Mimi Fox is slowly but surely beginning to get her due. Named a "rising star" in the DownBeat magazine critics' poll in 2003 and again in 2004, signed to a growing young label (Favored Nations), and with a discography that's up to seven discs under her own name (alongside dozens of side gigs), Fox's fluid guitar chops are finally beginning to reach a wide audience.
In January 2005, Fox will conduct a clinic on the art of solo jazz guitar at the IAJE conference in Long Beach, and perform a series of special duet concerts with bassist Harvie S in Berkeley and San Jose. Fans in San Francisco and environs can catch Fox on a frequent basis at clubs around the area.
This interview was conducted in the summer of 2003, concurrent with the release of Two for the Road, a quintet project pairing Fox with singer Greta Matassa. It is presented for the first time here.
All About Jazz: You're really busy these days.
Mimi Fox: Yeah, things are good for me. Professionally, things are great. If I was doing any more I don't know where I would do it or how I would do it.
AAJ: You have a number of new recording projects coming out, right?
MF: I've done a bunch of different things with different people, but for myself, I've signed with an exciting label down in LA called Favored Nations, which was started by Steve Vai, a rock guitar guy who's played with Frank Zappa and a lot of other people. He's a great guy, and the label features all guitar players. They have Frank Gambale and Larry Carlton, but I'm gonna be their first straight-ahead release. It's a great label; they have distribution with Sony, so that's good. Anyway, that'll be my next project [She's the Woman was released in 2004 to strong reviews -ed.].
Recently, I've done two projects with different singers, and the last project I've done as a leader was a solo guitar project of standards.
AAJ: Could we talk briefly about those three things?
MF: Sure. I did one with a vocalist here in San Francisco, Maye Cavallaro. It's mostly duo stuff, although Paul McCandless plays horn on some songs; he did a beautiful job. And Ian Dogole plays percussion on some. But it's primarily me and Maye. Then I did a project with a quintet in Seattle, featuring vocalist Greta Matassa. Great singer. That was actually a DVD project; it was a lot of fun. And before that was my solo album, Standards, released in 2001. That was also with a Seattle label, Origin Records.
AAJ: Do you find a difference playing with a vocalist as opposed to other instrumentalists?
MF: It depends on the singer. In Greta's case, she's a great scat singer, and is more like a horn, like having another instrumentalist. Some of the other singers I've worked with over the years, like Bobby McFerrin, are like that, just like working with horn players except that they may or may not be singing lyrics. Of course, some other singers are more word-oriented and less busy in terms of doing the scat thing. They're more into phrasing and the beauty of the notes. But even then, I don't know that it's that much different than working with any other musician in a duo setting. I'm trying to be a sensitive accompanist, while at the same time retaining my individual voice.
AAJ: You compose quite a bit.
MF: I do.
AAJ: Is there such a thing as a Mimi Fox song, or a Mimi Fox compositional sound?
MF: I think as a composer, you do funnel all of the different things in your life, both personal and musical, that you are absorbing. It all becomes part of your compositional palette. I've written in all different styles; I've written for sextet and septet with horns, I've written numerous tunes with lyrics, that my vocalist friends sing, I've written blues forms and extended forms, stuff in odd meters, stuff that falls under the broad heading of Latin jazz, and of course stuff that's straight-up and straight-ahead.
I do think that because I play drums also although I don't have as much time as I wish I did to keep my chops up on that as a second instrument I do think there's a strong rhythmic sense. I think one of the things that people notice about my playing as a signature or trademark would be a sense of rhythmic drive, and the complexity of some of the rhythmic figures. And that's partly because I play drums and I revere drummers. Drummers were the first ones that got me into jazz, you know, Elvin Jones, and Art Blakey, Philly Joe [Jones]... when I heard those drummers I was enchanted. That was my first influence, and I think my playing and my composing reflect that.
AAJ: I was just about to ask if you still played drums...
MF: Yeah, I started out with drums and played them all throughout junior high and high school, and even the first few years after I moved out here, but then I had a running injury. I was a long distance runner, and one time I hurt my knee. That sort of messed up my drum pedaling it was my bass drum foot but it was a blessing in disguise. It curtailed my running career, and curtailed my drumming career, but it forced me to devote myself to the guitar. I still love having the drums to play when I can, and if I'm not in the middle of a project I do try to practice every day, at least a little bit.
AAJ: How long have you lived in the Bay Area?
MF: I moved here at the end of 1979, so 23, almost 24 years now.
AAJ: What brought you out here?
MF: Well, you know I grew up in New York, although we moved quite a bit when I was a kid; we lived all over the east coast. And I had sort of had enough of it. It's an intense place; if you've been there, you know the vibe of it. And I'm an intense person. So when I came out to California, I slowed down a little bit, and it really helped me cool my jets, for lack of a better term. I find that it helps me, because I really do need a more relaxed pace. Plus I'm a very outdoors-y kind of gal. I can't run anymore because of that aforementioned injury, but I do love to go hiking and biking and be outside a lot. I'd also had enough of the New York winters!
