Mimi’s first album, for Steve Vai’s Favored Nations Cool label, is a culmination of the many faces of Mimi Fox; from passionate solo guitar to fiery bebop, and unlike many recent albums in this genre, she reflects a certain organic quality that speaks to the new generation of beboppers and old souls alike.
JazzReview: Your name has been circulating quite a while now and I’d like to know where you’re from, particularly musically. Did you start out on guitar?
Mimi Fox: We’ll I’m from where you’re from! [Queens, NY] Although I’ve lived in California for quite a while, I’m very much a New Yorker. I actually started out on drums, or rather on my mom’s soup pots. Everyone in my family loves music, and my mom sang semi-professionally, y’ know jazz standards and stuff until I was about 12. But my dad loves Dixieland and I had a lot of original recordings, which I used to play along with on the soup pots. When I was like 8 or 9, my mom got me a little snare drum. I started playing the guitar when I was 10. My earliest influence, and I’m not embarrassed to say this because I was 10 years old, was Mike Nesmith from the Monkees. By the time I was 12, my brother and sister introduced me to the Beatles, and then I started teaching myself by playing along, like on the Rubber Soul album - great guitar parts. I would have to say that because I played drums in the jazz band in junior high, and because my parents loved jazz and I heard it in the home, that’s where it started.
JazzReview: At what point did you start to embrace jazz and really start to study it diligently?
Mimi Fox: Well, you know, I actually didn’t start studying it until my early 20’s, but I had a number of pivotal experiences that showed how deeply music impacted me. When I was about 12, my older sister was in college. She took me to a Julian Bream concert and that floored me. I was so moved by his playing, and that time he was playing guitar and lute, doing a lot of the Bach lute suites. I met him backstage. He was really nice and always met with all the kids and was very witty and sweet. That was a very moving experience. Then when I was 14, I got a hold of Giant Steps. I was playing drums in a band with some guys and they were telling me, "You gotta check out Coltrane." So I got the recording and Naima just blew my mind. I’d say even before I started studying jazz, I had a deep affinity for it. As far as jazz guitar, I was pretty intimidated. It seemed like another galaxy. It wasn’t until I moved out to California in 1979, and met Bruce Forman and heard him play, that I decided that was what I wanted. Basically I was doing a lot of funk and top-40 stuff on guitar. And when I heard Bruce who was a great bebop player, I decided that was what I wanted to do. I studied with him some, and stopped playing drums, at least outside.
JazzReview: We have a similar background; I started on drums as well. I was laughing when you mentioned the snare drum kit, ‘cause I had one of those. It had a rickety cymbal attached to the side. It was scary.
Mimi Fox: That is funny...yeah, you know it.
JazzReview: Who were some of the players that you knew personally that really contributed to your development?
Mimi Fox: Well, like I said, Bruce was a huge influence because from the first lesson he said something to me I’ll never forget. He said, "You don’t need guitar lessons if you want to learn how to play jazz. You have to learn how to listen." And he took me into his study and we started listening to Miles, Coltrane, everything. I had always listened, but he made me realize that the stuff I was missing was in the harmony and language of jazz, and it had nothing to do with the guitar. I had probably all the technical chops I’d ever needed at that point, but I had to develop other types of chops; transcribing, writing, and listening and playing with great players, really valuable stuff. There were many people along the way. Anytime you have someone in your life you admire as a player, they have a great impact.
JazzReview: I want to get into a little bit about where you’re at today, your philosophies and your sound. What makes you tick? I love your tone and I think I read someplace that you had once tried to tinker with some effects, but couldn’t get into them. Hence it’s a very pure tone we hear from you today.
Mimi Fox: Yeah, it’s not my thing. I’m basically a very acoustically oriented musician. I had mentioned some of my early influences, but my sister and brother were listening to a lot of folk music and I love classical guitar. Just because of my ears and what I’ve always had engrained in my mind, I’ve always gravitated toward pretty acoustic-oriented stuff. I just go for a nice warm clean sound. I totally sound stupid with effects and don’t really like them. If you don’t like something, you won’t learn how to use it to its full advantage, you know?
JazzReview: Right, I was going to ask you about that. Some people keep their tone a certain way more out of philosophy than anything else, to keep ‘true’ to the traditional jazz sound. I wanted to know if it was more tradition or taste, or both.
Mimi Fox: All of the players I love listening to, I don’t want to be them. I want them to be them. In order to be yourself as an artist, and have your own sound, you have to first absorb all the stuff from everywhere and then try to use that to bring something of your own to the table - in terms of what you’re playing and what your sound is. Of course, some of it is your own attack and your choice of phrasing, how you play.
