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Mindi Abair: The Power Of Reinvention

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I’ve been given a beautiful and meaningful gift. One that allows me to make a living as a solo artist. I mean, what could be better than that? I actually get to make records, tour with a band that I’ve hand chosen and play the music I write for audiences all over the world. I’ve been a goal-oriented person my whole life, and seven solo records and countless tours later, I’m still going strong!

But once I turned 40, things started to feel different for me. I started becoming confused and a bit foggy. I was disoriented just “marking time” as they say. Continuing on the same path that I had originally set for myself. It felt as if I had been exposed to a virus that was somehow making me question my place in life. All of the usual things that had inspired me up to this point were gradually fading away and I felt as if I had musically become a caricature of myself. I needed new inspiration, but wasn’t sure where to find it. I needed outside influence, but wasn’t sure how to go after that either. I was just too cozy and safe inside of my own private bubble.

I decided that now was the time to do a little soul searching. But, how does one go about reinventing themselves after living life as a very defined person? I knew that I had to follow my heart. If there was more out there for me, then I was going to go out and find it.

I came to the conclusion that on the off time from my band, I’d go out and do the things that made me happy. I felt the need to become a fan of music again and not just be immersed in playing it. I soon found myself going out to clubs to see bands that I really loved.

After a few months, it occurred to me that I was mostly seeing rock and blues bands. Hmm, OK… note to self. Maybe I was now just tapping into some happy childhood memories. After all, I did spend twelve years growing up hanging with the eight rock bands my dad had put out on the road. And in between those rock tours, I would watch unearthly amounts of MTV. Not exactly what you would consider the usual path to a career in Contemporary Jazz.

One of the shows I was frequenting was my friend, Waddy Watchel’s band. Waddy and I have played together off and on since 1995 – going back to when we both joined Adam Sandler’s band. Waddy’ s band has played The Joint in Hollywood for the past 15 years; with everyone from Keith Richards and Neil Young’s bass player Rick Rosas to Jack Tempchin sitting in.

It became total Rock ‘n’ Roll Zen for me. The loud guitars, the driving force of the drums and the sheer intent of the lead singer! It was a “spa day” for me, as I put it to Waddy. Somehow in the cacophony of rock ‘n’ roll, I had found peace and reveled in the sheer abandon of the music that was being played.

Of course, I couldn’t just watch. Playing was in my blood and those nights of being a fan eventually led to me sitting in with the band and becoming a regular fixture with the group. The music that we were playing really inspired me: Rolling Stones, Mott the Hoople, the Beatles! I was officially “moonlighting” from my chosen career as a Contemporary Jazz saxophonist – and I loved it!

It wasn’t long before I got a call from Don Was asking me if I’d like to play “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” on American Idol with one of the contestants. I knew that I could use my newly found mojo to pull it off. And I did! Steven Tyler even called me out in front of millions on TV saying “Forget about you, who’s your sax player?”

I ended up spending two seasons on American Idol, eventually playing seven episodes with Phillip Phillips who won it all. What an honor! And on my last day on the set, I received a call from Steven asking if I’d like to be the first saxophonist to join Aerosmith on tour since 1973!

Wow! Now I was REALLY moonlighting! I had decided to just do what made me happy and in the spirit of reinvention was now taking off and spending my summer vacation with Aerosmith!

The band was nice enough to let me keep my own dates that were already booked, so every now and then I would take off and join my own band and play. Interestingly, it was during my own band’s shows that I started feeling a change in the music. I began to notice that I was moving around and playing differently. I was even starting to dress differently. But it wasn’t as if someone else was coming out of my body. It was still me, only a better me! A stronger, more confident and more inspired me!

My next inspiration came to me quite organically. It was the day that I heard of Clarence Clemons passing. I had never met him, but he was a hero of mine as a performer and player. Saddened by his passing, I turned to Facebook as my vehicle for expressing my feelings. As fate would have it, a promoter saw my post and called almost immediately to ask if I’d be up for sitting in with Max Weinberg and paying tribute to Clarence with him. And truly, I could not have been more honored.

A few days later, I played with Max and it was an emotional night. I really tried to dig deep and pay appropriate tribute to this man that I so admired. I ended up joining Max on tour for the next few weeks, even getting to play with him and Bruce Springsteen at the Beacon Theater one lucky night.

Sinking my teeth into this incredible new mojo, I pushed myself into finding greater depths of expression. It was freeing and for the first time in many years I actually wanted to ‘practice’ saxophone. I sat for hours in my room, dusting off old Springsteen records and playing along – forming scales and new melodies in my head. I had found a new love affair with my saxophone and went through a true rebirth as a player. It was work, but I loved every second.

I realized that all of these experiences had helped redefine me. The thoughts that had been haunting me were gone and I was now on to another chapter in my life. One with new goals I was ready to reach for, and with even more abandon than my previous ones! I eagerly took the inspiration that was given me and ran with it — all the way back to my record label, Concord Records. I explained the last few years of my life to them and even played them some of the new music I was writing. I explained why this would make a breakthrough record for me as an artist. They were in, and I soon set out to make a career record for myself.

I was joined by people I never dreamed would play with me on one of my records: Gregg Allman, Joe Perry, Keb’ Mo’, Booker T. Jones, Max Weinberg, Waddy Wachtel and Trombone Shorty. I had played for them all in their world… moonlighting… and now, I understood for the first time how they fit into mine.

“Wild Heart” debuted at #1 on the Billboard Jazz and Contemporary Jazz charts.

I’m not sure how many times one has the power to redefine and/or reinvent oneself. I’ll have to wait and see but right now I’m reveling in my new skin. Change comes when you look for it. And even though I wasn’t sure of where it would lead, I just needed to free my mind and take the journey. I’m a new woman now. A stronger, more capable woman and someone who’s making music that moves me every single day.

Mindi Abair is one of the most dynamic performers on the music scene today. In addition to her acclaimed solo work, she was the featured saxophonist on the 2011 and 2012 seasons of American Idol, jammed with Paul Shaffer on the Late Show with David Letterman and joined rock legends Aerosmith for their 2012 summer tour. More recently, the powerhouse saxophonist/vocalist received a 2014 GRAMMY nomination in the Best Pop Instrumental Album category for Summer Horns, a #1 recording with her friends Dave Koz, Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot. Several more friends join Abair on Wild Heart, her new album that includes guest performances by – and songwriting collaborations with – Gregg Allman, Joe Perry, Booker T. Jones, Keb’ Mo’, Trombone Shorty, Max Weinberg, Waddy Wachtel and others. Find out more at www.mindiabair.com

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