The Power of Reinvention

by Mindi Abair
Posted Jul 11, 2014 at 12:13pm

When I turned 40 I felt as if there was a virus I was exposed to that somehow made me question my place in life.

I was confused and foggy… obviously I was sick. What else could it be?

I saw many of my friends going through the same thing. I looked at the symptoms.

I’ve been a goal oriented person my whole life, but right now I was realizing the fact that I’d accomplished many of my original goals, so what now? Was it all downhill from here, or was this just as good as it gets?

I was disoriented just “marking time” as they say, continuing on the path that I had set for myself. All the usual things that had inspired me up until this point were fading away. I decided it was time to do a little soul searching.

I realize that I’ve been given this beautiful and meaningful gift to make a living as a solo artist. I get to make records and tour with my band that I’ve hand chosen and play the music I write for audiences all over the world. What could be better than that? What more could I really want? That’s what I originally set out to do with my life, and seven solo records and countless tours later I’m still going strong. Checkmark!

But yet I wanted more. I felt as if I had become a caricature of myself musically, and I was bored with myself. I needed new inspiration, and I wasn’t sure where to find it. I needed outside influence, but I wasn’t sure how to go after that either, as I was so cozy and safe in my own private bubble as a solo artist. How does one go about reinventing after living a life as a very defined person and artist?

I decided to follow my heart. I knew that if there was more out there, I was going to go after it and find it. But how? I decided that on my off time from my band I’d go do things that made me happy. It seems simple, right? I figured that would lead me either to: (1) A life of obesity due to my overwhelming affinity for ice cream or (2) A promising 2nd career or hobby in something yet to be determined.

I found myself going out to clubs to see bands that I really loved. I needed to become a fan of music again, not just be immersed in playing it. It occurred to me after a number of months that I was mostly seeing rock and blues bands. Hmm.. ok.. note to self…. I did grow up for 12 years hanging with the 8 rock bands that my dad put out on the road every year, and in between those rock tours I watched unearthly amounts of MTV… not the usual path to a career in Contemporary Jazz. Maybe I was now just tapping into some happy childhood memories.

One show I was frequenting was my friend Waddy Wachtel’s band that has played The Joint in Hollywood for 15 years with everyone sitting in from Neil Young’s bass player Rick to Jack Temptien, who wrote all those great songs in the 70’s to Keith Richards.

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 found peace and reveled in the sheer abandon of the music being played. Those nights as a fan led to me sitting in with them and becoming a regular fixture in the band.

Of course I couldn’t just watch. It was much more fun to play, and I’d played with Waddy off and on since 1995 when we both joined Adam Sandler’s band. I was officially “moonlighting” from my chosen career as a Contemporary Jazz saxophonist. I loved it. The music we were playing inspired me…Rolling Stones, Mott the Hoople, the Beatles. It was great.

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From there I was called by Don Was 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 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 7 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 Tyler asking if I’d be the first saxophonist to join Aerosmith on tour since 1973. Who could say no to Steven Tyler and the chance to play with a band that I had admired for as long as I could remember? Wow…now I was REALLY moonlighting. I had decided to do what made me happy, so in the spirit of reinvention I took off on the 2012 Global Warming Tour and spent my summer vacation with Aerosmith.

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They were nice enough to let me keep my dates that were booked with my band, so I’d take off every now and then to join my band and play. Interestingly, on my band’s shows, I realized that I was playing differently. People in the crowd noticed too and made sure they told me after the show. I was moving differently. I was feeling the music differently. I was even dressing differently. It wasn’t someone else coming out of my body.

It was still me, but a better me. A stronger, more confident and most definitely more inspired me. I had made it through the fire of being uninspired. I had kicked the virus. I had passed the crossroads of feeling like maybe I had achieved all I was capable of and maybe this was as good as it gets. Those thoughts had haunted me, but I now knew that I was on to another chapter in my life. One with new goals that I was ready to reach for with more abandon than my previous ones.

My next inspiration came to me quite organically. I posted on Facebook the day I heard of Clarence Clemons passing. I never met him, but he was a hero of mine as a performer and player. As a saxophonist, it’s more likely and frankly more acceptable that you grow up wanting to be John Coltrane, but I wanted to be the Big Man. And I thank everyone around me for waiting until it was too late to tell me that a little white girl from St. Petersburg, FL couldn’t stand in his shoes.

I was saddened at his passing and as most of America does, Facebook became my vehicle of expressing my sadness. The promoter of an upcoming show of mine saw my post and called almost immediately to ask if I’d be up for sitting in with Max Weinberg in a few days and paying tribute to Clarence with him. I couldn’t have been more honored. I played with Max a few days later and it was an emotional night. I tried to dig deep and really pay appropriate tribute to this man that I so admired.

I ended up joining Max on tour for the next few weeks and even played with him and Bruce Springsteen at the Beacon Theater one lucky night. I was really sinking my teeth into that incredible mojo that Clarence was leaving me. He pushed me to find greater depths of expression. He pushed me to play with total abandon. It was freeing. And for the first time in many years I wanted to practice saxophone.

I sat for hours in my room dusting off old Bruce Springsteen records and playing along. I was playing scales and forming new melodies in my head. I had found a new love affair with my saxophone. That love affair led me to borrow a tenor and baritone saxophone to really capture his power and depth. The alto just wasn’t cutting it. I went through a true rebirth as a player and incorporated so much of Clarence and Max’s power and drive into my playing and spirit. This was work, but I loved every second.

I’ve realized now that I was given these gifts to help me redefine myself and find new inspiration where there had been none before. Change comes to us when we look for it. I just needed to free my mind to take the journey, unsure of where it might lead. I eagerly took the inspiration given me and ran with it…all the way back to my record label, Concord Records.

Watch the Wild Heart album trailer.

I explained the last few years of my life to them. I played them the new music I was writing and explained why this would make a breakthrough record for me as an artist. They were in, and I set out to make a career record for myself. I was joined by people that 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 in their world… moonlighting… and now I understood for the first time how they fit into my world as a solo artist. Wild Heart debuted #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 I’m reveling in my new skin. I’m a new woman. Stronger, more capable, and definitely making music that moves me every 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