Mimi Fox: Drop In

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Mimi Fox
By Raj Naik
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Mimi Fox
By Raj Naik

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Kids, don’t try this at home. While her jaw-dropping technique and headlong sense of swing have recently propelled veteran guitarist Mimi Fox to national prominence, she wants to make it clear that she doesn’t recommend following in her early-career footsteps. At least not in earshot of any parents. So kids, stay in school and get a high school diploma. Don’t cut short your education to follow the siren song of a musician’s life on the road.

Of course, it’s hard to argue with success. Fox’s winding path has led her to a select spot on Steve Vai’s Favored Nations Cool label, which just released her double-CD Perpetually Hip. It’s close to a definitive Fox statement, with the first disc showcasing her simmering interplay with trap maestro Billy Hart, bass master Harvie S and rising pianist Xavier Davis. The second captures her breathtaking solo guitar work as she stretches out on a program of standards, displaying an approach that’s as harmonically resourceful as it is lyrically inventive.

Fox isn’t just turning jazz heads. Over the past year, she’s broken out of the straightahead ranks with Patty Larkin’s female-centric La Guitara project, which has led to cover stories on numerous guitar magazines. Exposure from the cross-genre La Guitara tour has helped her land several high-profile gigs, like her May 12 debut at the Kennedy Center, an appearance that follows her maiden voyage on Marian McPartland’s long-running NPR show Piano Jazz earlier that week. The fact that Heritage Guitars is designing a Mimi Fox model is another sign that she has arrived. Not bad for a gal from Queens who left high school early because history, English and math couldn’t hold her attention.
“I was so bored that I told my dad, ‘I know I want to be a musician, this is all I want to do,’” says Fox, 49, during an interview at a downtown Berkeley cafe across the street from the Jazzschool, where she’s head of the guitar program. “He wasn’t nuts about me dropping out, but he said if you can support yourself and you can make a living, I’ll sign the papers. So I went out on the road, and I’ve never once regretted it.”

Like many self-made artists who are later embraced by academia, Fox values the opportunity to pass on her hard-won knowledge, while firmly believing that the bandstand is the best classroom. As a dedicated clinician who is now an adjunct professor in New York University’s jazz-guitar studies program, she can’t help noting that her lack of a degree hasn’t stood in her way when it comes to teaching or publishing. She’s working on a follow-up to her popular Guitar Arpeggio Studies on Jazz Standards book for Mel Bay publications. “With all this teaching I’ve done, I’ve never once had someone say to me, ‘Gee, can we see your high school diploma?’ That’s one thing I love about this music. In jazz, the proof is in the pudding.”

The proof can be heard in Fox’s elegant lines, in the intensity of her rhythmic drive and in the plump, rounded feel of her notes. Further evidence can be seen in the cats who have lined up behind her. She’s made fans of a veritable jazz guitar hall of fame, from modern-day stars like Charlie Hunter and Russell Malone to veteran greats such as Kenny Burrell, Charlie Byrd, Jackie King and Joe Pass, who, in praising Fox’s “tremendous fire,” once noted, “She can do pretty much anything she wants with the guitar.” In a recent conversation, Jim Hall recalled his first encounter with Fox several years ago, saying, “Mimi was quite a revelation, I was just knocked out. It’s not just that her technique is amazing, it’s that she sounded very original to me.”

Though she’s called the Bay Area home for more than a quarter century, Fox has remained immune to California’s mellow vibe. A bundle of energy, she still speaks with the rapid-fire staccato of a native New Yorker. That’s not to say that she has trouble relaxing, just that it’s usually when she’s got a guitar in her hands. “When I’m playing music I’m happy,” Fox says. “When I’m not working, I’m like my grandfather. I putter around the house and discover things that are wrong with it. I’m much happier when I’m playing.”

