Mimi Fox Interview With Jazz Guitar Life

Mimi Fox

Mimi Fox

Mimi Fox is an internationally recognized Jazz Guitarist based out of San Francisco who shares with us her musical background, her association with Jazz Guitarist Bruce Forman and what has worked for her personally and professionally in becoming the player she knew she could become. A very inspiring read.

This interview was conducted via telephone February, 2006. Check out her website at www.mimifoxjazzguitar.com

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JGL: Hi Mimi and thanks for taking the time out from what is a very busy schedule to talk to me and JGL readers. So to start things off, you’re in San Francisco?

MF: I’m in the Bay Area in a little town North East of San Francisco, so not too far from San Francisco.

JGL: Cool…I really love San Francisco. I was there in 2001 and I just thought it was a wonderful city…

MF: It truly is. I’ve been out here now for about twenty-five years and it’s a great place.

JGL: That brings me to another Bay Area resident, Bruce Forman…

MF: Oh yeah Bruce…we’re best friends. I met him originally when I moved out here and we’ve been friends ever since. Bruce is great…

JGL: I’ve really enjoyed Bruce’s playing ever since I first heard him play on a bunch of Richie Cole albums…he’s really one of my favorite guitar players…

MF: Oh yeah…me too…

JGL: Actually, since we are talking about Bruce and yourself, there was something I read in another interview you gave where you stated that Bruce told you, and I quote, “You don’t need guitar lessons if you want to learn how to play Jazz, you just have to learn how to listen.” And you mention that that was one of those defining moments…

MF: Yeah…that was a pivotal time for me because I just moved out here from New York and I had just started to play Jazz…I had been playing Jazz for about a year although I had been playing the guitar for about fourteen years playing different styles, and once he heard me play he hit the nail on the head by saying that I didn’t need guitar lessons. I mean if you have been playing guitar for the past thirteen years really intensely you better know how to play your guitar. What he was alluding to was that I didn’t need to work on my chops but instead I needed to work on my vocabulary and that could only happen really through listening. So yeah, that was a pivotal moment for me and when we would get together we would just listen to tunes and talk about things. I mean you know, we would play together but it was a lot about ear training and transcribing. And now I have hundreds of transcriptions and not just guitar players of course but all instruments even drum parts and drum solos that I have transcribed…

JGL: Wow…that’s really cool…so I guess that was really a critical time in your development as a player…

MF: Yeah…I mean it’s hard to just pinpoint one little moment because there have been so many over the years, you know from people and players I have admired or mentors who have helped me along, but yeah…that was really pivotal.

JGL: I can imagine. Did you seek out Bruce specifically…

MF: Yeah…I was really blown away…you know, when I first came out here I was already familiar with Jazz. My parents grew up on that music…you know, Tin Pan Alley kind of stuff, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Ella Fitzgerald…by the time I was twelve or thirteen she was still singing in clubs and so I was exposed to Jazz from a young age. But when I came out here and heard Bruce that was really kind of a turning point.

Like I said I had gotten into Jazz and had studied with different teachers in New York, but when I heard Bruce it was a different thing altogether. What struck me was the combination of using the blues with Bop, you know with a lot of energy, passion and fire and being the kind of player that I am that really drew me ‘cause I had heard some other Jazz Guitar players and they were really cerebral, but when I heard Bruce it sort of came alive for me. And like I said, it wasn’t really the studying so much as the talking which I learned so much from and of course the transcribing and transcribing from him and other instruments. So I really didn’t see him a lot but when I did a lot of epiphanies would happen. You know, you’re lucky in life if you can find someone who you admire and who provides you with something you can aspire to, so that’s been very cool.

JGL: Well that’s something that I hope everyone can find in their life-times. Especially for those younger guys and gals who can hopefully find someone who can inspire, like you mentioned earlier about Bruce, a passion and fire for whatever it is that they aspire to be and/or do.

MF: Well you know, I think what the thing is Lyle, it’s also personal about what moves people, but ultimately you’re not going to develop yourself as an artist unless you’re moved by someone. I mean I can tell my students “if you want to learn this listen to some Charlie Parker and transcribe some of this”…but if they don’t dig Bird they are not going to do it. And if they do dig Bird but they can’t weave through some of the bad recordings where they’re saturating him with strings to get to some of the lines I’m talking about, I understand, but they damn well better listen to someone then than listen to Bird to absorb that stuff because otherwise it’s not going to happen. There has to be someone to move them because one has to have a passion for the music, a passion for the art and then the rest should follow. It’s a hard life sometimes and if one is smart there are other areas that are way less difficult on a lot of levels…lol…so you really have to love it to want to do it.

