Mimi Fox was a precocious youngster, playing drums and then guitar before reaching her teens. She rapidly taught herself to play pop, folk, R&B, and other styles—but it was encountering John Coltrane’s Giant Steps that set her firmly on her current path. She relocated from New York to the San Francisco Bay Area around 1980, a time when there was a vibrant local jazz scene. “I used to sit in with Bruce Forman and have my ass kicked several times a week,” she says. “I learned an enormous amount from him overall, but being up there on the bandstand taught me things I could never have gotten just from taking lessons or practicing.”
Another pivotal moment was Fox’s first encounter with her friend and mentor the late Joe Pass. “He’d played the night before and I’d pestered him for a lesson,” recalls Fox. “It was early in the morning at his hotel room and he was wearing a bathrobe and smoking a cigar. After gruffly telling me to sit down he had me play six or seven pieces before he put out his cigar and said, ‘Mimi, you play really well. You wouldn’t believe the schmucks that come see me that can’t play their way through a 12-bar blues.’ Then, a little later he said, ‘You have a lot of fire in the belly, and that’s something that no one can ever teach you. Don’t lose that.’ That was a transformational moment, because like all artists I’d struggled—and still struggle—with the feeling that I’m an imposter [laughs].”
If Fox is an imposter, she’s certainly hoodwinked a lot of important people. In addition to garnering accolades and awards from an impressive list of publications, receiving grants and commissions from prestigious arts organizations worldwide, and teaching at numerous colleges and universities such as Yale and Berklee School of Music, she has played with scores of great musicians, including guitarists Charlie Byrd, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, and Martin Taylor.
Beyond her passion and technical virtuosity, Fox plays with a profundity that only results from a lifetime of commitment and total immersion in one’s art—the latest manifestation of which is Standards Old & New [Origin], an engaging collection of acoustic and electric solo guitar performances.
How did you choose the tunes on your new record?
The past two years have been very eventful for me, with real highs and real lows, and I was looking back on my life retrospectively. I wanted to pick tunes that reflected the different musical influences that I’ve had. For example, my sister was really into folk music and turned me onto songs like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” when I was about ten. That’s also why there’s a Beatles tune and Michael Jackson’s “She’s Out of My Life.” And the songs have great melodies, which is all you need to be able to reimagine them in a jazz manner.
Is there a typical process that you go through when arranging a tune?
The arrangement has to respect the melody and do justice to the composer— including lyrically. For example, if I’m playing “She’s Leaving Home,” I’m not only digging into the beauty of the melody and trying to get the cello part in and making the music happen, I’m thinking about the meaning of the tune and the lyrics. I also try to find a way to make an arrangement fresh, because if I’m going to play “This Land Is Your Land,” I’m not going to play it like Woody Guthrie. He already did that and it was great.
Your arrangement of Wes Montgomery’s “Four on Six” manages to capture the full flavor of a piece with a prominent bass line and an ensemble feel. How did you accomplish that on solo guitar?
When I play that piece with my organ trio, I play different hits than Wes does, and this arrangement just takes that a little farther. I reharmonized it slightly and transposed it from G minor to E minor so that I could have a low-E bass pedal tone, but otherwise I’m still honoring the basic harmony and melody of the tune. The bass line runs throughout the original, but I just play it at the beginning and hope that people will feel it continuing underneath as a layer while I’m playing the changes over it, even though I don’t actually return to it.
Many contemporary jazz guitarists avoid straight-ahead harmonic and melodic approaches, seeking to find their voice outside of those perceived constraints, whereas you tend to expand the tradition from the inside out. Would you agree?
Yes. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the more modern language of jazz, and I do incorporate some of that. But to me it’s important to honor the legacy of the great players that I’m standing on the shoulders of, be it George Van Eps or George Barnes or George Benson. There’s quite a lineage, and I’m humbled to bear the title of jazz guitarist—particularly solo jazz guitarist. I’m covering a lot of ground and, frankly, it takes a lot of chutzpah to put myself out there doing this stuff. As an artist you live with a certain tension between your self confidence and your fears. There are times when I think, “Oh my, I’m just a Jewish girl from Queens—how the hell did I end up doing this?” But the music means so much to me. Joe Pass wouldn’t have liked everything I do, but people such as myself are continuing the tradition, and we have taken it to another place. It’s just that we continue to honor the legacy—the lineage.