JazzReview: That leads to my next question, actually. As you were mentioning, you have to take from the old, but move into the new. On any of the standards you’ve tackled on this record, or on any previous recordings, what is your biggest challenge in terms of being able to take a song that’s been played so many times and breathe new life into it - give it your own spin? When you sit and approach something like that, what’s your M.O.?
Mimi Fox: That’s a great question. I think one of the things I learned from Joe Pass, whom I had the opportunity to study with and then later cherish as a friend, one thing I loved about him was how we could take a song like Green Dolphin Street and play it in like 4 different keys. What that left me to realize is that if I ‘m really going to know a piece and then make it mine, I need to not only know it in one key, but I should be able to play it in a bunch of keys, play it in different contexts. Obviously, if I’m playing it solo, it’s different than playing it with a quartet. When I really learn a piece, I try and really go inside it and understand it understand what’s really going on harmonically and then adapt it. One piece I did on an earlier recording was All Blues, which I took and played on an acoustic guitar. And in order to re-harmonize it, for instance when the song goes to the 4 chord, instead of me going to a C, I’ll go to an F#. It’s just a tri-tone, still keeps the same melody, but that simple thing of just changing the bass note from the C to the F#, adds a freshness.
Also, since it’s a blues, I tried to take in into the context of playing it like a very early blues. Playing it on an acoustic guitar gives it a whole new flavor. Then I used modern harmony to twist it. So Fred, when I really learn a piece, I try and really dig into it harmonically. Sometimes one little simple thing will open up a new door. Obviously, with the guitar, one thing I’ve tried to explore more is the use of open strings, and see how that and the use of harmonics play into the context of solo guitar, or even in a group. The use of artificial harmonics also slows me down a bit, so I have to rely more on musicality than chops. Plus, I think people are tired of hearing, especially from guitar players, streams of run on eight notes. There’s not a lot of breath, and I have no issue with that, as I do it sometimes too. But it’s nice to explore a different technique to open up new avenues. So that’s part of what I think about when I take a standard. And obviously, you can put it to a different groove, different time, all those things. But for me, the biggest thing is re-harmonizing it.
Also, I think a lot of people ignore the lyrical aspect of these songs. If you have an old standard, you should know what it’s about. I’m really down on students when they don’t’ know the lyrics to Autumn Leaves. I don’t care if you want to play Autumn Leaves in a heavy metal version and play it in 19/7, but you should still know what the lyrics are. That’s another thing that can really inform when you’re trying to put a spin on a tune.
JazzReview: That’s a great point. It’s definitely something you see with instrumentalists above anyone else. A serious lack of attention paid to the context of the song. On another note, one refreshing thing I have heard from a lot of players I’ve spoken to lately is the need to step outside of the jazz box listen to other styles of music to really gain more insight on their own stuff. Would you say that’s true of yourself? For instance, what non-jazz stuff have you been listening to lately that’s helped shape your own playing and writing?
Mimi Fox: It’s funny you mention that, because I’ve always listened to stuff that’s quote un-quote not jazz, even though jazz has become such a huge smorgasbord. It entails so many different styles at this point, from Indian-raga influenced jazz to Nigerian folk songs. I think it really has become world music. So in a sense, it really has become very broad. However, that’s a whole other thing that two people will sit and really try and dissect.
But, if I look at what’s in my CD player, I could tell you I have Mozart, Wes, Sharon Isbin, Booker T and the MG&&&s, but I think I put that on when I was doing the dishes, I must confess. And, I have a Lonnie Smith recording a friend gave me. I’ve always listened to a lot of different things and I’m very grateful for all of the years my friends and I played rock, funk, bluegrass, even orchestral. I ‘m glad I have all of that background, because it really informs what I do and gives me different ideas when I play. I’m not afraid to play an acoustic guitar and 12-string guitar and have someone say, "Hey that sounds like folk music." I was thrilled that people got my All Blues on acoustic guitar and a 12-string version of Footprints I had done even people saying, "I don’t normally like 12-string, but this was cool."
Again, if you&&&re going to take a tune like All Blues orFootprints, you’d better find a way to bring something new to it. For me, basically, it’s about melody, and one of the great things about the Beatles is they wrote great melodies. It’s easy to take any of the songs they’ve written and re-harmonize them because the melodies are so strong. If people can’t hang with that, screw ‘em! (laughs)
JazzReview: Going along with what you were saying about the Beatles knack for strong melodies, when you sit down and do your own writing, do you typically sit down and start with a melody, or create a progression and build a melody around it?