JGL: Well speaking of life…and since this is Jazz Guitar LIFE…is it a hard life for Mimi Fox?

MF: Well…it’s getting a lot better now thanks for asking Lyle…lol…when I first moved out here wow…I was 23 and man I was living very much hand to mouth…I was teaching at a music store in downtown Oakland, I moved from New York to Oakland, and it was a pretty funky place. I was teaching guitar, bass guitar, drums, beginning piano…this guy had me running around like a nut case making like seven bucks an hour at the time. So it really had me going and I was also playing two gigs a night. One was a funky old blues band and the other was an after hours thing I was doing. The good thing was that I had my hands on my instrument for many hours a day ‘cause I would also get up pretty early to practice.

So with everything going on it was quite grueling and I gotta say that with not having a social life and with the financial hardships, it was pretty severe. I mean I’ve always been very, sort of a spartan person anyway so I seemed to manage on barely nothing but with the financial instability and minimal resources it was very challenging and I had to deal with that for a number of years until I was able to establish myself. But for the past ten years I have been touring actively and I have a good manager that has helped me on so many levels. He has really helped me turn my life around in terms of so many things and I have had some good labels behind me and some really good people that have definitely made my road a lot easier so I’d say that I think my life is pretty darn good by Jazz musician standards. But certainly I feel that I have paid the proverbial dues and then some.

JGL: Wow, it sounds like you definitely have. I have to ask, given what you said about how your manager having turned your musical career around, how important is it then to have a manager?

MF: Well you know, I think in a lot of ways, the most stress on a musician is to get gigs…lol…more than anything they need to play. Again we’re talking about having a jones for playing, having that passion and needing to do it, needing to be out playing with wonderful musicians, making that connection, ‘cause you know, it’s kind of like breathing for us. So I think if you have a good manager, a good agent that’s important. Like mine, he was responsible for getting me bookings pretty much all over the world in concert venues everywhere, so that for me was incredible. Now he’s become…well I have an agent who does my bookings now…so my manager is just my manager now, he’s wearing just one hat not fifteen like he used to wear. So basically he’s involved in everything from dealing with record companies to endorsement deals to trying to get my music in movies and on film scores and all that different stuff, so he’s working a lot on things right but at least now he’s able to just manage.

I think a lot of Jazz artists need to just be playing, but it’s a catch 22 situation to get good gigs where you are not just playing dives around wherever your home town is. In order to be playing nationally and then internationally and develop programs, a lot of people need some help in terms of just getting their act together. It’s sad but there are some players who may be consummate musicians but their people skills, their business savvy, their capacity to understand the business side of things is so sorely lacking that they’re not able to elevate themselves to the next phase and that’s a complex series of issues. If you go to the Berklee School of Music or any one of many, many schools that have a pop or rock curriculum, one of the first things they do is give you a music business course involving everything from dealing with music attorneys to contract stuff and other stuff.

But on the Jazz side this is sorely lacking to a large degree in dealing with that so if you have a good manager, or can hook up with someone who can help you sort of understand some of the ins and outs of that stuff you would be way ahead of the game. It’s something that doesn’t come natural to most of us and as Jazz musicians, and I include myself in this you know, all I want to do is play and compose. But in order to have a successful career you have to be able to do a lot of other things. You know…schmooze, pose endlessly for photographers as they take shots…it’s a whole other ball game on the business end and like I said, unfortunately I see a lot of wonderful players who don’t have that kind of savvy to make it happen.

JGL: It’s unfortunate that artists have to get caught up in the business end of things because like you said, I just wanna sit and play my guitar and have the audience come to me…lol…

MF: In order for some players to get the point, there are a lot who have to do just that, sit in place and wait in order for that to happen.

JGL: Definitely. I guess it comes down to the more helping hands you have behind you the better…

MF: Yeah…they become indispensable and I would add that critically it comes down to having someone you can trust. Many people have lost everything from others who have screwed them over and obviously that’s not good. You definitely want to develop a healthy relationship with someone. In my case with Ed (Mimi’s manager), I have someone who shares my world view and I think he is an incredible human being and I trust him implicitly and so that’s very important. Other people may not want that. They may want the highly slick, super-powered, in your face kind of person represent them. I’ve seen those types of people and have been approached by those types of people over the years and I wouldn’t let them handle my career with a ten-foot pole. But that’s just me…you know, knife someone in the back to get every festival kind of thing…I could never live with myself if I was that kind of person so I have studiously avoided the people that I thought would misrepresent me. And that’s my bent on the manager thing.

JGL: Well it’s an excellent look into what it takes to become successful in this business and I appreciate your candor on the subject. One of the many reasons I started JGL was to provide those who are coming up in this music to get a glimpse at what it really takes to be a musician in this life and hearing your take on this obviously essential issue is as important as hearing you play so I thank you for that. And speaking of playing, lets go back to the beginning…when did you first begin playing guitar?

