The Boston Globe

'Woman' shows she's got chops on new CD, Fox confirms there's life beyond pop for female guitarists

By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | May 21, 2004

th_mimifox1_300dpiMimi Fox, who'll be promoting her new CD tonight with a trio performance at Ryles, retains an appealing amount of "East Coast attitude," even though she's now spent more than half her 47 years living in the San Francisco Bay area. A good thing, too -- without it, she might never have pulled off all she's accomplished lately on the guitar.

Not that she lacks the chops for it. Her new disc, "She's the Woman," is the first jazz album to come out of rock guitar legend Steve Vai's Favored Nations label (others from Larry Coryell and Stanley Jordan are slated to follow soon). From the Fox-penned bebop burner that leads it off ("East Coast Attitude," one of three tunes featuring bassist Ray Drummond) to the playful rearrangement of the Beatles tune that concludes it ("She's a Woman"), the CD demonstrates her virtuosity as both an instrumentalist and composer.

It's not easy making it as a female jazz guitarist, though. For Fox, the journey began in Queens, N.Y., where she grew up beating time to her dad's old Dixieland records on her mother's soup pots. (Her mother, an amateur singer, was into Cole Porter, the Gershwins, and standards.) By age 9, Fox was playing drums (an instrument she kept up through high school), but soon she became a devotee of the Monkees. "I was 10 years old," she explains, "I can be excused." Her mom bought her a small guitar using S&H Green Stamps.

Fox took to the instrument immediately. An older cousin showed her a few chords and promised to return to check her progress.

"By the time he got back a few weeks later," she recalls by phone, "I was already playing all the songs from the Beatles' `Rubber Soul' -- everything, including `Michelle,' that little guitar part. I'd taught myself just from listening to the record. So he was pretty freaked out. He goes to my mom, `Look, I don't have anything to teach Mimi anymore. She just learned all this stuff and taught herself this.' So yes, I guess I had an affinity for it."

She stayed entirely self-taught until moving to California in 1979. She spent about six months doing studio work in Los Angeles before drifting north to San Francisco. "I had headphones on all the time, and I really didn't like it," she recalls. "Even though I was making really good money, that wasn't all that I wanted. I didn't really care about having a swimming pool and palm trees in my yard."

What she wanted to do was to move beyond pop. "There's some point for every composer -- every songwriter, whatever the genre -- that all roads lead to jazz, because of the richness of the harmony," says Fox. "All the pop people that I liked -- Stevie [Wonder], Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, even James Taylor -- all these people have written jazz ballads. Even the Beatles: You take a song like `When I'm 64' -- that's a swing tune. Certainly Stevie Wonder had a number of really classic jazz tunes, like `Sir Duke' or `Isn't She Lovely?' "

Fox immediately fell in love with the Bay Area, "for all the reasons you can imagine," and began taking lessons from the bebop-oriented guitarist Bruce Forman. ("She was a great student," Forman recalls.
"She came to me full of energy and enthusiasm, and was just a sponge. And she picked it up real naturally.")

Then she began paying dues in earnest. She taught guitar and drums at an Oakland music school while practicing six hours a day herself and picking up whatever gigs she could at night. And she faced down the skepticism of sexist men who couldn't get their heads around the idea of a woman playing jazz guitar.

"Of course there were guys that were supportive," she says, "but by and large I think a lot of men were threatened, because I had chops. I think if I was a laid-back player it would have been different, but
because I'm kind of intense, kind of a choppy player -- meaning can play fast and can cut the fast tempos and all that stuff -- I found a lot of men really hassled me and excluded me and didn't give me gigs.

"A number of experiences stand out as being particularly lousy, but when I was about 19 I was playing in a funk band and this really respected jazz player in town came up to me after my set and goes, `Well you know, sweetie, you play pretty good rhythm, but you should never try to solo.' "

Another time, she recalls, a manager she was working with sent a demo of hers to a promoter, only to hear back, "The music's great, but I don't believe this is a woman. Who are you really representing?''

"The guys that are cool are cool," Fox hastens to add, "and there are men that have gone out of their way to be very supportive. Probably because they know that it's like, well, rooting for the Red Sox."

Fox persevered, and lately her career has been taking off. Last year her former label, Origin Records, brought out two worthy CDs involving Fox -- a collaboration with vocalist Greta Matassa titled "Two for the Road" and a solo album, "Standards," inspired by Fox's late friend and mentor Joe Pass.

"She's the Woman" shines even brighter. Jim Hall, Charlie Hunter, and Russell Malone all blurb Fox favorably on its back cover. Her former teacher hasn't heard the new CD yet but likes what he's heard of Fox lately. "She's really sounding great these days," says Forman. "I've heard her live a couple of times, and she's swinging."

Swinging with Fox tonight at Ryles will be two locally based musicians, bassist Keala Kaumeheiwa and drummer Larry Gray. Fox says her friend Rebecca Parris will probably drop by and sing a couple of tunes as well.

Mimi Fox performs at Ryles tonight at 9:30. Tickets $10.
Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

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