On my personal Tolerability Index, the radio format (I dare not call it a “musical genre”) known as “smooth jazz” generally falls somewhere between Sarah Palin’s Alaska and gnawing my own arm off. But last year, I discovered that Billboard actually compiles a weekly Jazz songs chart and every now and then, I give it a look. And it’s not just the curiosity of someone expecting to be repulsed: As it turns out, Sade landed three tracks from her latest album in the year-end Jazz chart, and Wake Up!, the great collaboration between John Legend and The Roots (and friends) has also landed a few hits on the chart.
But my curiosity isn’t entirely pure either. As Sunset Boulevard‘s Joe Gillis might have said, sometimes it’s fun to see how bad bad music can be. And so, every now and then, when I have nothing better to do than watch the Chiefs lose the last game of the regular season, I arm myself with a few titles from the Jazz chart’s upper reaches and head on over to YouTube. The results are predictable. Lots of alto and soprano saxophones and wooshy textures. Lots of clips from The Weather Channel where the songs are used as soundtracks for seven-day forecasts and temperatures for cities around the country.Recently, I noticed that saxophonist Mindi Abair had a new album out. Now, Mindi Abair’s a name I actually know, although I can’t honestly count myself as a fan. Here’s the deal: for several years, I shared office space and a boombox with a crusty old man who kept a copy of the 1966 edition of the company’s employee handbook in his desk. For a while, there was only one radio station he could tolerate – a Wisconsin Public Radio station that played classical music until it was time from Terry Gross. I didn’t mind that. But then, a smooth jazz station was launched in Madison, and we started listening to that a lot. It wasn’t all bad. They played Steely Dan. But they were also really hot for a hottie sax-blower named Mindi Abair and they played her songs all the time. Despite that fact, there’s not a single Mindi Abair melody I could hum for you. Her music was entirely forgettable, and as a result, I’d forgotten it – entirely.
So when I saw Mindi Abair’s name on the charts, I thought, y’know, why not give it a try, and see what it does for me? The song I checked out was called “Be Beautiful”, and I actually found myself – well – sort of – gulp – liking it. It had a nice, understated groove that felt organic and live even if it wasn’t terribly distinctive. The sax solo was fine and tasteful – though, admittedly, still a sax solo – and it was tempered by a soulful vocal chorus that felt made-up-on-the-spot which made the whole song feel a lot more intimate and real than (I suspected) it deserves to feel. More recently, another song from the same album – it’s called In Hi-Fi Stereo and the cover art shows Abair spending some quality time with her vintage vinyl collection and portable turntable – has started showing up on the charts, and this one’s even better.
The new one’s called “Get Right” and it features vocalist Ryan Collins, who bears more than a passing vocal resemblance to John Legend. The song, too, sounds like something John Legend would record. It’s got an immediate retro soul groove, driven by electric piano, a stylin’ horn section, and a great singalong chorus. Abair’s sax doesn’t even show up in the spotlight until halfway through, and even then, she cedes the floor to Collins after a brief solo, choosing, in essence, to be featured artist on a song where she’s credited as the lead – an act of both confidence and restraint that demands applause. Give the song a listen here: