SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
by Andrew Gilbert
Sunday, March 19, 2006
The title track of Mimi Fox's new album, "Perpetually Hip," wasn't intended as a self-portrait. But with her jaw-dropping technique and headlong sense of swing, the guitarist easily could have been describing her own music.
A longtime fixture on the Bay Area jazz scene, Fox, of Vallejo, has broken through to a national audience in recent years, winning fans throughout the guitar world. Most consequentially, she captivated rock virtuoso Steve Vai, who signed Fox to his label Favored Nations, which will release the two-CD album "Perpetually Hip" on April 4.
Together, the two discs stand as a definitive Fox statement. The first showcases her simmering interplay with a quartet featuring drum maestro Billy Hart, and the second captures her breathtaking solo style as she stretches out on a program of standards, displaying an approach that's as harmonically resourceful as it is lyrically inventive.
Fox celebrates the album's release March 27 at Yoshi's, with bassist Jon Evans, drummer Tim Bulkley and longtime collaborator pianist Susan Muscarella, founder of the innovative Jazzschool in Berkeley, where Fox heads the guitar program. She also plays a series of solo gigs, including a March 31 date at a new Santa Cruz venue, the E3 Playhouse, and an April 2 set at Redwood City's Little Fox Theatre.
In many ways, the connection between Vai and Fox is utterly unlikely. Before she hooked up with Favored Nations in 2004 and recorded her label debut, "She's the Woman," Fox knew of him only as "that rock shredder dude." But Bay Area finger-style guitar ace Peppino D'Agostino had heard that Vai was starting a new label and urged Fox to contact him. She sent off a package to Los Angeles with some CDs and a video of a recent performance on BET, and Vai quickly responded with an offer.
"He basically wrote me a check and said, 'Have a nice session,' " Fox says during an interview at the Capoeira Arts Cafe in downtown Berkeley. "I had to keep pinching myself."
For his part, Vai was struck by the tremendous authority of Fox's playing. In a recent e-mail he wrote that he signed her because she "wears her audible emotions on her shirtsleeve. When she plays the guitar, you get to witness a person whose exceptional technical and melodic gifts are surpassed only by her emotional investment in every note that flows from her."
Vai has continued to walk the walk, encouraging Fox to follow her ambition in releasing "Perpetually Hip" (the title track is dedicated to a longtime friend of Fox's, former Concord Records publicist Merrilee Trost).
Fox's career momentum has also been juiced by her heightened profile on the New York scene, facilitated by her position as an adjunct professor in New York University's jazz guitar studies program. A mostly self-taught player, the New York native has built a sterling reputation as an educator and clinician, though she strongly holds to the old-school belief that the most important musical lessons are learned on the bandstand. That's where she has established herself as one of straight-ahead jazz's most fluid improvisers.
"That's one thing I love about this music," Fox says. "In jazz, the proof is in the pudding."
The proof can be heard in Fox's elegant lines, in the intensity of her rhythmic drive and in the plump, rounded sound of her notes. Further evidence can be seen in the cats who have lined up behind her. She's made fans of a veritable jazz guitar hall of fame, from younger players like Charlie Hunter and Russell Malone to veteran greats such as Kenny Burrell, Jackie King and Joe Pass.
Guitarist Jim Hall recalls his first encounter with her several years ago.
"Mimi was quite a revelation. I was just knocked out," he says. "It's not just that her technique is amazing, it's that she sounded very original to me."
It's not just jazz lovers who are turning on to Fox's music. Over the past year, she's broken out of the straight-ahead ranks with Patty Larkin's female-centric La Guitara project, which has led to cover stories in numerous guitar magazines. Exposure from the cross-genre La Guitara tour has helped Fox land several high-profile gigs, including a coveted spot at the Kennedy Center's Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival on May 12, an appearance that will follow her maiden voyage on Marian McPartland's long-running NPR show "Piano Jazz" earlier that week.
Larkin's La Guitara tour spun off from the Vanguard Records anthology "La Guitara: Gender Bending Strings," which she produced to highlight great female guitarists from a myriad of styles. For last year's concerts, Larkin recruited Fox to represent jazz alongside rising finger-style star Kaki King and genre-bending finger-style great Muriel Anderson. The savvy concept not only attracted widespread attention, but it also enabled all the players to reach audiences outside their usual fan bases.
Fox says the opportunity to team up with her peers was a blast, but she was particularly gratified by the many girls who approached her after the shows to talk about their interest in playing music.
"In Boston, there were these two punky-looking sisters, about 11 and 12, and they told me they had a band called Midnight Blonde, and they gave me a CD," Fox says. "The younger one said, 'Mimi, you're my new hero.' That was kind of cool. When I was growing up, there were no women role models."
MIMI FOX plays at 8 and 10 p.m. March 27 at Yoshi's, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland. $10-$14. (510) 238-9200, www.yoshis.com. Also at 9 p.m. March 31 at E3 Playhouse, 435 Front St., Santa Cruz. $13-$15. (831) 466-9033, www.e3playhouse.com. And at 7 p.m. April 2 at Little Fox Theatre, 2209 Broadway, Redwood City. $14-$16. (650) 369-4119, www.foxdream.com.
Andrew Gilbert is a freelance writer.
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