Mimi Fox: That’s a great question. It happens it all kinds of ways. To tell you the truth, I think it was Sammy Cahn who asked, "What comes first, the words or the music?" And he said, "First comes the phone call." I thought that was great. But along those lines, for me, I need to have an inspiration for a song. Usually it’s a place I visited, someone I love, [or] someone I met. It’s people and places that move me, so I have to say first it’s an inspiration. Sometimes I’ll start with a title. I was in Japan a few years ago and had dinner with this wonderful man who owned a jazz club in Tokyo. His name was Terry, so all I had was a song title, which I’m still working on, called "Dinner at Terry’s." I haven’t finished it and I know I will. It should be a great piece. So sometimes I get an inspiration. Sometimes when I sit down and play, to answer your question, sometimes I’ll hum a melody into a tape player, and then I’ll put chords to it later. I like to do that more than just start with a progression, because there are so many more choices you have when you have a strong melody, and I like the way my songs turn out better that way. Although, sometimes, I like the sound of the drums and I’ll be hearing a groove, or might [I] hear a bass line that comes to me, or some new ideas that I’m working on harmonically.
Another piece I’ve started [in] regard to Japan is called Shinjuku Station, which is a major station in Japan, that incidentally, makes Grand Central Station look like Boise. (laughs) It’s so huge, and I didn’t know this at the time, but when I was writing it, I actually used a Japanese minor pentatonic scale...probably just synthesized through me from music I heard on the street, and a friend told me later what it was.
JazzReview: Ok. Now I’m going to ask you, what is that?
Mimi Fox: There are different interpretations, but one of them is 1-b2-b3-4-5, which is also like a Db Lydian.
JazzReview: Hmm moving to the record, this your first record for Favored Nations. How did that hook up?
Mimi Fox: It’s actually a great story, because every now and then there are serendipitous experiences that you don’t know why they happen. I was playing at a guitar festival with three other guitarists. We were all doing solo guitar in different styles. One of them was an acoustic player named Pepino D’Augustino. He and I are old friends. He lives in the same area as me. We were talking backstage and just hanging out and he asked me if I knew who Steve Vai was. I had told him that my manager and I at that time were talking to some different labels, and we had some interest and some bites and I was not crazy about the direction certain labels were going. And I told Pepino I was still looking. He told me that he signed with Favored Nations, and that Steve Vai was a great guy and really easy to work with. At his recommendation, my manager sent a package along with a video, and within a week, both my manager and myself had calls from Steve who said he was very taken with the music and wanted to talk with me.
We had a great time the first time we started talking. I mean, I’m a little Jewish girl from Queens, he’s an Italian guy from Long Island. What else can I tell you? We just completely hit it off and everything just sort of progressed from there. They basically told me to have a great project. It was like I was dreaming. I even told Steve at the time, "Steve, I’m pinching myself because it feels like I’m dreaming." It was really unbelievable.
Vai calls me "jazz girl" and I call him "rock boy." We have a really nice relationship and I have a lot of respect for him, and he feels the same way. Hopefully, combined with the great press we’ve been getting and the touring, the record will do well.
JazzReview: A little bit about the players on the record; were these guys you were playing with for a while, or were just assembled for the project?
Mimi Fox: It’s actually both, and that’s the nice thing about it; Ray Drummond and I have known each other for many years and had wanted to hook up and work together. Touring and schedules have forbidden it, so the timing never quite worked out. When I was getting ready to assemble players and Steve [Vai] gave me the budget, I knew Ray was going to be out this way and I knew I wanted him to play on some cuts. John Evans, who co-produced with me actually was on the road for a few years with Tori Amos. He’s got great rock chops, but is a great all-around jazz bassist. The pianist, Randy, and I have worked together on other projects. He’s from Seattle and has played with a million people. I love his playing and I love him, so I had him come down. Paul Von W who plays drums, actually played on one of my recordings many years ago. He has also played with a million people, particularly with Poncho Sanchez. So for all the Latin stuff on the recording, I wanted to have Paul because he tears that stuff up.
JazzReview: In terms of songs that were featured on this record, did you sit down and pull together stuff from your repertoire, and how many were written for the record?
Mimi Fox: Well, the one tune I wrote for the record was Raquel, Mi Amour because I wanted to have a slower, bossa ballad kind of piece. I hadn’t actually written that kind of style before and pushed myself to finish it a month before the record was done. The nice thing about sitting down with Steve [Vai] beforehand and planning the record, was that he didn’t ask me to do one thing or tell me to do something that he thought was catchy. I sat down and said, "It’s been two years. I have a lot of ideas. I want to do an album that’s all of who I am today." He thought that was cool.