If Fox sometimes seems like she’s in a rush, perhaps it’s because she made her breakthrough recording, 1995’s “Turtle Logic,” on the defunct Monarch label at the relatively advanced age of 38. The impressive session, featuring Susan Muscarella, bassist Bill Douglass and drummer Scott Morris, revealed a mature voice marked by an exemplary balance between technical finesse and soul. Her sophomore Monarch release, 1999’s Kicks, upped the ante, pairing Fox with Joey DeFrancesco and drummer Will Kennedy on four tracks, including a joyous rave up on Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock.” Another highlight is a deliciously funky duet with Charlie Hunter on “Willow Weep for Me.” But it was her 2001 release, Standards (Origin), that really announced the emergence of a world-class guitar-slinger. A solo session firmly in the tradition of Joe Pass’s Virtuoso series, Fox switches between steel-string acoustic and Heritage archtop, moving effortlessly from the sublime balladry of “Naima” and “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” to the burning bebop of “Donna Lee” and the harmonic maze of “Footprints.”

By the time she hooked up with Favored Nations in 2004, a little chest thumping was in order. She’s the Woman, a session built around the rhythm section of Seattle-based pianist Randy Halberstadt, Bay Area drummer Paul Van Wageningen and bassist Jon Evans marked the start of an unlikely partnership with Steve Vai. In fact, Fox only knew of him as “that rock shredder dude” before Bay Area fingerstyle expert Peppino D’Agostino suggested that she contact Vai. D’Agostino had heard that he was starting a new label, so at his urging Fox and her manager sent off a package to Los Angeles with some CDs and a video of a recent performance on BET. Duly impressed with her sound and stage presence, Vai quickly contacted Fox with an offer. When Fox’s lawyer looked at the paperwork, she said it was the most artist-friendly contract she’d ever seen. “He basically wrote me a check and said, ‘Have a nice session,’” Fox says. “I had to keep pinching myself.”

For his part, Vai was struck by the tremendous authority of Fox’s playing. In a recent e-mail he wrote that he signed Fox because she “wears her audible emotions on her shirt sleeve. When she plays the guitar you get to witness a person whose exceptional technical and melodic gifts are surpassed only by her emotional investment in every note that flows from her.” Vai has continued to walk the walk, encouraging Fox to follow her ambition, which meant the double disc Perpetually Hip. (Rather than boasting, the title track is dedicated to Fox’s longtime friend and former Concord Records publicist Merrilee Trost, though it’s also an apt description of Fox’s sound.)

In many ways, the new album is the product of Fox’s tight musical bond with Harvie S, the veteran bassist formerly known Harvie Swartz. They first played together in the summer of 2002 as part of saxophonist Virginia Mayhew’s quartet, but their bandstand relationship took on a life of its own a year later when Fox came out to New York and they had a chance to work as a duo. “That’s where something very special happened,” S says. “I think Mimi’s known as a hard-swinging guitar player, and I love that element. But a side of her that I never knew existed came out. We went into this telepathic kind of playing, and she was right there. You don’t get to hear that with a full rhythm section.”

You can hear the telepathy at work on Perpetually Hip, as they weave a gentle samba groove through the standard “But Beautiful” and echo each other’s ideas on Fox’s teasing minor blues “Saluting the Groove.” But they’ve also developed a whole duo repertoire of originals and jazz tunes by Bud Powell, Lee Konitz, Thelonious Monk and Jimmy Heath, a project they plan to document soon. For Fox, S is an ideal partner, a jazz master whose daunting command of his instrument is coupled with a deep-seated desire to communicate with his bandstand accomplice. “He’s a rare combination of a really strong soloist who’s also a really sensitive accompanist,” Fox says. “He can be a lead instrument, a saxophone, another guitar or a cello. His arco playing is gorgeous. There are only a couple of other players who use the bow that well, guys like John Clayton and Michael Moore.”

