An authentic talent
By Paul Rigg
New York born Mimi Fox is an internationally renowned jazz guitarist who has
played and recorded with Branford
Marsalis, Diana Krall and Charlie
Byrd, among many others.
In the late 1970s she moved to California and took lessons from Bruce Forman and Joe Pass. As a prodigious young talent , however, she had already been teaching from the age of 11 and later taught at Berklee College of Music, New York University and California Jazz Conservatory.
Fox has been named a winner in six consecutive Downbeat Magazine ´international critic's polls´.
Guitars Exchange talks to Fox during a brief break in her US tour to promote her new album, which is released on 8th September.
GUITARS EXCHANGE: You have released an impressive number of original scores and albums, what is the focus of your latest record?
MIMI FOX: It is called 'May I Introduce to You' and is a celebration of the Beatles Sergeant Pepper’s record. It has been planned to coincide with the album’s 50th anniversary year.
G.E.: Was it your idea?
M.F.: Yes, but all my band love the Beatles. I have been touring with a group called the San Francisco String Trio, which includes myself; Mads Tolling, a wonderful Danish violinist; and Jeff Denson a great bassist and singer.
The Beatles material is in line with the classic songwriters, like Gershwin, Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hart, from what we call the Great American Songbook. A song like Blackbird, for example, is a beautiful ballad that stands up with any of the great jazz standards. We took all of the music from the album and we rearranged it to find fresh takes on very familiar and well-loved melodies.
I am really happy with the project.
G.E.: How did you start your musical career?
M.F.: I started with drums at nine and then picked up guitar a year later. That is all I would do, I would come home from school, do my homework and then immediately start playing. Then after dinner I would play until I fell asleep.
G.E.: What kind of guitar was it?
M.F.: It was a cheap nylon string guitar where the strings are like, you know, 500 metres from the fretboard. But it didn´t matter to me, it might as well have been a 20,000 dollar custom made guitar.
G.E.: Is it true you taught yourself to play by listening to ‘Rubber Soul’ as a child?
M.F.: Yes, that´s right. At ten I would watch people playing guitar and then try to imitate what they were doing. One day my cousin said 'you have to listen to this album' and I would play along to it. When he came back a few months later and I showed him what I could do he said to my mum ‘well, 'I can't teach Mimi anything else, because she is playing better than me already’ - so that is how much I loved the instrument.
G.E.: When did you start teaching?
M.F.: By the age of 11 I knew so many different songs - not just the Beatles but the Beach Boys and a lot of the pop music of the day - that I was able to earn money teaching teenagers and people much older than me.
G.E.: What is your favourite guitar model?
M.F.: I would have to say it is the new artist signature model that Heritage have produced because it is all to my specifications. It is a beautiful guitar, it plays great, and it sounds beautiful.
It has an ebony fretboard and a solid spruce top. I don't like decorations so there is no filigree work. It has Duncan gold pickups and goldplated hardware. It is like the Heritage 575 model but it has a beautiful finish on it - it is just gorgeous, I couldn't be happier.
G.E.: When I was reading about your life, watching your teaching videos and listening to your music, I felt that you seem to be in a constant search for authenticity. Is that a fair comment?
M.F.: Obviously as a musician and an artist if you are devoted it does take you on a musical, intellectual and emotional journey. It is a very deep process and you are always in search of authenticity , particularly in jazz where you are doing so much improvising. You really are trying to express what is true. It is a lifetime of study and practise to be spontaneous, but within that spontaneity you hope to be authentic at all times.
G.E.: You have said: 'I'll take heart over perfection any day' and 'when I go on stage I feel exposed and vulnerable'- how important is that for you?
M.F.: This is something I have talked to other musicians about: the initial feeling of terror before the music takes over. I do feel that despite spending many years perfecting my technique when I am performing or recording I want people to be left with an emotional feeling not a feeling about technique. So I am first interested in authenticity, and then making an emotional connection with the listener.
G.E.: Do you think you tap into that emotion more as a woman?
M.F.: I don't know about that, that's a fascinating question. I think it depends on the player - certainly there are many male guitarists who play with tremendous fire and passion, so I don't think either gender has a lock on that capacity. If anything, perhaps as a woman you might feel discouraged from showing too much emotion; in the old days you might get teased for that but I think in general a guitarist is a guitarist and it is more about a particular human being and their particular set of values. When you play you are baring your soul and life experience, and no gender has a monopoly on that.
G.E.: You have talked about 'heavy listening' on stage - what do you mean by that?
M.F.: 'Heavy listening' means that I tune out all extraneous noise. Sometimes the noise is in my own head; I really try to focus on what I am playing and what the other musicians are playing. I am seeking to deeply immerse myself in the music so that I can create authenticity.
G.E.: You played with Diana Krall; how did that come about?
M.F.: Actually the promoter set up a double bill in San Francisco with her and my Trio, so that is how I met her. It was a wonderful experience. I think one of the most rewarding things from all these years of practising has been that I have been able to play with a very wide range of tremendous musicians across the board and all genres and that has been very gratifying. I feel very lucky.
G.E.: I also understand you played with Stevie Wonder?
M.F.: Yes, that's a funny story. My manager at the time, who was also a dear friend of mine, called me and said ‘Mimi, I just got an offer for a gig - I know you don't like being an opening act, however you might want to reconsider this time’, but I interrupted and said ‘Look, we've talked about this before...’ He then persisted: ‘Just a minute can I tell you who it is?’ When he finally told me it was Stevie Wonder, I said ‘Oh my God! Why didn't you say?’ and he replied ‘Mimi, I have been trying to tell you, but you wouldn't let me get a word in’.
So my Trio opened for Stevie Wonder at a big event here in the San Francisco area. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to meet Stevie. He was one of my heroes when I was teaching myself how to play. I was very influenced by him.
G.E.: Are there any jazz musicians dead or alive you'd love to jam with?
M.F.: You know I've been fortunate enough to play with many of the jazz musicians I really admire, but I would like to play more with Branford Marsalis - I love him and the group that he plays with.
G.E.: Finally, I would love to ask how you manage to balance such a heavy playing, recording and teaching load?
M.F.: Actually now I am on a sabbatical after many years as an associate professor at the California Jazz Conservatory. It's true that maybe I was playing at a jazz guitar festival in Wales or playing at the Guinness Cork festival in Ireland and then I would have to come back to the States for a gig and then teach whatever I was teaching my class, and it started to feel like a little too much .
The good thing is that all of my courses are all still available and people can purchase them if they like. I imagine I will still see students occasionally with a master's class here or there, because I did really enjoy it for many years, but I am now more focused on my composing and performing.
The interview closes with Mimi Fox thanking Guitars Exchange for its interest in her and her music.
Alongside her soaring talent Mimi Fox is a person who is full of grace and warmth. And it does not take more than a moment’s contact with her for anyone to tell that it is all authentic.