Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts "Jazz" Band

Mimi Fox and the San Francisco String Trio reimagine a classic.
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You never know what will happen when jazz musicians get their hands on an iconic—well, let’s say “a culture changing and legendary”—rock album such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (Do I even have to mention who made that record?) But there I was at Berkeley’s beautiful Freight and Salvage club late last year, anticipating a performance by the San Francisco String Trio to celebrate the release of May I Introduce to You [Ridgeway Records]—the group’s inspired take on the Beatles’ transformative 1967 masterwork.

The players were certainly up to the challenge, as bassist/vocalist Jeff Denson, violinist Mads Tolling, and guitarist Mimi Fox are undeniably transcendent players, arrangers, and composers. The instrumental rethinks (along with three vocals by Denson) are gorgeous and artistically sensitive mash-ups of styles and moods—they’re almost master classes on how deft creative minds can twist and turn a great melody without tasering the conceptual majesty of the songwriters.

What I didn’t expect was a shred-fest from Fox.

I kind of sat astounded and openmouthed like some hapless dork who had never seen a guitar performance before (thank goodness I was sitting in the back of the club), but I can only defend myself by saying the catalog of techniques that Fox unleashed was mind blowing. She tapped, banged, went outside, came back home, fired off fast passages like a teenaged metalhead, played legato, leapt into savvy pull-offs and bends and hammerons, and did stuff I couldn’t even explain (and I’m supposedly the editor of a guitar magazine). It was quite the experience. I was forever changed by it.

Okay. I don’t think I can even catalog the techniques you deployed for the album and the live performance. I’m rather dumbfounded here…

I kind of just do what I need to do to get each job done [laughs]. To me, the guitar is such a beautiful and expressive instrument, so I try to use the different properties it has to tell a compelling story for each song. That’s how I look at it.

Well, perhaps we should start at the beginning then.

The trio happened because we were all doing different things together, and then we all kind of connected the dots. Unbeknownst to me, Mads and Jeff were thinking of putting together a traditional jazz string trio with bass, violin, and cello. At one point, Jeff said, “You know, we can have a string trio without a cello. Why don’t we have guitar? Do you know Mimi?” Mads had just hired me for a bunch of his shows at the time, so we all got together, and we felt this really good chemistry, we respected each other’s musicianship, and we started thinking about what we would want to do as a project.

And that first project was, “Hey, why don’t we take on the Beatles?”

We all love the Beatles—the music remains timeless—and every jazz musician knows the great songs by Gershwin, Cole Porter, and all the classic songs that are a part of the Great American Songbook. To me, Lennon and McCartney tunes like “Blackbird,” “She’s Leaving Home,” or “In My Life”—and I could go on and on—stand up to reharmonization, because the melodies are so beautiful. They are every bit as deep as Rodgers and Hart, or any of the Great American Songbook writers. So the moral of the story is, “If you have a great melody, take it to the bank.”

Is there a methodology to expanding upon an artist’s work while still retaining enough of their musical DNA to have a kind of home base for the audience?

We knew we were really treading on hallowed ground here, but I hope the reverence and the love with which we hold this music is obvious. Beyond that, I can just say that the rearrangements were more of an organic process than a particular method. We’re all composers, we’re all arrangers, and we’ve all been educators, so we can analyze stuff from an academic standpoint. We could have come at it from more of a structured methodical thing, but that’s not what we’re all about. I think we are very passionate artists, and we try to funnel all of our knowledge through our hearts—if that makes sense. I don’t think any of us really care about our academic chops, but we do care about emotional connections. “Does this move me? Will it move someone else?” Of course, that’s always subjective, but for myself as a listener, when I go out to hear music, I don’t care about the chops. I want someone to tell me a good story. And then, it doesn’t matter if I’m listening to metal, or a string quartet. It’s all about the connection of the musicians to the music, to each other, and then to me as a listener. That’s how we approached this project. We wanted it to be compelling.

Are some people surprised when what they might perceive as a “studied” jazz musician is talking to them about organic processes and emotion?

The bottom line with music is that it is about emotion and connection. I tell my students that all the time. But, yes, there are some interesting assumptions about jazz artists. For example, people are always surprised about all the different things I listen to. They may come to my house, and I’ll have Stevie Ray Vaughan playing, or the Kinks, and they’re like, “But you’re a jazz musician.” Really? So sue me. This is great music. I’m still waiting for someone to play me a ballad that rocks my world more than “Waterloo Sunset” by Ray Davies. It’s such a gorgeous ballad. So, back to the point, I think all of us are coming from a place of: “We have all this knowledge, but the knowledge is completely barren if it’s not matched by at least as much heart.”

That’s wonderful, because it works across all styles of music, really. Whether you’re an accomplished jazz musician or an unschooled punk rocker, if the music you make is not compelling, then you’ve failed.

Exactly. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve heard some great, totally confident artists, and I’ve left the concert scratching my head. “Wow. That didn’t move me at all.” You can always hear great players, but if they’re just mailing it in, it’s not going to be something you’ll want to experience. Listen, when Steve Vai signed me to his Favored Nations label, he didn’t care about my technique. All he cared about was, “Is this something that’s going to touch people?” That was a real honor. If I can touch guys that are coming from a different place, as well as audience members that have never really dug jazz before, then that’s it for me. That makes all the years when I was younger, playing “Smokey Eyes,” and coming home fairly trashed from road tours worthwhile, because I know that I’ve touched somebody. If you can boost somebody’s spirits by playing something that moves them, that’s priceless. That’s what it’s all about.

When you attack your improvisations, are you just thinking about the melodic lines? I mean, the typical rock player might be approaching a jam by visualizing boxes, patterns, or scales?

I understand what you’re saying—it’s not like we’re unaware of scale possibilities, or the harmonic and melodic possibilities. This comes back to the academic thing. For instance, on “Within You Without You,” the basic vamp is in a kind of E Locrian. Now, we reference that scale, but we’re going to put in passing tones and superimpose all kinds of other things on top of it, because we’ve studied that stuff, and we know what can work. But in a playing situation, that knowledge becomes a subconscious thing. It’s always there. The modes, the scales, the arpeggios, and the musical concepts become so integrated into your playing that you don’t think about them. This is what enables us to take a song we may have never heard before, and just jump on it from the get-go. Understanding what is happening with the harmony liberates us, and frees us to follow the music wherever it may go.

I’m sure that you used your Heritage signature-model guitar for the album sessions. What else did you bring?

Yes, I used my signature model. I also had my old Guild F-30 that I’ve owned since I was 14 years old. I’ve had that guitar so long—and it has been with me all over the world—that you can’t see the “Guild” logo on the headstock any more. It is completely worn off. That’s an earthy guitar with a lot of miles on it. I borrowed a nice Taylor 12-string from Tall Toad Music in Petaluma for “Within You Without You,” because the action on my Takamine 12-string is pretty abysmal. I think I got it at a yard sale for like 50 bucks when I first moved here. The amp was my vintage 1969 Fender Deluxe Reverb. I love to play through that amp, so I always use it. You’re going to laugh, because my Volume stays at 2, and the Reverb is at 2, and it never changes. And I don’t use pedals. I’m essentially an acoustic musician [laughs].