MF: I started playing guitar when I was ten. Actually I had started to play drums earlier, about a year earlier, but then my mom bought me a guitar when I was ten so that’s when I first started playing. At that point, and I have to say that I was grateful to my family, I grew up hearing a tremendous amount of music. My dad’s old Dixieland records, Gene Krupa (drummer), Sydney Bechet (Clarinet), Louis Armstrong (Trumpet/Voice) all this great stuff. And I heard my moms Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald, you know, just a ton of stuff.

Then I heard my brother and sister listening to Pop and of course I was also a child of my generation so I grew up hearing Zep and stuff like that. So I pleaded with my mom to buy me a guitar and she did. It was just a little nylon string with the strings about fifty feet away from the neck…lol…but still, it was great. Once I got that, that was it. Me and my friends used to play stick ball, baseball, you know, stuff like that, but once I started playing I pretty much stopped all that. In fact my brother and sister would make me fun of me because I would fall asleep playing my guitar and I started keeping my guitar in bed with me. And they thought that was pretty funny. It would be like “Mommy, she’s sleeping with her guitar again. She’s so freaky…” Then my friends would come to the house and say “Mimi come out and play. We can play some baseball or we could do something else and I’d be like “No, no. I just wanna play. Sorry.” And so that was sort of it.

JGL: Do you feel that you missed out on some sort of childhood?

MF: Not really. I mean I feel like I was lucky in some ways you know. Like I mentioned earlier, it was hard coming up for many years and trying to make a living but I’m glad I had those earlier years. I have many friends who have spent their whole life searching for something they love to do.

JGL: So it definitely paid off in the end…

MF: Oh yeah. A hundred percent! So I certainly don’t regret it at all.

JGL: Cool. So during those formative years, were you playing Jazz or other forms of music?

MF: Well, I learned to play drums as I mentioned and had played drums in my Junior high school jazz band but with guitar, well you know…I was playing in many different bands, funk stuff, folk music, blues.

JGL: Were you taking lessons at that point?

MF: No. My family wasn’t really set up to afford that but fortunately at the time I was able to get drum lessons at school so I did have some lessons.

JGL: Having been involved in a high school music program, and learning on the drums, which I’m sure really helped you with your time, did that filter into your Jazz playing later on?

MF: Oh yeah. Totally. I feel very lucky to have had that and I still own a kit that I play. In fact I have been told by many great drummers that they dig playing with me because my playing is very hip rhythmically, and that of course means the world to me. I do things a little differently than some players sometimes, you know, they will think I’m going to play in one direction but I’ll deliberately turn it around into something a little different, and that’s partly from playing drums. I think that drummers enjoy that, and I’m happy that I have had those years of playing drums.

JGL: I can imagine…

MF: Yeah…but with my schedule these days between touring and then when I‘m home teaching and gigging and everything I just don’t have the time. But I still play them when I can. I have things that I’m working on. When I’m working on new tunes sometimes to work out grooves and different things I will sit down and work stuff out…

JGL: And you’re playing from a jazz perspective on the drums at that point…?

MF: Oh yeah…I mean…that is what I am writing these days although I have played a lot of styles on drums as well as guitar growing up, but now pretty much that’s the only thing I’m doing.

JGL: Will there ever be a “Mimi Plays All Instruments” kind of album?

MF: Well I could, but it would be a different kind of album. I know my limitations on my other instruments and I’m not up to the level I hear in my head which would impede the project. But in other stuff, when I am at home I occasionally produce things for other songwriters or for Hip-Hop bands, World music stuff…

JGL: Oh cool…

MF: Yeah…for those things I do play and I am able to play other instruments well in those other styles. But you know, Jazz is a whole different animal and you don’t tend to overdub a whole bunch of things anyway since it’s live music, so how could I even con myself into physically doing all that stuff…lol…

JGL: True…lol…Changing the topic a little, I read something that stated that one of those definitive life changing moments we mentioned earlier occurred for you when you first heard John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” album.

