When Mimi Fox talks about visiting Joe Pass, I picture the legendary guitarist sitting lotus position on top of a Himalayan peak, a cigar tucked firmly into the corner of his mouth as he utters cryptic jazz koans.
Gruff and avuncular, Pass wasn't really the guru type, but more than any other player of his era he mastered the lonely art of unaccompanied jazz guitar, recording a series of classic solo albums aptly titled Virtuoso. Some three decades ago, he was in San Francisco for a Herbst Theatre performance with vocalist Joe Williams and Fox sought him out for a lesson.
Pass didn't hand the solo guitar baton over to her that day, but the hard-won wisdom he shared continues to inform her music, and is one of the reasons why she's an internationally hailed improviser today. Fox celebrates the release of her latest solo album, This Bird Still Flies (Origin Records), Thursday at Freight & Salvage.
Fox was 31 when she made that fateful trip to meet with Pass, "and at that point I'd been practicing six hours a day on top of teaching and playing one or two gigs a night for years," she recalls. "He was reluctant and I had to push myself on him. Eventually he agreed to meet where he was staying at the Inn of the Opera, and I had this lesson with him that lasted five hours."
Looking to make a good impression, she arrived around noon wearing a silk blouse and was greeted by the guitarist in his robe and slippers, smoking a cigar. Thinking they'd play a blues or something to warm up, she was surprised when he instructed her to take out her guitar and play something.
"He made me play six or seven pieces, like an FBI interrogation," she says. "After that, he said, 'You play really well. If you can, you will.' Well, what does that mean? He was saying that if I kept on the path I'd get opportunities to play and record. Essentially, there were several great epiphanies I had while I was with him."
Fox's career illustrates Pass's prescience. Over the years she's performed and recorded with an intergenerational who's who of jazz guitar stars, including Charlie Byrd, Kenny Burrell, Mundell Lowe, Charlie Hunter and Stanley Jordan. While she's best known for wielding her namesake Heritage Guitar Mimi Fox Signature model arch-top, spinning solos that unfurl with twists like expertly tailored short stories, she's equally spellbinding on six and 12-string acoustic guitars (she'll have her whole menagerie with her at the Freight).
While Fox is a jazz master she casts a wide musical net. She's been tapping into her love of the Beatles in recent years. Working with bassist/vocalist Jeff Denson and violinist Mads Tolling, she released 2017's May I Introduce To You (Ridgeway Music), a track-by-track reimagining of Sgt. Pepper's by the San Francisco String Trio (Denson will be joining her at the Freight as a special guest on a tune or two). On This Bird Still Flies, she transforms folk tunes, jazz standards, original compositions and popular songs into exquisitely crafted improvisational vehicles, including a ravishing interpretation of "Blackbird" and a deeply funky version of "Day Tripper" on baritone guitar
She credits Pass with expanding her musicality by coaxing her to look beyond bebop. "Joe said listen to string quartets so you can hear all the parts," Fox recalls. "The guitar's two low strings are the cello, the middle two are the viola and the top strings the violins."
The biggest challenge of playing solo is the necessity of maintaining momentum. "You are the rhythm section," she says. If you have a shitty night you can't blame the bassist for rushing all night. You're responsible for holding every piece together melodically, rhythmically and harmonically. Whether you're playing a slow piece, a bossa or samba, ballad or blues, the time has to be there. That's how the audience is able to come along when there's just one instrument."
The most important advice that Pass gave her wasn't really about the guitar at all. A self-diagnosed Type-A New Yorker, Fox had been working herself mercilessly for years. After playing a blues together, Pass essentially told her she needed a life away from the instrument. "He said 'How much are you practicing? Five or six hours a day? I think you're practicing too much. You're 31 years old and you're already burnt out. You're pushing yourself too hard.' Everyone had said that to me. I knew intellectually it was true, but hearing it from Joe it really sunk in." Walks around Lake Merritt soon filled some of the hours she'd spent with her guitar.