We recently had the chance to talk with jazz guitarist and Direct Sound EX-29 user Mimi Fox. In this wide ranging interview, Mimi talks about playing with rock guitarists at the recent Paul Gilbert Great Guitar Escape, her love for music by Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass and her commitment to the blues, jazz and teaching.
Direct Sound: We met most recently at the Paul Gilbert Great Guitar Escape this summer in Cambria, where you were a guest teacher and it was especially fun to see you on stage one night, jamming with the rock guys, including Paul Gilbert, Kiko Loureiro of Megadeath, Bumblefoot of Guns N Roses and Art of Anarchy, and solo artist Andy Timmons. What was that like?
Mimi: It was the second time that Paul had called me and asked me to be part of the Great Guitar Escape, and obviously part of the gig is teaching and part of the gig is performing each night for the concerts and Paul. What can I say? The guys, they were so wonderful to me. It was a very creative experience for me. Obviously, for some of the nights I did have to have my ear plugs in because I’m not quite use to that level of the volume! It was really a magical experience because Paul created this great environment and I found that true with the students too. Many of them came to study rock but they all came to my workshops and were asking great questions and seemed very absorbed and interested.
Direct Sound: So there was a mixture of types of players at the Great Guitar Escape?
Mimi: Yes, I would call it kind of a cool cross-pollination, it was just really a lot of fun and also the guys were just great. Personally, it was a lot of fun to hang with everybody, so I had a blast. I have nothing but kudos to offer to Paul for asking me back again and for doing such a great job putting it together.
Listen to an audio version of this interview:
Direct Sound: It was very interesting to see a traditional jazz artist like yourself mixing it up with rock guys. It must have been challenging.
Mimi: Honestly, that’s what it’s all about as an artist. Whether you’re a jazz artist, rock artist, flamenco, whatever genre you play. You’ve got to be constantly challenging yourself and growing. When we were doing that trading, I was thinking … “hmm, okay. Paul just did this, Andy did this, Bumblefoot did this, Kiko did this.” I was trying to think of something different so I could provide some contrast. Honestly each time it was coming up to my turn I was like, all right, here goes nothing, I’m just going for it.
Direct Sound: It was all very improvisational.
Mimi: Yes. Obviously it’s still a guitar and it’s the same six strings, right? If we have that in common, with that being said there are a lot of different ways that you approach things and just a whole different sort of sensibility. It was just a total guess. It was a wonderful experience for me from start to finish.
Direct Sound: Let’s talk a little bit about some of your influences. You count Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass as two primary influences, how did those two guitarist help you shape your own sound and style?
Mimi: When I first got into jazz, there really weren’t any guitarists that I was listening to. I was playing drums in a jazz group at first. When I got into guitar I was playing more folk kind of stuff and pop stuff. I hadn’t yet gotten into jazz guitar. The bass player in the group, and the guitarist in that group actually turned me on to John Coltrane. And my parents loved jazz and so I heard jazz in the home when I was going up as well as the Beatles, Motown and all kind of stuff. Even though no one in my family was a musician per se, they all loved music.
Direct Sound: So you had a variety of musical influences early on.
Mimi: Yes. There was always different music playing in our house and I was exposed to a lot for which I’m very grateful. It was sort of a process coming to jazz guitar and Wes Montgomery for me. I’m a passionate person and I don’t like jazz if it gets too cerebral. I don’t like any kind of music if it loses touch with the blues. One of the things I love about Wes and all of the jazz musicians that I like — they are really steeped in the blues. This of course would go for John Coltrane who was a master blues player as well as being a phenomenal jazz artist and composer.
Direct Sound: Talk a little more about the blues influence.
Mimi: To me the blues keeps it real. By the way, one of the reasons I keep coming back to Paul and Andy and all the great guys at the Guitar Escape is that one of the things we have in common is blues. We all love the blues and so even if these guys may have gone off in a different direction after studying and learning blues, and the same for me, we share that common love of the blues. To me, it never sounds bad to play the blues. It always sounds good. Montgomery is so anchored in the blues. I love what he did. He would play these interesting long, bebop lines, but then he would always bring it home to the blues. That was a really compelling thing for me and that’s part of why I love Wes’s playing. It was always so passionate, really great rhythm, great rhythmic drive, lot of interesting things going on rhythmically, but bottom line, rooted in the blues.
Direct Sound: Talk about the influence Joe Pass had on you and your playing.
Mimi: At one point I started to develop my solo guitar playing and, of course, for solo jazz guitar, Joe is the guy. Years ago, I was able to introduce myself to Joe after a show backstage in San Francisco and he was kind enough to invite me to his hotel the next day for a lesson. It was a transformative moment in my life because he spent 7 hours with me. I showed up at 10am and we did not leave until 5:00, when he had to go to sound check and I gave him a ride back from the gig the following night. It was really an amazing experience and I learned so much in that time. He was a really good guy and a really good mentor to me. I feel very lucky that he spent that time with me and when he would come back to San Francisco he would invite me to come to shows, always gave me free passes and sometimes he would invite me up to play, which was a real honor. I just was very fortunate to have that connection with him before he passed away. That was pretty cool thing for me.