MF: Yeah, I was fourteen. That was another one of those moments of which I have had several in my life. I was playing drums in a Jazz group at the time with some guys who were around seventeen and eighteen years old and when you’re fourteen, well, I looked up to those guys and they said “Mimi, you gotta check out Coltrane”. And so I was literally at this little second hand record store and I saw this album that was on sale and I thought “Oh, I’ll get this” and I sat down and listened to it and I’m still not the same…lol…it is one of those albums I would take with me on a desert island. I never get tired of listening to it. No matter how poor Tommy Flanagan scuffled through “Giant Steps” since he didn’t have a year and a half to work through it like Trane did…lol. But you know, Trane is just playing at such a high level and I still love it. I love all the tunes on it. “Naima” is one of my favorites…

JGL: That’s a beautiful tune…

MF: It really is. I was pretty knocked out. You know, I mean some of the guys told me to check out Trane but it was somewhat serendipitous I would think, that it was that album, so yeah, that was a real turning point. I mean you know, at that point I had heard Jazz but I hadn’t heard Trane! Listening to my mom’s Ella Fitzgerald’s or my dad’s Louis Armstrong’s was great stuff but this was my first exposure, real exposure, to modern Jazz which was a whole different thing.

JGL: So how did it affect you?

MF: Well truthfully it took years to realize how much of an impact it had on me. For one thing, all the music I had been listening to at the time had lyrics with vocal parts to it whether it was Joni Mitchell or Paul Simon, or stuff like that you know, folk music that I was playing in different groups at the time. Or Stevie Wonder, or even the Jazz stuff. A lot of the Jazz stuff I was playing at the time had lyrics so what I realized again from tunes like “Naima” and some of the other tunes from that recording was that the power of an instrument could be just as powerful as the human voice, if not more so. And of course, one of the things about Trane’s playing that many people have noted endlessly actually was his capacity to translate emotion and to have such an incredible voice on his instrument really did something to me. You know, because I had always listened to music with a lot of lyrics and had even written songs myself with lyrics and I still do sometimes. I usually have a singer friend sing them because I’m not really a good vocalist. But I enjoy it when I compose a ballad to write some lyrics along with it.

But at that time hearing Trane, the complexity, beauty and strength of his voice to reach me through his emotional impact was really unbelievable. And the complexity of his music, “Giant Steps”, “Countdown”, my God…I mean Cole Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, it’s all beautiful music, but this was something else entirely. I think it transported me on an emotional level. S

o this was at fourteen, but it wasn’t until I was around twenty that I actually started studying Jazz guitar. It took me six years to get up the courage to think that I could begin to even do that. I mean I’d see guys playing and jamming in clubs and it looked so hard and I thought I’m never gonna do this. I’ll try my best to play along on drums and at that point I was more advanced as a drummer than a guitar player so I thought that this is what I would do, and then a number of things happened including injuring my kick drum foot running. I was doing a lot of long distance running at that time and I actually injured my leg which was my kick foot so that sort of made the decision for me. I mean I always loved guitar and it was the instrument I composed on and I really had this deep love for the instrument. And when I came out to California, I didn’t go into Jazz right away. I actually studied Classical for a few years because I was curious about that and I loved Classical guitar as well. But then I came out here and heard Bruce and that was it…and I said, “that’s what I want!” That was the turning point. It took me a while to realize how deeply that album had affected me “Giant Steps” and how much of an impact it made upon me. I mean I knew at the time because I would play it over and over again, but I had no idea that it would actually change the course of my life…

JGL: Which is a wonderful testament to Coltrane’s power as a musician and musical spiritualist. Do you still revisit that album these days?

MF: I do. And now on the CD they have a few alternate takes which is kind of cool. When the CD thing came around it took me a while but I finally broke down and bought a CD player and “Giant Steps” was one of the first albums I bought on CD even though I already had it on vinyl, I wanted to have it in my car, at home, everywhere. I just love those tunes. No matter how complex the playing and harmony, the bottom line is you can still hum those tunes. So I still enjoy listening to it, although now I listen to it with a completely different mind set having sat through working on Coltrane’s solos note for note I am actually able to understand what he’s doing. I’m still amazed by it, but at least I can understand it which is something I couldn’t have said when I was fourteen.

JGL: True, but do you think that by listening to it now, with more analytical and developed ears, rather than that fourteen year old girl, it somehow loses, or diminishes the magic, or the impact once felt?

MF: It’s interesting that you mention that Lyle. That was a fear of mine when I started studying. As I mentioned earlier my family couldn’t afford lessons and we also moved around quite a bit around the East Coast so I taught myself guitar by listening to Beatles records and taught myself drums playing along to my dad’s old Dixieland records along with some lessons in school by the band teacher. But a lot of my learning was very intuitive, so when I started studying and actually sitting down with a teacher who was showing me things like these are the seven modes of the major scale and this is that and that is this, it required a different part of my brain and I was somewhat worried that I would lose some of the spontaneity and passion. But what actually happened was that I retained my passion with my kind of “flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants” attitude. I’m at least making the right kinds of note choices most of the time…at least I hope I am…lol. I feel that I have the best of both worlds having retained the love and the passion and I hope I convey that to the listener…but now I am making better choices. So I think it’s kind of a myth that that happens. I mean certainly you do use a different part of your brain, you know, they talk about the left side-right side parts of your brain. But now that I think about it I feel that both have become integrated. I feel that the spontaneity, improvisational part of me is very well informed with all of my studies and book-knowledge.

