Mindi Abair talks about the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, returning home to Tampa Bay and more
Fans at this weekend’s Clearwater Jazz Holiday will see a few familiar faces on stage in Coachman Park, including the Avett Brothers, headliners for the second time in four years.
But none will be more familiar than Mindi Abair, the superstar jazz saxophonist and St. Petersburg native who on Friday will play what is at least her fifth Holiday as a solo artist.
“When I was a kid, I played alto saxophone in our school band, Northside Christian School, and played as an opener to the opener to the opener,” Abair said. “I used to watch the bands play and just dream of one day playing it myself. I’ve been choked up a few times playing it as a solo artist. It just meant so much, dreaming of playing this as a kid.”
Abair, who now lives in Los Angeles, returns to Tampa Bay in support of her new album, Live In Seattle, recorded with blues-rock band the Boneshakers. It is her third album in three years; the last two, Wild Heart and Summer Horns, both received Grammy nominations.
Live In Seattle is a combustible fusion of jazz, rock and the blues, including lid-flipping renditions of Gershwin’s Summertime and James Brown’s Cold Sweat. Abair has made a career of bouncing from genre to genre, bridging the worlds of smooth jazz and pop. She’s toured with everyone from Dave Koz to Aerosmith to the Backstreet Boys to Duran Duran to Adam Sandler, and has even performed with Bruce Springsteen.
Abair comes back home a few times a year for various shows; on Dec. 10, she’ll return to Ruth Eckerd Hall for a Christmas show with jazz guitarist Peter White.
But the Clearwater Jazz Holiday has always held a special place in her heart. The first time she came with a full band, a decade ago, she had just released It Just Happens That Way, her debut on vaunted jazz label Verve, which featured the No. 1 jazz single Lucy’s.
“I got on stage and saw a huge storm brewing in the distance,” she recalled. “It took a song and a half for the storm to make its way fully to us. The stage manager basically had to pull me off stage.” How did she react afterward? “I went home and made a big grilled cheese sandwich and paired it with a few glasses of wine.”
Abair returned to Coachman Park in 2006 and 2012, and is always heartened to see such packed hometown crowds.
“I think this festival has been so successful because it has been a festival of the people,” she said. “I grew up in a family that didn’t have a lot of money to buy concert tickets. This concert is one of the very few that you can go to for little to no money and have a great time and see great music and enjoy it all with your community. That’s important.
"I sat and dreamed as a kid that I could be what I saw on stage. And I’ve been lucky enough to realize that dream so many years later. It makes me feel lucky that maybe another kid like me could be in the audience and see my band and have that same dream and realize it.”
Abair and her band, the Boneshakers, with guest vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson, will perform at 7:45 p.m. Friday, just before that night’s headliner, blues legend Buddy Guy.
Which begs the question: Is there any chance we might see Abair pop up on stage with Guy, too?
“I’d give my left arm,” Abair said. “Just saying.”
-- Jay Cridlin