It should reflect on who I am now as a writer and player. It's a very honest portrayal of who I am and what I've lived up to this point. This CD is a very honest portrayal of the past year of my Life Less Ordinary."