The connection with S has certainly heightened her profile around New York. But nationally Fox has gained tremendous visibility performing outside of jazz venues with La Guitara. The tour spun off from an eponymous Vanguard Records anthology produced by Patty Larkin that highlights great women guitarists from a myriad of styles. For last year’s concerts, Larkin recruited Fox to represent jazz alongside rising fingerstyle star Kaki King and genre-bending fingerstyle great Muriel Anderson. The four-woman show mostly played concert halls and theaters, with each artist offering a short solo set followed by various duo combinations and an all-hands-on-deck finale. The savvy concept not only attracted widespread attention in the guitar press, it enabled all the players to reach audiences outside their usual fan base. Fox says the opportunity to team up with her peers was a blast, but she was particularly gratified by the many girls who approached her after the shows to talk about their interest in playing music.

“In Boston there were these two punky-looking sisters, about 11 and 12, and they told me they have a band called Midnight Blond, and they gave me a CD,” Fox says. “The younger one said, ‘Mimi, you’re my new hero.’ I asked, ‘Who was your old hero?’ And she said, ‘That’s so yesterday!’ That was kind of cool. When I was growing up, there were no women role models, so I think people really dig that.”

Fox started playing the drums at the age of nine, and she still works out on her trap set when she gets the chance. She became enthralled with the guitar a year later, inspired by watching Mike Nesmith of the Monkees. After convincing her father to let her leave high school, she went out on the road with a renegade women’s rock band at 16, around the same time that Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” album turned her on to jazz. The following year she joined a Top 40 outfit with the goal of saving enough money to move out to California. By the time she landed in the Bay Area for good in 1979, she was looking to drop her R&B and pop gigs to focus exclusively on jazz. Within months, she had tracked down Bruce Forman, one of the region’s premiere bebop players. While no one would mistake Fox for Forman on a blindfold test, it’s clear that she adopted a similarly relentless drive that can make her uptempo solos pulse-quickening listening.

“She’s always been very directed, serious and talented, and those are all the important qualities that make for a great musician,” says Forman, who notes that Fox has never let the head trip of fighting for recognition in a male-dominated scene mess with her head. “The music speaks for itself, but the jazz world is a very fraternal order. She’s always been straightahead, staying true to her spirit and music, and let the rest take care of itself.”

Fox certainly has her share of stories about the kind of casual put-downs that could discourage a less directed player. But she’s quick to acknowledge that in a highly competitive field no one is immune to bandstand hazing. “When I was younger and I would go to jam sessions, I would have my guitar on my back and I’d get up to play and someone would say, ‘What do you want to sing, sweetheart?,’” Fox recalls. “I understand the thing about having to prove yourself. It is an added burden for women, but I’ve seen guys be ruthless with each other, too.”

At first Fox compensated for the bias against women players through single-minded concentration on developing her chops. But she long ago gained the confidence and respect to play whatever she feels like, rather than what will make a superficial impression. “I’ve tried to play more and more as if I don’t have anything to prove,” Fox says. “At some point you have to shed that. If you believe in yourself, you have to stop worrying about how people perceive you.”

Unless the people are parents anxious about their child’s education. Fox does worry about kids following her lead, looking to jump-start a musical career. In the best do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do formulation, she leaves no doubt about her message. “Kids,” Fox says, “stay in school.”

Listening Pleasures

Babatunde Lea, Suite Unseen: Summoner of the Ghost (Motema)

Sonny Rollins, Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert (Milestone)

The Glenn Gould Edition: Bach Concertos for Piano Orchestra Nos. 1-5, 7 (Sony)

John Williams, Guitar Virtuoso: 500 Years of Classical Guitar (Mastersong)

Best of the Eric Burdon and the Animals 1966-1968 (Polydor)

Gearbox

Heritage 575 with spruce top and two humbucker pickups.

Mimi Fox model S3 archtop guitar custom built by Steve Saperstein and fitted with one Bartolini pick-up.

Guild model F30 steel-string acoustic guitar.

Originally published in May 2006

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