Key Player

With a brand new album and a musical roster that puts most to shame, a Manhattan Beach resident and two-time Grammy nominee strikes a chord.

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  • Written by
    Jennie Nunn
  • Photographed by
    Monica Orozco

It’s 11:30 a.m., and saxophonist, singer and songwriter Mindi Abair sits patiently waiting for me at a table outside Le Pain Quotidien in Manhattan Beach. It’s hard to miss the striking, svelte blonde and her perfect, shoulder-length, wavy hair with subtle, rocker-chic black streaks, a black vest, black jeans and black leather boots. As we settle in and decide on our brunch order (hers a quinoa salad and iced green tea; mine avocado toast and an iced black tea), I instantly like her.

“I grew up in a beach town [St. Petersburg, Florida] on the Gulf [of Mexico], and I just love the beach here. It feels like home,” says Mindi, a two-time Grammy nominee who lives in Manhattan Beach. “It’s a different world here, and you can breathe and exhale. It’s so beautiful, and it’s a great escape from the usual manic Hollywood scene.”

“Every time I went into his room, he said the same thing: ‘Start your own band.’ What great advice to just do your own thing. So I did.”

But sitting with Mindi—who graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston, played on two seasons (2011 and 2012) of American Idol and traveled all over the world touring with music greats including Bruce Springsteen (she played one show with him), Aerosmith, Teena Marie, Joe Perry, Duran Duran, Adam Sandler, Mandy Moore and the Backstreet Boys—it’s hard not to feel in awe of her. After all, she’s one of the most accomplished female saxophonists around.

“It kind of chose me,” she explains of her obsession with the instrument that she began playing in fourth grade. “No one told me it was odd for a girl to play. I thought it was cool, and I think it’s the closest thing to a human voice.”

Music is in Mindi’s blood. Her grandmother was an opera singer, and she grew up on the road with her father, Lance Abair, a member of a blue-eyed soul band The Entertainers. “I watched my father play it growing up on the road with his band. It seemed like he was having fun, and I wanted to have that much fun,” she says. “We didn’t have a house until I was 5, while my mom and I were touring with my dad and his band, and music was always normal for me.”

While at Berklee College of Music, one of her teachers and mentors, Joe Viola, encouraged her to start her own band. “Every time I went into his room, he said the same thing: ‘Start your own band.’ What great advice to just do your own thing. So I did.”

After graduation she loaded her Honda Civic with everything she owned and drove cross-country with a dream of launching her own band. But it wasn’t nearly as easy as she initially thought.

“People would say things like, ‘Oh, we’re not really looking for a saxophonist,’ or ‘We can’t really market you as both a singer and saxophonist,’” recounts Mindi, who ended up playing on Third Street Promenade, where veteran jazz legend Bobby Lyle walked by one day, heard her play and hired her to go on tour and play on his record.

“From there, it just snowballed. My resumé is kind of crazy, but I’ve gotten to see the world and experience everything like a rock star. I never meant to be a sideman, but it helped me find who I really was, and I think it made me a better person. It was fun to go outside playing my own songs and be a part of someone else’s career.”

In 2003 she launched her first record, It Just Happens That Way, with Verve Records, and she’s been virtually unstoppable ever since—releasing 10 solo CDs. Last year she rolled out her newest album, EastWest Sessions, with her band Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers. The name was inspired by the Hollywood studio where it was recorded.

“I love touring, and I love being out there on the road and on stage. It’s a total drug to be on stage with my band.”

“It’s this amazing, historic studio where Frank Sinatra recorded. When we were there making this album, the Foo Fighters were in the studio on one side of us, and Justin Timberlake was on the other side,” says Mindi. “This record is really special, and I couldn’t be prouder. It’s the best album I’ve made.”

One of her favorite songs on the album, “Pretty Good for a Girl,” began as a tongue-in-cheek saying that became a strong anthem. “That song really inspired me, and I wanted to celebrate real women and girls out there who are doing amazing things,” recalls Mindi, who recently debuted the website with articles and clips highlighting inspirational women making a difference.

“When I was in school, there were 3% women in the program and I didn’t think much of it. But now I’m made aware of how rare it is. I get emails from mothers and daughters saying, ‘Thanks for showing us that this is possible,’ and considering me a role model.”

She’s also penned a book, How To Play Madison Square Garden: A How-To Guide to Stage Performance, and isn’t afraid of being on stage. “I love touring, and I love being out there on the road and on stage,” says Mindi, who will hit the road on a nationwide tour for her new album this month to cities including Nashville, Atlanta, Memphis and Clearwater, Florida. “It’s a total drug to be on stage with my band.”

She admits, though, there’s one band she’d think about abandoning her solo career for: The Rolling Stones. “Who can say no to them?”