REVIEW - Mindi Abair – In Hi-Fi Stereo
Abair just isn’t pretty anymore, musically that is. On ‘In Hi-Fi Stereo’ she’s taking the elevator to the basement where everything started. It’s not only her musical foundation but also a place we’ve all been before. It’s the room where the backbone of many inspirations first started – the golden age of R&B, Soul and Funk.
‘In Hi-Fi Stereo’ displays a musician almost channelling mid-to-early eighties David Sanborn and that ain’t a bad thing. Sure, I can hear the purists saying it’s derivative but Abair serves up a sense of cool and it’s a smart career choice that still fits in Smooth Jazz and the more traditional outlets will probably taste-test as well. Watch this trend expand as more Smooth Jazz musicians fight to escape the box that’s been built around them and sometimes by them.
The project kicks off with ‘Any Way You Wanna,’ and the early message is this ain’t no sound-a-like groove project that’s practically killed the Smooth Jazz format. "This album is a reflection of some of the older more soulful records I've been listening to in the last couple years," says Abair, including Al Green, Alain Toussaint, Junior Walker, King Curtis, Archie Bell and the Drells, and many others. Tunes like ‘Any Way You Wanna’ always sound like a brick house that’s meant to jump but never break and like the best R&B it still sounds as great after 100 listens.
"I think it all kind of seeped into me over time. I wanted to move away from a more produced sound and just get into the studio and play. It didn't have to be perfect,” says Abair. “It didn't have to be shiny and new. It's not an intellectual record. It's a fun, feel-good record inspired by some of those great sounds and grooves from that period, but recast for a modern audience." She does capture that gold groove from yester-year and this could open up a whole new fan base for the saxophone player.
‘All Star’ is another lean, mean retro ditty that digs a little deeper and shows Abair’s more serious side as a musician but make no mistake she’s got a wink in her eye on this album, as she stated earlier, she’s having fun. ‘L'Espirit Nouveau,’ a tribute to New Orleans keyboardist/composer Alain Toussaint, easily brought me to my pimple face past as a 14 year old imagining what really happens in those smoky clubs. It’s sexy with a hint of wonder and anticipation but really it’s just plain naughty.
Abair co-produced the set with R&B mainstay Rex Rideout who is heavily featured on keys. The first single ‘Be Beautiful’ displays an almost hypnotic bass line and a simply positive message that serves as an anthem to woman. The tune is penned by vocalist David Ryan Harris who shares the chorus vocals with Abair and it’s already a hit on Smooth Jazz charts.
The appropriately titled ‘Girls Night Out,’ one of my favorite tracks on the album, has probably the most memorable chorus and, again, an infectious bass line that just says, “Bob that head damn it and make sure you look cool doing it.”
‘Let the Whole World Know (Sing Your Song)’ is living in the seventies and has no plans on leaving home. This is ‘Talkin’ ‘bout the Car Wash’ meets Sly Stones’ ‘Hot Fun in the Summertime.’ With Abair on chorus lead vocals it takes you down that carefree campfire sing-a-long territory. It’s livin’ in the moment fun times.
The tune that’s really getting a lot of attention is Abair’s retooling of James Brown’s iconic ‘It's a Man's Man's Man's World.’ Even the thought of recording this song is a tall task when considering the Brown toiled with the tune for years before finally releasing it 1966. He originally recorded it as if it was a sermon. It became much more than that with lyrics that Betty Newsome, a friend of the Godfather of Soul, had fashioned after the bible and her observations of the men in her life including Brown. It’s such a difficult piece to sing. One has to be firmly, comfortably, locked and loaded in their skin for this task and luckily Abair invited one of the most underrated voices of our time Lalah Hathaway for the job. It works on so many levels. "Lalah thinks like an instrumentalist, and she has always made her way around a song that way, " says Abair. "So for me, as an instrumentalist, that was ideal. We wanted to record this song as a duet. We didn't want to follow the typical structure of one person singing the song and the other person playing the saxophone. We made it more of a back-and-forth experience."
The album’s last track ‘The Alley’ is a soft gentle epilogue that almost sounds like the closing credits theme considering it’s sonically and thematically a little different from the rest of the album. Interestingly, I had visions of Mindi walking away from the screen with sax in hand. Her job was done.
Abair has not reinvented any wheels here and I doubt that she planned to. No, she didn’t unseat Sanborn or Grover. Simply put this album is a tip of the old proverbial hat. It’s a stage that I hope she sticks with because this album certainly stuck with me. The project is also a lesson in never underrestimating anyone in life. Just when you think you know them, something happens, they change or simply devolge more of themselves. Maybe they’re deeper than you thought or their journey made them work harder or damn it their smarter than you’ll ever be. Mindi has proved a long time ago that she was more than a cute blonde holding a sax but ‘In Hi-Fi Stereo’ solidifies not only a quantum leap of faith and determination but a line in the sand. An unapologetic artist standing tall and walking down any street she pleases. (www.mindiabair.com) – by John Beaudin