It can sometimes appear as if the saxophone is the only instrument in contemporary jazz music. That’s not true, but smooth jazz fans do love themselves some sax players. Some of that has to do with the success of Grover Washington Jr., who became a bona fide pop star on the instrument in the 1970s and 80s. Washington, in turn, was likely inspired by players such as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, Sonny Rollins and of course John Coltrane.
So the sax has a long and distinguished history in straight ahead jazz as well as fusion/contemporary/smooth jazz. However, the saxophone also has a history in the rock and R&B world. Before electric guitars supplanted horns in rock music, sax players often whipped crowds into frenzies with their wild solos and theatrics that included walking the bar. Besides, the sax hasn’t been totally excised from contemporary pop. Clarence “Big Man” Carter gave the E Street Band some southern soul from 1972 until his untimely death in 2011. Phil Woods added a classic sax solo to Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” and then there’s Maceo Parker. Need I say more?
Mindi Abair brings the sax back to its fun, rocking, soulful, walk the bar roots on her latest CD Wild Heart. Yes, THAT Mindi Abair. The one with the flowing blonde locks, megawatt smile and who created catchy smooth jazz tunes such as “Lucy’s.” Don’t let the smooth taste fool ya, however. Abair is a classically trained industry veteran with a serious musical pedigree. Her dad played the sax and B3 in a Florida based band called The Entertainers, and her paternal grandmother was an opera singer.
Abair is also a hard working artist who in addition to her seven jazz albums frequently plays with other musicians. Abair spent 2012 touring with Aerosmith. Before that, Abair spent two years playing for contestants on American Idol. Abair previously worked with the musicians who make guest appearances on Wild Heart. That roster is a who’s who from the worlds of rock, blues, jazz, soul and funk, including luminaries such as Gregg Allman, Booker T. Jones, Joe Perry and Trombone Shorty, just to name a few.
The 11 tracks on Wild Heart grab the listener’s attention in a way that even Abair’s best contemporary jazz cannot match. The rollicking “Amazing Game” finds Abair trading riffs with Trombone Shorty on an energetic number that fuses Memphis Stax with California beach music. The jazz-meets-Memphis soul number, “Addicted to You,” might be Abair’s way of paying tribute to her father’s work on the B3. This track features Booker T. on the 88s, and of course the Stax vet’s playing calls upon the church and those clubs he frequented back in Memphis. Abair, meanwhile, is clearly energized by the opportunity to perform with her all-star collaborators. Her playing showcases a muscular soulfulness that she rarely gets an opportunity to showcase. This is Abair unfettered. On cuts such “Haute Sauce” listeners hear the honks and growls and the other human voice elements that make the sax such an appealing and adaptable instrument.
The biggest treat comes on Wild Heart’s four vocal numbers. The rocker “Train,” bubbles over with energy and is probably the strongest track on a project filled with them. It tackles that time honored tradition of artists looking to break free from their stifling circumstances. Two duets showcase Abair’s ability to move musically from Memphis to Nashville. “I’ll Be Your Home,” is a classic soul ballad that recalls the best of Stax and Hi records. The tune pairs Abair and her sax with Keb Mo’s vocal and guitar, while “Just Say When” finds Abair falling into the country folk pocket with Gregg Allman.
Abair says that she envisioned Wild Heart as an album that would capture the fun of the music that came out of places such as Memphis, Nashville, Muscle Shoals and Las Angeles in the 1960s and 70s. The music that came from those places has been described as soulful, honest, rocking and bluesy. On Wild Heart, Abair and her friends remind listeners not to forget to add fun to that description. Because as musically accomplished as Wild Heart is, its greatest gift is the wide smile it brings. Highly Recommended.
By Howard Dukes