All the years of learning I feel actually serve the muse rather than the other way around. And that’s as it should be I believe. But you know, you are going to go through a period where you are learning new ideas, where you will be playing a whole tone scale, or a diminished scale and trying to fit those ideas into anything and everything you are playing no matter what the changes. I remember doing that and the guys I was rehearsing with would say “Mimi, where are all those weird notes coming from” and I would say “well I learned a new scale today or I’m trying out a new concept” and they’d be like “well, just play the right notes”…lol…but you know, that’s all part of the learning process. You are going to learn new things and for a time will be trying to incorporate those things in your playing. Like learning a new word and fitting it into your vocabulary. Until you get a handle on it you’re going to tend to use it wherever you can so that you retain it.

JGL: As you should I think, to enhance your development as a player…

MF: Exactly!

JGL: During your early “Coltrane period” did you seek out or come across any guitarists who may have had the same effect or impact on your musical psyche?

MF: Well at that time of my life I was playing more folk music, blues, that kind of thing, and I was also in many different bands playing that stuff. But on drums I was playing Jazz and I was in a little group at the time with piano, bass, percussion. We weren’t playing heavy straight ahead stuff but we were playing things like Stanley Clarke tunes and such. We started branching out into more straight ahead stuff which I was already doing on drums, so I was already into guys like Elvin Jones and other drummers like him. You know, in Jazz, one recording causes a chain reaction. I mean I heard Trane and “Oh My God” I love his piano player McCoy Tyner and then it’s like “Oh, he’s got an album” and then Jimmy Garrison and then Elvin Jones and then “Oh Art Blakey is on this recording” and I really like him and then that turned me on to Wayne Shorter and so on…it really starts to snow ball. So I was listening to this music more than I was playing it on guitar but on drums I was sort of moving in that direction.

JGL: Cool. So then when you started focusing more on guitar was there any guitar players you were searching out?

MF: Well initially it was that group album that was pivotal for me at the time. Then I got “Live at Birdland” and “Love Supreme” and was really taken with that group of Trane and Elvin, Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner and they informed a large part of what I was listening to and obviously there were no guitar players on those recordings. Actually, it wasn’t until I heard Bruce that I was captivated by Jazz Guitar. I mean there were people who were telling me that I should be checking out Wes or checking this guy or that guy, and especially listening to some of the things I picked up…I mean you know, that if you are not an intelligent record buyer, you don’t know what you’re getting…so when I picked up Wes with some crappy horn arrangements recorded on top of his playing…I mean the guy is always swinging his ass off so his playing is fine, but with the added horns and strings and stuff it sounded cheesy to me at the time so I avoided his records. And frankly I wasn’t ready at the time…you know…you have to be ready. But I was moved by a concert I had seen when I was twelve by Julian Bream (ed. note: Classical guitarist). My older sister took me to see him. And so I took Classical Guitar from a woman back in New York for about a year and a half before I moved out to California. And then when I first moved out here I had seen Bruce at a concert and that was it. I was like “Oh My God!” I didn’t know that the guitar could do that and I want to do that. I want to know what’s up with that!

JGL: So seeing Bruce then clinched the deal for Jazz Guitar…

MF: Oh yeah!

JGL: What did you do after that then with Bruce?

MF: Well we would have lessons once every six months or so and he would give me a bunch of stuff and I’d hang out. Then I started on a process of very rigorous practicing while teaching at the music store and boy, I felt like I was pushed to the brim ‘cause this guy had me teaching nearly every instrument to mostly beginners and intermediates with no one who was really any good. But I was young at the time and in desperate need of a job. Actually they originally had an old guy before me who taught guitar so I guess they wanted to some young blood for the place. In fact, I would hear this guy snoring a lot and I actually caught the old guy snoring on a student once while he was supposed to be giving a lesson. And I thought “Oh My god. I hope that’s not going to be me in fifty years”. So anyway, I began this really intense practice regime and it was tough because I was working so hard at the store and then juggling so many gigs and all, but I was determined to get out of that store.

JGL: I can only imagine…so was all your work music related?

MF: Yeah…to a degree. I mean my first year out here I did some odd jobs a few hours a day to supplement because I was literally just barely getting by. I remember doing some painting, some gardening, I eventually did some things where I could just lend a hand for a few hours a day. And at one point I was even digging ditches…I don’t remember how I got that job but it proved to be too much for me cause I was worried about my hands getting all dirty and blistered and stuff. So I pretty much did everything I could to make some extra money. I think I had to do that for the first year I was out here and then between teaching and gigs I was getting I was finally able to make all of my money from music which was kind of a nice thing…lol.

