Shook up after a five-hour medical procedure and a nightmare surprise breast cancer diagnosis, jazz guitarist Mimi Fox stood, stunned, in a hospital parking lot. Swirling overhead in the night sky, a flock of birds chirped and sang a complicated, gorgeous, melodic song.
Months later, during treatment, the Vallejo-based composer and musician completed her replicated version of the tune. This "Bird Still Flies" is the title track of Fox's new, all-acoustic recording and the highlight of an upcoming CD release show March 7 at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage.
"There was a connection I felt with these animals: a sign that life would go on, that the songs would continue. The birds were like a little omen," Fox, 62, recalls in a phone interview.
Fox is a highly regarded jazz figure in the Bay Area and nationwide. Her 11th album, "This Bird Still Flies/Acoustic Sessions," represents a return to roots. Included are folk tunes, jazz standards, original compositions written by or for Fox, two Beatles pop songs, and more. As if celebrating a return to acoustic arrangements, the cover depicts Fox with a Taylor Guitars Builder's Edition K14ce acoustic instrument.
"They make gorgeous guitars," says Fox. "When I'm playing an acoustic guitar, it's a visceral experience. The resonance of the wood on my body, the sound right next to me, not coming from a faraway amp, it's nostalgic."
The instrument brings up long-ago memories of Fox switching from a drum set to guitar at age 10, loving show tunes, classical and Motown music — later discovering jazz, pop, folk and funk music during teen years growing up in New York City. Today, in the midst of a multi-directional career as performer, band leader, composer, recording artist and educator, she laughs and compares herself to the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz.
"There's a scene where he points both ways when asked which way to go to reach home," she says. "I am promoting the new CD and also six years ahead, with my next three or four projects in mind." Among the upcoming projects is a an April 2020 appearance with the Michigan Philharmonic. "We're doing a few compositions I've arranged for orchestra and I'll do standards like "Night and Day" and a Shostakovich piece that's for string and guitar. We're already mapping out the program."
If programs involving Fox are mapped out, her live performances are varied; a nuanced blend of concentrated, deliberate structure and spontaneous, skilled improvisation. The March 7 show at the Freight includes two "surprise" guests whose identity she is guarding tightly to reserve a special touch — or perhaps because being "in the moment" is the name of the game.
"I won't be regurgitating album pieces, because I never do that," she says. "I'm an improviser. Whether it's a jazz standard, a Beatles' tune or my own composition, I try to create something that's new so people can hear it as fresh."
Ironically, spontaneity requires preparation. To play an acoustic guitar with compelling tone, texture and precision, her hands must be strong, yet pliant. "I have a series of exercises and warm-ups, basically stretching, because everything needs to be loose. It's exceedingly important your hands are warm. I even soak my hands in warm water in winter. Musicians are athletes. The muscles they use are smaller than the muscles of runners, but no less important."
Fox is a long-distance runner and for 35 years followed a vegan diet, avoided sugar, smoking, alcohol. She's cancer-free now, she says.
"Because of being a health nut, I had felt I was impervious," she says. "It was a humbling experience in May 2011 when I was diagnosed." Recovery includes "recharging batteries" by listening to birds in her backyard, diving into creative, energetic projects — but not volunteering with animal rescue organizations.
"I love animals but I can't volunteer because I'd come home with 16 iguanas, 20 cats and a dozen dalmations," she says, laughing.
Fox says everything from Dixieland to blues to bebop to Latin Jazz adds to eclectic mix of the new CD.
"I'm proud to be a jazz musician: you don't just wake up one day and declare yourself one. At the same time, I love many styles of music. As a composer and musician, I see my job is to be a sponge. The more I absorb, the richer my palette will be when I create something."
Fox ranks virtuosity as "the lowest rung of the ladder" for a musician. Instead, heartfelt, compassionate storytelling and tapping people's emotions are her most pressing goals.
"There's no greater compliment than when someone tells me they cried or a piece reminded me of their mother," she says. "My obligation is to communicate. That's what I take to the bank, that's what I live for."