CLEARWATER — Hours before jamming on stage with Buddy Guy at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, Mindi Abair was just hoping to meet him.
She was backstage in a trailer, dabbing on makeup and sipping cabernet, her silver saxophone at the ready. A few weeks earlier, she'd released her first live album, Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers Live in Seattle. A few weeks later, she'd be touring in Japan. After that, jamming with the Roots on The Tonight Show.
Abair, who performs with jazz guitarist Peter White on Thursday at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater, has played with Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, the Backstreet Boys at the pinnacle of their fame. But jazz saxophonists can only get so famous. It's unlikely Guy had ever heard of her.
All Abair could do was rehearse and be ready. She and the Boneshakers, her band for the night, circled on couches and chairs in the trailer to warm up, go over the set list, run through the smoky funk jam Gone.
"Let's kill it extra," Abair told them. "It's my hometown."
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Abair has for decades been the Pinellas jazz scene's local girl made good.
It's been nearly 30 years since she left Northside Christian School in St. Petersburg, nearly 25 since she graduated with honors from Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, more than 15 since she booked the once-in-a-lifetime gig playing sax on the Backstreet Boys' Millennium Tour, performing for millions of screaming fans around the world.
Since then, Abair has cemented herself as a bona fide jazz star. Her 2003 single Lucy's became a huge genre hit. Several albums went to No. 1 on the jazz charts. Her last two studio LPs — the solo Wild Heart and a collaboration with Dave Koz and others called Summer Horns — were both nominated for Grammys.
She booked a recurring gig on American Idol, designed a jewelry line, hosted a nationally syndicated radio show and was elected president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the agency that hands out the Grammys.
Did any of this make Abair a household name? Well, no, not exactly. Even when you reach the peak of your profession, as Abair has been for some time, you take each gig as it comes, hoping it will open one more door a little wider.
Abair returns to Clearwater for concerts at least a couple of times each year. It's not quite the homecoming it once was. Her parents moved from St. Pete to Los Angeles about eight years ago. Sometimes when she returns, she stays with friends, but on this trip, they put her up at the Hilton on Clearwater Beach — in and out, one night only, no time to drive by her old house or revisit her old haunts. Then, it's back to the road.
"I want to go eat my Gigi's pizza, and I want to go down to Madeira Beach, and I want to go lay in the sun and bask in the glow of home," she said. "But I'm gonna have to soak it in from the audience."
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The night before her October appearance at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, she played an intimate gig on California's Catalina Island. It ended late, and she had to race to catch a shaky private ferry back to the mainland for her flight to Florida. She made it to the airport in the nick of time, wearing the same clothes, Pacific salt still in her hair.
The next night, she inched her way toward Buddy Guy's trailer and got inside. Over cognac, she and Guy's guitarist hatched a plan to have Abair come out and trade licks on his classic Someone Else Is Steppin' In (Slippin' Out, Slippin' In).
Guy was effusive in his praise for Abair.
"You don't find many young women anymore playing horns like that," he said from the stage. "I congratulate her, because she's one of the best I've heard."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.