JazzReview: I’m always surprised when I hear that kind of thing, especially in the jazz world where labels try and push a catchy theme or gimmick on an artist; it’s something you expect in the pop world, but not in jazz. I guess it happens every place.
Mimi Fox: Oh yeah. It’s not that themes by themselves are a bad idea, but when I sat down and looked at what I wanted to do, it was not something I wanted to do at this point in time. I think labels figure that they want to set a mood for a certain type of thing, where a listener wants to hear this kind of thing when they’re in a certain mood, and not this type of thing. I’m the complete opposite, where after I hear a ballad, I want to hear something a little more up. I don’t like to listen to one whole album of ballads unless it’s Trane. I predicated based on what I wanted to hear and Steve agreed with me, which was nice.
JazzReview: So, we’re not going to hear "A Very Mimi Christmas" anytime soon?
Mimi Fox: [Laughs] Oh man, if Favored Nations wants to do a Christmas album, I have some very hip renditions of Christmas tunes that will remain nameless. But being that I’m Jewish, I may be more inclined to do a Hanukah song.
JazzReview: When you listen back to this album and mentally compare it to your last project, what are some of the things you’ve noticed that you’ve personally or professionally progressed in?
Mimi Fox: That’s a really good question. I haven’t been asked that before. I’ve been very happy with this project because there are two changes in my playing that I can feel in this project. One is in terms of motif development, which is something I’ve actually talked to Jim Hall about. He and I have become friends, a relationship I really cherish because that’s one of the things in Jim’s playing, his ability to develop, sometimes simultaneously, different motifs or phrases. I feel like my motif is really developing, so that makes me happy. The second thing is that on the ballads and the places where I’m doing solo guitar, I like that I’m leaving space in a way that I feel like the music is breathing. I’m also feeling more comfortable playing in odd meters, something I’ve wanted to do for a while.
JazzReview: Looking ahead now, you have this album in front of you, is there a time when you sit down and say, "This is great, I’m happy with this. Now for my next project, this is what I’m going to do."
Mimi Fox: I’m always looking ahead to the next 3 or 4 projects; one of the things I’d like to do, I wished I had, was a waltz; which I just finished one. Like a hip waltz, not a schmaltz waltz. I think for my next project I’m working on, [I’ll have] many more complicated odd-meter and more intricate compositions.
JazzReview: How do you, as a teacher and someone who bears the responsibility of passing knowledge down, sit down and put your students in the right direction so they know the difference between improvising and just putzing around back to what we discussed earlier about going beyond the chops and honing down your sense of melody and harmony?
Mimi Fox: I think the essential thing at a more elementary level, I write out suggested solos for people, plus I have a new book out with Mel Bay, which does that exact thing. So at a basic level, I’m trying to introduce students to work around the neck, scales and arpeggios, that kind of stuff, but on a more advanced level. I feel the most important thing is transcribing solos, because what you’re really trying to do is absorb the language of jazz through the masters, and then try and find a way to speak that language with your own inflection.
JazzReview: You had mentioned about your travels earlier. Is there one place you’ve come across in your travels you would suggest to people, even one that’s not as commonly known?
Mimi Fox: I’d say one place that I wrote a song about was the Dominican Republic. I had no idea what being around this culture would be like; incidentally I found a little Jewish synagogue in this town and found out through research that Jewish dairy farmers were some of the first people to migrate to the Dominican Republic. I was very moved by the people I met there, as well as places like Tokyo, Bangkok and Australia. I had a great experience in the Caribbean as well.
JazzReview: Last but not least, who should we watch out for? Players we should keep an eye out for?
Mimi Fox: I think someone you may be need to be aware of is John Stowell. He is really a phenomenon; he plays like no one else. He’s definitely a jazz guitarist, but the way he plays is very unusual. He’s a friend of mine who lives out in Portland, Oregon. If you get a chance to hear some of his stuff, I highly recommend it. He’s like an abstract painter, he uses the guitar as his medium.
MIMI&&&S TOUR DATES
April 17 & 24
Uva Trattoria. Napa, CA. 9p.m.-12a.m.
Jazz Workshop, Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa Cruz, CA.
CD Release Party, Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa Cruz, CA.
Sedwick Cultural Center, Philadelphia, PA
Trumpets, Montclair, NJ
Szechuan Tokyo, West Hartford, CT.
Ryles Jazz Club, Boston, MA.
June 19 - 26
Jazz Camp West, La Honda, CA
Espresso Garden & Cafe, San Jose, CA
August 10 - 15
Michigan Woman&&&s Music Festival