When I first moved to California I lived down in LA, doing a lot of studio work, and then I realized that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life having some idiot producer telling me what to play over these eight bars, and could I try to sound like Duane Eddy here, and could I put in this riff there... it's totally the opposite of what you want as a jazz player. It stymies your creativity. So then I moved up to San Francisco, and it was there that I met Bruce Forman, and that really turned my head around. I said that's it, okay, I'm going to give up my drums and just devote myself to jazz guitar.
AAJ: Do you ever play outside of the jazz idiom?
MF: I've done a lot of different projects. I do a lot of producing, and I've produced and arranged projects from hiphop and r&b groups to folk singers and singer-songwriters, world music, all kinds of stuff. As a player, I've been offered some high-profile pop engagements over the years, but I have continued to turn them down, because I'm doing pretty well as a jazz artist. I'm not a millionaire, needless to say, but I'm doing okay. If I ever needed to, I might do it, but I don't want to. Although there are a few pop people that I love, people like Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt... I just don't want to be taken out of what I've devoted my life to. I've made my choice.
AAJ: How has your production work affected you as a player?
MF: Well, sometimes it's just nice to take a little breather, if I'm playing 4 or 5 nights a week. Whether I'm at home or on the road, I play a lot. I'm always gigging. Sometimes, after three or four sets of hard-driving jazz and bop, it's nice to sort of clear out your ears. So when I'm around stuff that's harmonically a lot simpler, it gives me a chance to refuel as a jazz artist. Then when I pick up my ax again on the gig, I feel really energized. Whenever I'm tempted to feel jaded over some stupid gig or some dumb situation that just happens, it's really ameliorated by the chance to clear out my ears and then come back fresh remembering why I love this music in spite of all the b.s. and professional politics that you have to deal with.
AAJ: If you weren't a jazz musician, what do you think you'd be doing now?
MF: Here's a funny story. When I was sixteen I was working with a number of different bands, but I was also playing in my high school band. So my guidance counselor, Alan Silverman he was so sweet he says, "Now Mimi, we all think you're very talented. But a career in music is no kind of career. I think what you should do is take a year off, go to Israel, live on a kibbutz, and then when you come back you should be a lawyer because you love to argue." And I said, "What do you mean, Alan?!" but of course even then I realized the irony of what I was saying: you love to argue / no I don't!...
But truthfully, I don't know. I've done a lot of traveling in the last seven or eight years; I've gone to a lot of countries, and I've seen a lot of poverty and a lot of suffering. That's something that has really impacted me. I think if I wasn't a musician what I'd like to be doing is giving in some way to humanity. I had an extended stay in Bangkok. I was playing at a beautiful place, but then I'd go out on the streets and the poverty there and you know the problem with land mines and the people with blown-off limbs the suffering was enormous. And when I was in the Dominican Republic a few years ago, again I saw a lot of poverty in villages.
I also think children could benefit from having music brought into their lives; I've thought about giving in that kind of way, or teaching children, helping communities build in some way. Yes, I think some kind of humanitarian work is what would appeal to me. Another lucrative field [laughs], but I think the benefits you get from doing something like that far outweigh the sacrifice.
That's just what comes to me off the top of my head. I don't know if I would have made a good lawyer.
AAJ: Who are your heroes, musical or otherwise?
MF: Of course musically, I have my favorites. My friend and mentor Bruce Forman, and also Joe Pass musically are real heroes for me. And then there are many people that I've admired in other realms, from Harriet Tubman to Cesar Chavez, Gloria Steinem... many people who have been involved in human rights, civil rights, women's rights, struggles for human dignity. I admire all of them for being on the front lines. They have devoted their lives to doing things that really changed the course of history and of the world. I have great admiration for those people.
AAJ: Okay, here's a new subject. You give a lot of interviews. In all the time people like you have been interviewed by people like us, but especially in the past few years, it seems that musicians have been very critical of jazz journalism. Do you have any thoughts on that?
MF: I think that any time you're writing about something and maybe not doing it yourself, you're an easy target. The musician can turn around and say, "well, what do you know? You're not out there in the trenches, playing these gigs and dealing with these promoters and so on. You're not an artist." I think it's really easy to get into that, and I think there's some truth in it. I know that there are some very knowledgeable, literate, even brilliant jazz journalists, but then there are those that maybe aren't so knowledgeable. There, wasn't that diplomatic?
But personally, jazz journalists have been very good to me. You know the old adage, "just spell my name right?" Basically, short of saying someone's an axe murderer or whatever, I think that generally just getting any publicity is a good thing. I think most critics do try to be well-balanced, but everyone comes to the plate with their own series of biases. Hopefully they don't have too much of an axe to grind, but I guess there are some people that do.
I think it's just a delicate thing, and sometimes musicians and journalists, who should be friends, just fall into an adversarial thing, simply because sometimes you say something, and then it gets to print and you didn't mean it to come off that way. Or maybe something you said tongue-in-cheek comes off the wrong way.
