Sax, Jazz and Rock ‘n’ Roll

A Florida native who spent her freshman year at UNF’s jazz program under Rich Matteson, saxophonist Mindi Abair makes her debut performance at the 10th annual Amelia Island Jazz Festival next week. As one of America’s most recognizable female saxophonists, Abair has sold a half-million records as a solo artist, but many know her primarily as the featured saxophonist on “American Idol” for the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

While topping the contemporary jazz charts, Abair readily admits to being a rocker and R&B fan at heart. Last year, she sat in for a night with Bruce Springsteen at the famed Beacon Theater. She even sat in the saxophone chair for two shows with Paul Shaffer on “Late Show with David Letterman.”

Abair brings a rock ‘n’ roll energy to the stage as a powerhouse on the saxophone, harking back to the days of Junior Walker or King Curtis. Her solo career has produced 10 No. 1 radio singles and six major-label solo releases that have topped the contemporary jazz charts. Abair has hosted the internationally syndicated radio show “Chill with Mindi Abair” for eight years.

Folio Weekly: When you moved out to LA upon graduating from Boston’s Berklee College of Music, did you ever harbor any doubts you’d be able to break into the music scene? Reading your bio, I get that you were destined to become successful in the music industry.

Mindi Abair: Nearly everyone at 21 thinks they’re invincible to some degree. We get out of college thinking, “There’s going to be career that’s going to be perfect for me.” So I went in with all hope in the world that I was going to take LA by storm. But, of course, it’s an amazing music scene and you do have to pay your dues. And I really ended up on quite a journey. I played on the street to make a living because I really wanted to play. I didn’t want to say, “Do you want fries with that?” I had attended one of the best music schools in the world and I really want to make a go of it. So I booked myself and my band anywhere and everywhere I could. We played all sorts of gigs. On the streets for festivals, for marathons, at Macy’s for their sales, in hotel lobbies, wherever I could. And I started my career as a sideman, playing for The Backstreet Boys, Duran Duran. Everything from jazz to rock to R&B. I got a great education, probably better than my college education [laughs] by playing with all these incredibly diverse artists. It was a real trip that I got to do that because it added to where I was. So I’m glad I didn’t take LA by storm; it turned out better this way.

F.W.: You’re well-established as a solo artist, so now you have the luxury of choosing the cream-of-the-crop gigs to tour or record as a sideperson.

M.A.: Every once in a while, something comes up that you just can’t say no to. And throughout my career I’ve been asked to work with different artists. Last year, Steven Tyler from Aerosmith called me and asked if I’d tour with his band. So of course I said yes. They hadn’t toured with a saxophonist since 1973. It wasn’t a horn section, it was just me. Pretty unbelievable. So I put my own career on the side for a couple of months and hit the road with one of the biggest rock bands in the world.

F.W.: How is the vibe different when touring with a group like Aerosmith versus your own band?

M.A.: First, I fashioned my career on being a solo artist. That was always my dream. I always wanted to write my own songs and perform them. There’s such a high from doing that — the energy and dynamics of playing in front of an audience that knows your music that purchased a ticket specifically to see you perform. That’s the greatest sensation in the world. It’s such a beautiful relationship you have with that particular audience. They paid money to come see your show and hear your music. On the other hand, you go out with Aerosmith, it’s generally a much larger audience [laughs], and tens of thousands of people know every song. But they didn’t come to see me, they came to see Steven Tyler and Joe Perry and the rest of the band. And I’m not playing my songs, I’m playing their songs, so it’s a different vibe. That’s not to say one’s better, however. I actually played the Hollywood Bowl last year, two weeks apart. I played it with Aerosmith and then two weeks later, I played it with my band for a jazz gig.

F.W.: Same capacity crowd?

M.A.: I think we were only two or three thousand less.

F.W.: Cool.

M.A.: Aerosmith was just amazing, and it was fun, extravagant, full-tilt rock ‘n’ roll and it was just amazing. But then I got in front of that crowd with my guys and I got all choked up because it meant so much to me because they were there to see me. And that was a stronger experience emotionally. So I’ll choose to be on stage playing my music. But every once in a while, it’s fun to moonlight. [Laughs.] But for the long haul, I’ll always be a solo artist.