Sax Appeal

Contemporary jazz saxophonist Mindi Abair has played Las Vegas so many times in the past four years, you'd think she was a local.

But her history with the city goes back even further. As a child, her father, saxophonist Lance Abair, brought her along as he performed in the Entertainers, a band that played the former International Hotel (now the Las Vegas Hilton) and the Sahara hotels in Vegas and Lake Tahoe.

"I have a nice history there," says Abair, who is in town again for promoter Michael Schivo's Jazz Under the Stars concert at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park. She's on the same bill with star trumpeter Rick Braun.

"My father played Vegas for months at a time," Abair says in a phone interview from her home in Hollywood, Calif. "He did that for a number of years."

Abair's father has figured big in her career. Naturally enough, in a family that also included a grandmother who was an opera singer, Mindi Abair got into music early in life. She learned to play the piano at age 5, and at 8 picked up the saxophone. That year, she began writing her own compositions.

She graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1991 and moved to Los Angeles, where she promptly put together a band and even took to the streets of Santa Monica to earn some cash.

Abair was discovered by John Tesh while she was performing in Southern California clubs. She toured with Tesh and also performed with the Gap Band, Adam Sandler, Mandy Moore, Teena Marie and joined the Backstreet Boys' tour from 1999 to 2001.

In 2003, she released her debut, "It Just Happens That Way," and had a No. 1 hit with "Lucy's." The CD debuted in the top five on the Billboard contemporary jazz chart, where it was in the top 10 for 19 straight weeks.

Abair, 38, easily could have fallen into the trap of replicating "Lucy's" ad infinitum, but instead, her follow-up CD, "Come As You Are" from 2004 featured more adventurous music, even a touch of traditional jazz.

Last year, Abair released "Life Less Ordinary," a collection of tunes that includes her vocals on Rikki Lee Jones' "It Must Be Love" and "Ordinary Love."

The changes in sound are by design.

"For me, each CD has a sound of its own," Abair says. "It's a picture of where I'm at. And I like to push myself. What's going to bring out more of me? If I made the same type of songs, I'd be bored. I want to be inspired every night. I want it to reflect where I am at this time. It's easy to stick with a formula, but at the end of the day I like to do different things.

"When I started my last record, it was melancholy and brooding, but by the time we finished, it was happy, fun stuff."

Abair has begun writing songs for her next CD, that likely will be released next year. This one, she says, will have more vocals.

As for other projects, she recently finished work on a Christmas album with Braun and guitarist Peter White. The trio tour annually at the holidays, hitting Las Vegas along the way.

She and Braun, who's been known to sing a bit on his own CDs, recorded "quite a lot of duets" on the Christmas collection. They've put together Christmas records in the past and decorated the studio to get some of that holiday feel in July.

"This record we didn't," Abair says. "We had a couple of Santa hats but no lights" to put them in the holiday spirit. "But the songs did it for us. In the studio, we were singing together and smiling."

Abair also worked on her father's upcoming solo CD. They co-wrote a song called "Birdbath," a name Lance called his daughter when she was a child. It comes from the word Soupy Sales always called children.

Tickets for the concert are available at Mr. Bills Pipe and Tobacco stores, the UNLV Performing Arts Center box office (895-2787), at 800-869-8342 and at the gate. Gates open at 6 p.m.