I had a funny experience in Seattle a few years ago. I was sent to a big radio station, I can't remember the call letters. One of the marketing people or publicists had set this up for me. So I dutifully showed up on time and ready for my interview. Well, I was a little nervous because the woman who was interviewing me had like ten piercings and didn't look like someone you'd normally see at a jazz station. It was more like a college station, definitely a different look. But I thought, "oh, Mimi, shed your prejudices, just do your interview." Well, midway through the interview, she asks me what rock guitar players I liked, and me being rather flippant and casual, I said, "none." The next thing I knew, all 80 lights on the telephone switchboard lit up. Apparently, the publicist never told me, but they had booked me on a big rock station! So all these irate rock 'n' roll hackers call up saying, "whaddaya you know, you jazz schmuck?" I was tired, it was the end of a long tour, I didn't check. I'm a jazz musician; I just assumed the publicist was sending me to a jazz station. So I called the publicist afterwards and said, "Vinny, how could you do this to me?" He said he didn't know, the person who called him sounded really nice... anyway it turned out that the woman who interviewed me, this was her thing, being a troublemaker and trying to sort of snare people and get them to incriminate themselves. Now how did we get into this silly story?
AAJ: We were talking about the relationship between artists and journalists.
MF: Right. Maybe I've been lucky, but I've found most journalists to be intelligent and articulate. I never hold against a journalist what an editor does. I think that sometimes you say some things that you wish got into an article and then they don't because of space or editorial constraints, but I'd certainly never hold that against a journalist. However, sometimes things can happen because of the way things are edited that can make a story slant one way...
AAJ: And sometimes a minor point or a passing comment gets elevated to the theme of the whole piece.
MF: Right. So I've learned to be who I am but use some restraint, because things can get distorted. As a jazz musician, you do have to be aware of these things when you're giving interviews... There are probably some people out there who shouldn't be in positions of reviewing jazz. Jazz is an art form, and it should be reviewed by people who are art critics, who understand the music and know the history. It's one thing for someone to say "I prefer this material over that," but it's another to say "this isn't good music," especially if they don't know what they're talking about. I've had good experiences, I haven't gotten panned, but maybe if I become successful enough someone's gonna slam me someday!
AAJ: Who on the scene today excites you as a musician?
MF: Let's see... guitarist-wise, there are a number of people who are still really jazzing me up, and one of them is Jim Hall, who's become a friend of mine. He contacted me after he heard one of my CDs and sent me the most loving note; it was like I was receiving something from a long-lost uncle. We've been friends ever since. He's a brilliant musician he's really an architect when he plays, so incredibly musical and structurally developed. I also love Kenny Burrell. He's someone I played with recently down in LA for a Heritage Guitar night, because I'm an endorsee and so is Kenny. He's a great guy. I love Russell Malone, who's become a good friend of mine. A not as well-known player who deserves more accolades than he gets is John Stowell. A very unassuming person, with a very unusual style. He's from Portland, Oregon, but he does make it down here periodically. I love some of the stuff that Jimmy Bruno and Joe Beck have done. They have some wonderful guitar duet stuff that's totally smokin'.
When you go into other instruments it's a whole new field... Joe Lovano; Christian McBride plays his buns off.
AAJ: It sounds like you do a lot of listening.
MF: I do. Part of my job description as a jazz musician is to listen as much as I can.
AAJ: You've worked in a wide range of settings. Is there anything you really want to try that you just haven't had the opportunity to do yet?
MF: I've been pretty lucky. I've gotten to do a lot of things. A few years ago, I performed some of my acoustic guitar pieces with a chamber orchestra. I have had contact with a fellow from Seattle, to possibly do some of my original scores with a full symphony orchestra. If that happened, it would just be a deeper level. Getting to arrange and perform in that capacity would be wonderful.
Also, there are some composers I would love to collaborate with: Mary Watkins, a wonderful Bay Area composer we've actually talked about collaborating and composing a sort of jazz guitar symphony together, so it would be more orchestral, but written for jazz guitar, not something that I would have to adapt. We've sort of rolled that around, and again dealing with orchestras, and funding, and other various issues have hung it up, but that would be something I'd love to do.
And I think there are some other players on the scene I'd love to play with. Jeff "Tain" Watts and Christian McBride would be a "dream team" rhythm section for me. There's a lot of players I'd like to work with, but those guys are pretty high on my list.
AAJ: Were the orchestral pieces written with a large ensemble in mind?
MF: I've adapted some of the acoustic guitar pieces I've written which blend jazz and classical influences. They were written as solo guitar pieces, but they're highly adaptable for orchestra. I wrote out all the parts when I worked with the chamber orchestra, which was basically strings and percussion; a fairly small orchestral setting. For a larger scale, I'd like to collaborate with someone. Mary Watkins and I talked about doing something with a socio-political bent, since she's African-American and I'm Jewish, blending our varied histories as peoples and being a real force for healing. There's been some damage between those two communities over the years, and we think there's an opportunity to do some healing on a musical level. So that was another idea, to be broad in scope both artistically and socially.