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Closing in on two decades since her breakthrough smooth jazz album It Just Happens That Way (released in 2003), two-time GRAMMY-nominated saxophonist, singer and songwriter Mindi Abair puts a dynamic twist on the “greatest hits” concept with her 19-track retrospective The Best of Mindi Abair. She includes radio edits of her biggest hits; a vocal track from her hard-to-find 2000 debut album, Always and Never The Same; a previously unreleased track featuring Booker T. Jones; songs with her blues/rock band The Boneshakers; and collaborations featuring Keb’ Mo’, Joe Bonamassa and the late Gregg Allman.
Hardly the typical smooth jazz star, she’s scored two Top 5 hits on the Billboard Blues Albums chart with Rhe Boneshakers, jammed on American Idol, toured with Aerosmith and even gigged with Bruce Springsteen.
JAZZIZ: You’re releasing the “Best Of” collection just after the 18th anniversary of It Just Happens That Way. Why was now the right time?
Mindi Abair: I was sitting at home during the pandemic and going through a lot of my old music. It was a time of reflection after years of being in constant motion and always being on the road. I had the opportunity to dig into some of my older records and reconnect with that music. I realized I have had a lot of hits over the years but had never released a compilation.
I realized that 2020 was the 20th anniversary of my first indie album, which was a singer-songwriter project. It was so long ago that some of the songs charted on MP3.com! It seemed like the perfect time.
But it’s not a typical greatest hits set. It’s more thoughtful and expansive.
I wanted to make it special, not just my 10 biggest radio songs. I was thinking from a fan’s perspective. Yes, you want to include the hits but maybe in a unique way. Then some cool unreleased tracks. So I included the radio edits of all the hit singles, which are the versions that first captivated listeners. When my first single “Lucy’s” came out, nobody knew who I was, but it was the radio edit that everyone embraced. We did the same with the others to remind people what the songs were when they fell in love with them.
A lot of artists have been putting out projects this past year that would never have happened without the COVID-related quarantine. Is this collection one of them or had you been planning it prior to the lockdown?
Definitely a quarantine-driven project. I was always creating new music, putting out a record every year or two, and it never occurred to me to look back and take stock of what was already out there. But what a cool experience. I could see my growth as an artist and songwriter. Every album is a snapshot of my life. A lot of people who know my career intimately have never heard that first album and it was nice to share “True Love” from that. I wrote it with Matthew Hagar, who co-wrote a lot of my early smooth jazz songs.
You’ve put out eight solo albums and four with your band The Boneshakers, including the live album. What were your criteria for what to include?
I wanted it to reflect the arc of my whole career, including all the stylistic twists and turns, not just my smooth jazz tunes. I saw it as a chance to tell my story. In my liner notes, I detail how I and my collaborators wrote the songs and what was important to me and where my head was at during any specific time. I really enjoyed curating. Beyond the radio edits, there were songs I was super proud of that never became hits, like “Just Say When” with Gregg Allman (from Wild Heart). Songs that have a special place in my heart. I also included songs I did with The Boneshakers that became big hits in the blues world, including a few that hit #1 on the Roots Music Report. “I Love to Play the Saxophone” wasn’t a big hit but it’s one of my favorites. Then an unreleased take on “Imagine” that I did in a friend’s living room as a YouTube video only, and a second song I recorded with one of my heroes, Booker T. Jones, for Wild Heart that didn’t make it on the album. I recorded “April” just before everything shut down and it’s reminiscent of my earlier smooth jazz hits. It marks a return to me being a solo artist and coming back to me.
Besides working on this album, I know you’ve kept busy this past year doing a weekly Facebook livestream from your home and front porch in Hollywood. For those who somehow haven’t tuned in, please share some details about those shows.
As we speak, I just wrapped my 40th livestream! When the world shut down last year, we had just finished a brand new record and I was coming off the high of that. We had a huge tour planned, including festival dates in Europe. Suddenly that was all gone, and there was this sense of disconnection. I just wanted to find a way to connect with and see my friends and fans. I called the series “Mindi Abair’s Wine and Music Sessions.” At first I streamed live from my living room, where I played the piano and sax.
The front porch version started because my husband Eric and I, who had moved up to Northern California, moved back to my house in Hollywood to ride out the pandemic. The great part of that was having L.A. friends who could come play with me. Since we started the porch sessions, I’ve played with Rick Braun, Peter White, Tony Pulizzi, Ellis Hall, Casey Abrams and Patrick Bradley. I even did an Election Day show with Dave Koz. It was fun having neighbors over – socially distanced of course – to listen in person.
What other silver linings have you experienced this past year?
I’ve always been crazy busy immersed in music, but this past year has given me time to devote to other pursuits – the most significant being Reserve Tastings (www.reservetastings.com) which I developed with Eric, who has been in the wine industry for almost 20 years. It’s the world’s only wine and music private membership club, offering boutique, high-end wines with my musically inspired label artwork and Spotify playlists that I curate personally. Forbes wrote about us not long after we launched in late 2019. We had only done a couple of shipments when the pandemic hit and suddenly everyone started drinking like crazy – which brought our business to the forefront. It’s not only a way to spend more time with Eric and a more quality life, but also to create a different connection to my fans and others. We really put a lot of thought into it, tasting through hundreds of wines to find the ones to put out as our reserve tastings.