Direct Sound: In addition to your most recent release, “Standards Old and New,” which features you performing some of the iconic jazz standards, you have a couple of educational resources including Mimi Fox’s Jazz Performance, which is a series of educational videos, and a book which is Arpeggios, Studies on Jazz Standards, that’s been recognized as one of the top 50 jazz guitar books. Talk about the video series and the book and your passion for education.
Mimi: The Jazz Performance project was the fourth in a series of DVDs that I did for True Fire, which is a great company that’s based in Florida. Now it’s all direct download digital. Basically, with this series you can play along with me. It has all these tracks, you can slow things down, you can review the tablature if you want to, you can read the music, it’s all part of a great package and there are like 80 lessons in each download. For that series I did Jazz Anatomy, Graduated Soloing and Blind Soloing. For the last one, Jazz Performance, I had my trio perform two nights at a great jazz club in Saint Petersburg, Florida, and we recorded it and took the best stuff from the two nights. On that one, it’s me demonstrating some of the things that I did in that performance.
Direct Sound: In addition to the videos, you have several books.
Mimi: Yes, I have Guitar Arpeggios Studies on Jazz Standards and a guitar method book, Mimi Fox Guitar Method Graduated Soloing. I also run the guitar program at the Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley, California. To me, teaching is a way to continue to spread the message of music and the gospel of jazz. I’ve had some great students over the years who have gone on to great successful careers of their own. It’s very gratifying and a way that I can give back, because the music industry is a tough field in some ways. But I’ve also received a lot of wonderful gifts, and obviously I’ve met a lot of wonderful people along the way. Teaching to me, feels like a way to give back and to carry on the tradition.
Direct Sound: So for you, teaching goes beyond just the process of learning.
Mimi: Right, exactly. It’s really ultimately an art form. It’s important to give it away. Once you have it, you have the knowledge and you have the passion for the music of when you share it, first of all you strengthen your own insights into music and what it really means, but ultimately, as an artist you’re on a journey as a human being. It’s a musical journey but it’s also a metaphysical and spiritual journey. It takes you into all kinds of places and it’s really important, like I said, to be able to pass it on. I feel both a sense of it feels good, it feels good to share when I look to see the light bulb go off for my students, to see them get jazzed — no pun intended — about stuff. I also, I feel like it’s an obligation almost. It’s part of my calling, part of my calling is being an artist and composer and a player, but then being able to share it has been a real gift and a real honor, a real privilege.
Direct Sound: You just started recently using Direct Sound EX-29 Extreme Isolation Headphones. Talk about your initial impressions of the headphones.
Mimi: I can’t say anything I don’t like about them! I’m by no means a great recording engineering but I do have ProTools in my home in the San Francisco Bay area and so I usually use it just to record solo guitar stuff and new pieces that I’m working on. As soon as I got home and I had some ideas for some things that I wanted to work on, I tried out the EX-29s and I loved them immediately. They’re super comfortable, they fit wonderfully on my ears and they also seem to block out every possible extraneous noise. I found them really top of the line. I can only say good things about them. They feel great, they’re super comfortable and I really like the clarity of sound that I get listening through them. I don’t think I’m going to ever part with them!
Direct Sound: Talk about what’s on the horizon for you work wise and project wise.
Mimi: I’ve got two things that I’m excited about. I’ve been a Heritage guitar endorser for a long time and they just rolled out an artist signature model coinciding with their 30th anniversary. I’m very excited about my new guitar, of course I’m loving it and the guys are such craftsmen and they did such a beautiful job on it. I’m thrilled to be playing it. With Heritage, we’re going to be working on some joint appearances and special things together. I’m excited about that, that’s going to be coming up in 2017. There are also some new markets that Heritage is opening up in different countries. I expect to be doing some touring and promotion in support of that. That’s one thing I’m very excited about.
The other thing a new trio I have called the San Francisco String Trio. Basically it’s myself and a great violinist Mads Tolling, who is from Denmark. Mads has won two Grammy Awards with the Turtle Island String Quartet. He’s a great jazz violinist and just an amazing player. Then Jeff Benson, who is a wonderful composer and bassist and someone who is very renowned in the jazz world. He’s played with many people and he’s also a vocalist. We’re doing a special project which is called the “Sargent Pepper Project” and basically we have remade all of the songs from that iconic Beatles album. We’ve done different arrangements and done some cool stuff with the songs. That’s going to be coming out in 2017 and we’re going to be doing a lot of touring to promote the new project. I am totally stoked about that project!