JGL: During this time you mentioned going through an intense practice regime. What kind of material were you working on? You mentioned earlier about doing a bunch of transcriptions…

MF: Yeah…lots of transcriptions. But not only transcriptions, I also worked on learning scales and playing up and down the neck. Arpeggios, playing along with records…and not just transcribing but learning to play the head of something and then playing along with it, metronome practice, going to jam sessions. It was a combination of all this and was a very intense time period for me.

JGL: What kinds of stuff were you transcribing?

MF: Well you know I started to work on things I needed to learn the language with. I started transcribing Wes, Joe Pass, Pat Martino, Kenny Burrell and Grant Green. You know…the major cats. And then eventually I started transcribing other instruments. I began transcribing trombone off of Jimmy Knepper and Curtis Fuller and I found that a lot of trombone lines fell easily on the guitar, especially in Curtis Fuller’s case because he was able to create some great solos without a lot of notes so it was easy for me to get. I mean compared to the lines of Pat Martino and Joe Pass, Curtis Fuller was a nice change of pace…lol…So I started doing other instruments gradually to the point where I had all kinds of stuff down.

JGL: Your musical growth must have been huge?

MF: Yeah…plus at that time there wasn’t any of the things that we have now like those recorders that can slow things down without changing pitch. I used to have to use my reel to reel tape recorder to try and slow things down which would change the pitch so when I would be learning a tune I sometimes would go through eight different keys ‘cause I didn’t want to tune my guitar all the time to whatever slow pitch I had on the tape recorder…lol…but that got me to learn tunes in any key which really developed my ear. So yeah, I spent a lot of years doing a lot of transcribing. I still do a little of it if I hear something interesting or if I hear a chord that I want to work out. But in those days I could play every little nuance, every breath, I was obsessed with it and would push myself to get it especially with people like Bruce and Wes. I came to know there playing so well that when I couldn’t hear a line I would just make up something that made sense where the line was going and also would make sense in my knowledge of where they were at musically, and I considered that good practice.

JGL: Emily Remler used to say that there was a time early on in her musical career where she found herself sounding too much like Wes and she realized that she had to rethink some of her ideas as she searched for her own voice. Did you have the same experience?

MF: You think there would have been that issue and certainly in my playing I can hear the influences of all the people that I mentioned especially Bruce and Wes, and of course Martino and Joe Pass for the solo stuff. But I think because of the person I am and because of all the different influences I had musically playing drums, I think even early on I kind of had my own voice even though you could hear the very strong influences. I think as you get older you begin to develop your own voice as you grow into yourself more from all your life experiences and not just music by the way but with everything that happens in your life. Obviously these things shape you and listening back to some of my earlier recordings I think I still sound like my own woman as it were. But of course with the gratitude of the debt to those who had influenced me. And that’s what reviewers and critics have been saying over the years that I definitely have my own sound and that they can tell it’s me and that’s a real compliment of course ‘cause there are so many great players that have their own voice.

JGL: And you do. Unfortunately, I do not have many of your CD’s but from what I do have I have noticed that first off, your technique is envious and very clean, which was what caught my ear the first time I heard you play. But the bigger thing is that even when you are playing a lot of notes, there still seems to be a sense of space which surround the notes, which is really very cool.

MF: Well thank you Lyle. You know, I try to make the notes count. As we talked about earlier, the technique is supposed to serve the music and especially with guitar players, ‘cause you know, we don’t literally have to breathe when we play unlike a horn player who has to take a breath. I think there is a tendency often times to play a little too much and it’s something that I am constantly working on because believe me it’s something that I am guilty of at times so I appreciate your mentioning it because it’s something that I continue to work on. I mean, if you’re burning on a piece and that’s what you are hearing then fine, but everything shouldn’t be that way. But that’s just my opinion I mean you know, it’s not to take anything away from people who are real choppy players because that’s what they may be hearing and that’s cool because you should be hearing what you want to hear. But by just using some space you can develop ideas in a different type of way than when things are going by so fast.

JGL: Too true…and that’s something I am trying to work out myself these days, hopefully with some success…lol. Let’s shift topics a little and talk about your recorded output. The reason why I am curious about this side of being an artist is because at the moment I am working on my own CD and while the process has been a positive one for me so far, there is still a large learning curve that I am experiencing that I wasn’t expecting. From getting the tunes down with a group of hired cats who are just basically reading off of lead sheets, to having to be conscious of studio time and costs. Fortunately my producer is also my engineer and a good friend of mine so there’s no pressure to work by the clock. All that being said, how was your experience working on your first record as a leader?