You have several very nice guitars. Which ones did you play on the new album?
I played “This Land is Your Land,” “She’s Out of My Life,” and “She’s Leaving Home” on the Guild F-30 acoustic that I’ve had since I was 14. And I may have used my S3 archtop on “500 Miles High,” though I’m not sure. Everything else was played on my Heritage 575, which has also been my main touring guitar for many years.
What is it about the 575 that makes it so perfect for you, and keeps you from searching for something else?
I have received offers from some great builders over the years, but I’ve stayed with Heritage. After Jim Ferguson wrote the first Guitar Player article about me in 1991, one of the Heritage builders contacted me and asked if there was anything I was interested in. I’d been playing a Gibson ES-175, and the Heritage 575 was a little thinner and lighter than the 175, which appealed to me. My 575 is sort of a prototype, with a cedar top rather than maple, and a few other tweaks. It feels great, has a beautiful tone, stays in tune, and holds up on the road.
How do you set the controls on the 575?
I use the neck pickup and keep the volume and tone controls all the way up.
What strings do you use on your guitars?
I string my electrics with Thomastik-Infeld Flat Wound Medium Light sets gauged .012 to .053, and my acoustic with Martin Marquis Phosphor Bronze Lights gauged .012 to .054.
Do you have a favorite amp?
I use a JazzKat TomKat when I’m playing smaller gigs around town. It’s a 1x10 solid-state combo with a tube in the preamp that you can switch in and out. It has a warm sound that I really like. When I’m playing larger rooms or I’m on the road I ask for Fender amplifiers, usually a Deluxe Reverb or a Twin Reverb. I’ve also used Roland JC- 120s, and I like those too.
How did you record the album?
I recorded it in my home using Avid Pro Tools and an Mbox interface that I plug directly into. I’m by no means a great engineer, but I can get a good clean sound. I do have some nice microphones, and at some point I’ll try recording with them, but for this one I just went direct. Afterward, an engineer named Gary Mankin helped me draw some additional beauty out of the recordings, particularly the acoustic guitar tracks.
Speaking of good clean sounds, your tone is always beautifully clear and undistorted. How much of that is due to technique and how much has to do with your choice of instruments?
It’s a mixture of both, but it is also a matter of sensibility. Years ago I was doing a session and the producer asked me to try playing with distortion, but it just sounded silly. I guess it is my background—and maybe that I studied classical guitar for a few years in my early 20s—but I like the pureness and the challenge of playing with a naturally beautiful tone. So, I do choose instruments that will reveal that, and I also apply myself to developing the right touch and articulation. Of course, that’s just me. Guitarists like my friend Steve Vai sound fantastic playing with distortion.
As an educator, what is the most prevalent problem with jazz guitar students?
For one thing, they don’t practice enough. They want it overnight, and they don’t work on essentials such as arpeggios. Also, I typically encounter two types of students: those that are devoted and put in the hours, but don’t have a good time feel or don’t swing or have some other serious issues musically; and those that have a lot of innate musical talent, but are lazy. The study of any art form requires tremendous discipline, and jazz is paradoxical in that all this discipline is so that when you get up on stage you can play freely.
Another thing is that students don’t do enough transcribing. They think that somehow they’ll get their own sound by osmosis. And, although it is actually by osmosis—it’s an osmosis that has to happen from listening and working to acquire important harmonic and melodic data by really digging into the music. I can play dozens of solos note-for-note that are still in my head from the first transcriptions that I did, and that’s because I spent so much time listening and then writing those solos down and tapping out the rhythms. So, again, paradoxically you get your own sound by listening to other people. But you don’t get it by saying you are going to get it—you have to work at it.