Mimi Fox has been recording for many years, but moved notably further into the spotlight with her last two releases, 2004’s She’s the Woman, and the wonderful new double disc, Perpetually Hip.
On the album, disc one features Fox playing with a band, while disc two is solo guitar.
“I feel like it’s two sides of my playing,” she said. “It takes a different set of chops.” Fox has experience recording solo guitar, as her Standards album was arranged similarly. It’s a style her fans seem to truly appreciate, and good fortune made her take that approach on this release. “A friend set me up with his studio equipment so I could record at home,” she said. “And it made all the difference in the world. If I wanted to record at 2 a.m., I had that flexibility.”
Fox’s music shows a range of styles, a fact she attributes to her family; her mom and dad were jazz lovers who listened to everything from dixieland to Tin Pan Alley music to Duke Ellington. She also had an older brother and sister who listened to pop and rock. Growing up on the East Coast, she played drums through high school, and first picked up guitar at age 10. She showed proficiency early on.
“An older cousin showed me a few chords and told me he’d be back next week,” she said. “Well, he came back in a week and had nothing new to show me. I stayed up all night practicing. I taught myself most of the Beatles Rubber Soul album by listening to the record, and went from there.”
She played in a lot of bands, on drums and guitar, and in many styles. Then, in her late teens, something changed.
“I realized I couldn’t keep growing unless I started to get more harmonic information,” she said. That search led her to jazz guitarists. She took lessons from the guitarist in the band in which she played drums. “I thought I’d simply be adding to what I knew, and that it would help with composing. After a few months he said, ‘You know, Mimi, you’re getting pretty good at this.’ I was somewhat dumbfounded. Jazz guitar seemed like a whole other galaxy,” she laugh. “In fact, it sometimes still does.”
During this time, she also gained an interest in classical music, which she studied for a couple of years. “But I found the lack of improvisation sort of stifling. Plus, I was an abysmal reader. I’m a lot better now, but it was torturous.”
A move to California pushed her to the next phase. “I met Bruce Forman, started studying with him, and that was it; six to eight hours of practice every day, plus teaching at a music store, and gigging at night. That was the turning point for me.”
Though jazz became the focus of her playing, she remained a fan of pop and rock, especially artists like Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Simon and Garfunkel, and Stevie Wonder. Most of her guitar heroes, though, were jazzers. “I didn’t really listen to guitar players until I got into jazz. It was Wes, Grant Green, Pat Martino, players like that.” Asked about her earthy playing, she says it’s really not a surpr ise. “That’s the kind of person I am. Plus, I spent a lot of time transcribing their solos. So it’s vocabulary that’s in me. But I also think it’s a personality.”
For someone who has been recording since 1987, Fox says having Steve Vai’s Favored Nations as a label is a joy. “I feel like I have to pinch myself, like I’m dreaming,” she said. “Having his support, and the artistic freedom Favored Nations has given me, I feel very liberated. When I first signed with him, he was kind of like, ‘Alright, how much money do you need?’ I was very frugal and gave him an amount and the next thing you know, I have the check and I’m recording with players I want to play with, where I want to play, when I want to record, and most important, what I want to record.” Vai’s backing of her the double-record concept may not have happened at other labels.
Fox is a Heritage endorser, and the company is working on a signature model for her based on the company’s 575, which is her favorite guitar. She also uses what she calls a “beautiful acoustic/electric archtop” built for her by Steve Saperstein. She says it has a beautiful sound, even when not plugged in. And she still uses an old Guild F-30 steel-string she calls her “first good guitar.” She prefers old Fender tube amps, even if they are more noted for rock and country. “They have a great sound,” she laughs. “The only difference is jazz players turn up the bass, not the treble. We have the reverb on about one-half, and the volume on one!” When there is no Fender available, she likes the Roland JC-120, and on occasion plugs into a direct box through the house P.A., especially when playing solo.
Fox is Chair of the Guitar Department at the innovative Jazz School in Berkeley, California, and adjunct professor at New York University. The teaching thing has been in her blood for awhile. “I started when I was about 12 years old. I realized I could make a whole lot more teaching than I could babysitting, and I enjoy it.”
Fox will be hitting the road in the U.S. and Europe throughout the year. And whatever surprise the next release brings, it should, if Perpetually Hip is any indication, keep her at the forefront of today’s jazz guitar field.
Photo: Raj Naik.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.