MF: Well my first album, which I did almost twenty years ago, was a great experience. I have been fortunate that I have always been with labels so I haven’t had the experience of being on my own. I’ve always had labels put it out even if they were small labels so I guess that was a plus in that I didn’t have to do the thing that a lot of Jazz artists, and artist’s period, do in having to become their own record label, and having to deal with distribution, press, and radio. I could never imagine having to do that stuff on my own. So that’s been good. But the downside sometimes is when you have the record executives there in the studio in Berklee where so many great people have recorded and the clock is ticking at $150.00 an hour and you gotta get it…you gotta get it in the first or second take, end of discussion. That is a level of stress that is pretty intense. It’s been better since I signed with Favorite Nations. I just finished a new CD with them that’s coming out in April…

JGL: Is that “Perpetually Hip”? (ed. note-check out the JGL review here)

MF: Yeah…I’m very happy with this one. I’m really excited about the playing, and not just mine but everyone who is on it…I’m really, really happy. One of the things that is different about this label is that they have given me just total freedom to basically just do it my way. I mean you’re still under pressure…especially when I know that it’s someone else’s money. It’s weird because on the one hand you’d be stressed if it was your own money but in some ways I think it is more of a responsibility when you know it’s other people’s money. I mean they’ve given you a check and they said “Mimi, let’s go…” In this case with Steve Vai who’s on the road all the time and the other folks at the label are in LA and I recorded it up here so I’m on my own doing it. I usually have a co-producer with me because this was my eighth recording…actually some people call it my seventh recording but it is really my eighth because my first record was done on this really teeny label…but in any event I have done a lot. I much prefer a situation where the people aren’t there watching me…lol. So certainly it’s a responsibility to record for someone else and actually I think both ways have their own challenges because you have an obligation to the project and you always want to do your best.

JGL: Have you had moments when you have felt that you haven’t reached your best? An off night perhaps…

MF: Some nights you don’t feel proud or you feel you played crappy for whatever reasons or circumstance. I went through a period of time where I would tape everything that I did from little gigs to major festivals. I just made sure I had some recording even if the quality wasn’t great just to have it as a listen back. And what I discovered was I was pleasantly surprised to find that my playing does not fall below a level. When I have a night when I feel like my playing just wasn’t my best there’s still some really nice stuff and sometimes when I feel that I’m just not at my best it may just be that I am tired because I’ve been on the road and I’m fried and I may not feel good physically and may just wanna go home but listening back there’s still some beautiful playing and actual moments of magic even when I feel lousy. To me that’s what happens when you train yourself as an artist. I mean this is what I do, this is my job as an artist. Now there have been times that I thought I was just flying and playing great then when I listen back I’m like “Well, that wasn’t what I thought it would sound like”…lol…so you get both ends at times…lol.

JGL: It’s funny that you say that because it reminds me of something I read back in the 80’s in an interview with Mike Stern where he basically said that every time he would record a new album he thought that that would be THE album where people would find out that he’s a “fraud”. At the time I couldn’t understand that but now I do…

MF: Well good ‘cause it keeps you humble. I mean look at Trane, he would be constantly practicing between sets because in his mind he was still working on stuff. I hope I will continue to do that as well. To me that’s what makes music so wonderful…the endless study of Harmony is a lifetime thing. But getting back to the recording thing…you know, all I can ask for is to give my best at that day, that moment, that time. Every recording I’ve done there is some magic somewhere on the CD and hopefully it is most of it and maybe that’s why they have “Best Of” recordings where they take the best tunes from a bunch of albums where it’s all the slamming stuff.

Every project is different and every project has its moments where you really feel the band lifts off or you’ve nailed something on the first take. You know the bottom line is I just want to try and always have fun and not worry about the small things. You know, this is not brain surgery, no one is going to die, the earth is not going to shatter if I hit a wrong note or two. I used to talk to Bruce about this and he told me once that he saw Herbie Hancock playing “Seven Steps to Heaven” and he totally turned the form around and I remember hearing Joe Pass play at one of our clubs in Oakland, Yoshi’s, having one of the worst nights I’ve ever heard anyone have, but it didn’t make me think less of him as a player or as a human being, he was just having an off night and it made me feel closer to him because you realize that he’s just a human being and we make mistakes.

