As soul music has vanished from urban radio, driven out by the predominance of rap, hip-hop and Auto Tune, it's become harder to find real soul made with real instruments, either on record or on the airwaves.
A Mindi Abair album is not the go-to place that comes to mind for a showcase of old school soul and bluesy funk. Abair has carved out a niche as a capable, if not always inspired, smooth jazz saxophonist, cut from the cloth of her contemporaries Kenny G, Richard Elliot and others, whom occasionally dip a toe into R&B, but never totally immerse themselves in the idiom.
Once again, the danger of making assumptions is proven, because with In Hi-Fi Stereo Abair takes the plunge headfirst into the deep end of soul-infused jazz. Equal parts homage to the music of David Sanborn, Hank Crawford and The Crusaders offer a testimony of her own artistic growth. Abair makes a declarative statement that she is a formidable talent who can do far more than smooth jazz noodling.
Abair shoots for a more organic feel than her often overly slick previous work, achieving a funkier feel, alongside producer Rex Rideout, by employing Rhodes electric piano, Wurlitzer and B3 organs, and even an ARP synth on "Take Me Home." Another masterstroke was utilizing soul music veterans, drummer Gadson and bassist Reggie McBride, as the rhythm section for most of the album.
On Stars (Peak, 2008), Abair split duties between saxophone and singing. The improvement here is that she focuses almost exclusively on saxophone, and wisely selects vocalists better suited to the material rather than stretch her own thin voice. This choice allows Abair to play to her strength as a far more accomplished saxophonist than vocalist. "Get Right" and "Be Beautiful" are a pair of soul/funk workouts, featuring vocals by Ryan Collins and David Ryan Harris respectively. Abair is content to support the vocals instead of competing with them for prominence.
Lalah Hathaway's turn on the instantly familiar, but slightly sexist James Brown classic, "It's A Man, Man's World" is initially jarring. Abair has long wanted to work with her fellow Berklee alumnus, and this bluesy outing was the perfect opportunity to do so. Abair's sparkling alto sax dukes it out with Hathaway's swaggering vocal turn in a bold, audacious and totally unexpected way. And it all works perfectly.
The best thing about In Hi-Fi Stereo is that it doesn't sound anything like what a Mindi Abair album is supposed to sound like. That may seem like a backhanded compliment, but it's not. It's more a recognition of how Abair has blossomed as an artist. Whether this signals a new course in Abair's career or if this is merely a sentimental romp, who can say? Either way, it's a good sign.
Track Listing: Any Way You Wanna; All Star; L'Esprit Nouveau; Get Right; Be Beautiful; Down for the Count; Girls' Night Out; Let the Whole World Know (Sing Your Song); It's A Man's, Man's World; Take Me Home; The Alley.
Personnel: Mindi Abair: alto saxophone, vocals, horn arrangement; James E. Gadson: drums (1-4, 7-10); Reggie McBride: bass (1-4) (6-11); Randy Jacobs: electric and acoustic guitar (1-4, 7-10); Stephen "Stevo" Theard: arrangement, keyboards 1, 6, 10); Rex Rideout: Wurtlizer, keyboards, piano, programming (1, 3, 5-11); Casssandra O'Neal: B3 organ (2, 3, 8,9) ; Lee Thornberg: trumpet and trombone (2, 8, 9); Dave Woodford: tenor and baritone saxophone (2, 8); Bud Harner: ride cymbal (3); Ryan Collins: lead and background vocals (4); David Ryan Harris: guitar, vocals (5); Smitty Smith: bass (5); Michael White: drums (5); Dewayne Swan: B3 organ (5); Jamey Tate: drums (6, 11); Jay Gore: electric guitar (6, 11); Rodney Lee: Wurlitzer solo (6), B3 organ solo (11); Jessi Collins: background vocals; Lalah Hathaway: vocals and background vocals (9); Phil Parlapiano: Rhodes, Arp keyboard, organ (10), Lance Abair: B3 organ (11).