JGL: I think you have hit the nail on the head Mimi. We have all been there but I think sometimes we forget the simple notion that we can’t be all things to all people. I think the problem sometimes is that the public places a really high expectation on artists, especially one’s with high profiles, where you are expected to perform at the highest level every night and when they don’t deliver they kind of fall from grace…

MF: People don’t know. When I go on stage, no matter if it’s a small club or a large festival or arena, I always try to bring a good attitude to the stage and try to be really nice but sometimes I may be so wiped out at the end of a show or a long tour and some young guitar player will come up and want to pick my brain and I have to figure out a way to be really sweet while trying to get the hell out of there to get to my hotel room to just crash because I have an early flight the next morning or something like that. People don’t know the circumstances that you are grappling with on the road and as a player and how it impacts our lives. But you know Lyle, one of the things I have discovered is that if you have been playing a long time you bring that to the table and no matter good night, bad night, you are not going to fall below a certain level. You are still going to be a fine player and a lot of times it is something that even the audience doesn’t notice. It’s something only you feel because of your own high standards. After all, we are our own harshest critic and when Bruce recounted that story of Herbie it was just to reassure me that all things are equal. I’m sure it bothered Herbie more than it did the rest of the players or the audience…lol.

JGL: Most definitely. Well I’m really enjoying talking to you Mimi but I feel we should be wrapping this up soon given your schedule for today. But before we end it, could you just talk a bit about how you and Steve Vai hooked up to be on Favorite Nations?

MF: It’s really a nice story and I’m happy to tell it Lyle, it’s the way I wish more people were. Remember we were talking earlier about my manager being an exemplary human being and how we shared our world views and our visions being very similar and I think he’s just a great human being and a good person and somebody I wanted supporting me? Well I was playing at a guitar festival here in California where they had four different players playing solo in different genres…they had a Classical player, a Flamenco player, a Finger-style player, and me. The Finger-style player was Peppino D’Agostino and we’ve known each other for quite a while living near each other and I would bump into Peppino around the Bay Area over the years and we’ve had a very nice relationship.

So after I had fulfilled my obligations to my old label my manager and I were shopping around for a new label and trying to figure out what my next step might be and Peppino mentioned to me that he had just signed with Favorite Nations and he asked me if I knew Steve Vai. Well I didn’t know him personally but I knew who he was through the students that I had had over the years because the closest I’ve ever come to being a metal-head was listening to the Beatles..lol. So I told Peppino this and he said if I was interested it might be worth checking out and he said that he could recommend me since they do not take on unsolicited acts. So Peppino recommended me and they said “Ok, have her send a package”. So my manager and I sent them a package of my CD’s alongside a video of a performance that I had done on BET television on their Jazz show BET On Jazz. So when Steve got back in town he called my manager then he called me and said that he was really taken by the music and was interested and so we started talking. Then I actually met Steve when I was going to LA for some gigs and I stopped by his studio and that really sealed the deal because we just hit it off. He’s a total sweetheart, just such a sweet man, and he’s also from New York originally so we talked about the NY thing…I’m Jewish and he’s Italian so we kind of had this ethnic thing going and we just totally hit it off and it was a genuine chemistry and just really a nice thing and he said some very nice things about my playing which was a real boost for me. It’s always nice when someone in the business who has been around a while and has done a lot of different things admires your playing and who is a wonderful player themselves. So that’s how it came about. It’s been a really great thing and they have been really good to me, the whole label has been very nice and Steve has pretty much given me Carte Blanche basically to do what I want and you can’t ask for anything more than that. And Steve is just a warm guy who has gone out of his way to do things for the music and the artists. I can’t say enough good things about him.

JGL: And I’m sure he feels the same way towards you Mimi. Just one quick thing before you go…you played with Kenny Burrell at a NAMM show a while back. What was it like playing with Kenny?

MF: It was wonderful. Kenny and I have played together a few times and he’s such a wonderful man and a true gentleman. He’s been really gracious and I can’t say enough great things about Kenny, he’s a sweetheart. I love Kenny’s playing and I think he’s so musical and he just really swings, he’s got an incredible sense of swing and plays such cool stuff

JGL: Very cool. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with Jazz Guitar Life. It was wonderful to talk to you and I wish you nothing but the best in life and career.

MF: Thank you Lyle, it was also a pleasure for me as well.

Filed Under: Interviews

About the Author: Lyle Robinson is the owner/creator/editor of Jazz Guitar Life, a popular web based publication focusing on the Jazz Guitar Community and related news.

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  1. Chanell Hughey says:

    Very nice interview. I love Mimi’s playing and I learned a lot from her interview. Thanks for sharing that with us all.

  2. Carl Vorwaller says:

    Great Post! I love Mimi’s playing and have been a huge fan for years. Thanks for featuring her…:)

  3. Peter Classen says:

    i really like this site.. thanks

  4. jeff benson says:

    This is really great interview. Thank you for sharing it with all of us!

  5. Carly S says:

    It is so excellent to see a post like this. You never see a large amount of this taking place the web anymore. Keep it up!