[17 April 2006]
Mimi Fox is one of the umpteen jazz musicians you’ve never heard of who can play their way out of a sealed vault at the bottom of an ocean canyon. While in handcuffs. Listening to Perpetually Hip I grew increasingly embarrassed that I was not already hip to Ms. Fox. This is, after all, her seventh album, and Down Beat has been pegging her as a “Rising Star” for some years now.
But maybe that’s the fate of being an artist who plays in a style that was locked in cement forty years ago. Ms. Fox plays clean-toned, swinging, pre-rock jazz guitar in the style of her heroes Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, and Grant Green. And while Ms. Fox certainly finds fresh angles on that history, her playing remains inside that historical boundary—largely free of atonality, distortion, or modern repertoire. That’s no sin, but it explains some of the anonymity of her work.
Within the tradition she has mastered, Ms. Fox is exemplary. This album consists of a quartet disc (with Xavier Davis on piano, Harvie S on bass, and Billy Hart on drums) and a solo guitar disc. So much guitar on one album? Well, the record label is run by Steve Vai as a favor to guitar freaks the world over, so it makes sense.
My preference is the for the group sound, which is determinedly aggressive and punchy, even on parts of the ballads. Ms. Fox picks up an acoustic guitar for the two bossa treatments—“But Beautiful” and “So Many Stars”—lending nice variety to the set. But it is varied already, simply by Ms. Fox’s outstanding musicianship. On “The Song Is You”, for example, there is an intriguing drum-guitar duet at the start, with Ms. Fox’s bell-toned instrument standing up against Mr. Hart’s sticks in exquisite tension until the rhythm and melody enter in earnest. “While Bangkok Sleeps” is an unusually distinctive original, which seems to be set to a series of chords that no jazz composer had bothered with yet. It manages to be both lovely and surprising, featuring a section of muted tapping for contrast. The reading of “So Many Stars” is made all the more gorgeous by Mr. Davis’s assured and orchestral accompaniment, not to mention a fine solo.
On all these tunes, Ms.Fox is a great deal more than the sum of her influences. She does not sound like a Wes Montgomery clone, nor is she strictly playing like Grant Green or Kenny Burrell or Jim Hall. She deftly avoids the signature moves of her favorite players and forges a personality for herself—a guitarist who likes to use repetition to grab your ear and who can rip off a little, slightly more raw, blues run amidst “playing the changes”. At the same time, it would be hard to say that she transcends her influences, given how much the sound of this quartet suggests a 1965 Blue Note date.
Ms. Fox’s solo playing is, inevitably, more suggestive of Joe Pass. On “Night and Day”, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”, “On Green Dolphin Street”, “Alone Together” and “Someone to Watch Over Me/Skylark”, she plays with undeniable Pass-ian brilliance—playing melody, time, and chords with sleight-of-hand aplomb. More interesting to me are the two departures. On “Caravan” Ms. Fox plays mainly melody, but she dirties it with some strange-sounding dissonances, particularly near-unisons that let her guitar sound raggedly out of tune for small windows of time. Of course it’s not, and the performance snaps back into tonality to astonishing effect. Better still may be a barely recognizable “When the Saints Go Marching In” played with minimal amplification. Here, the guitarist turns the first phrase of the melody (“Oh, when the saints…”) into a short blues lick using repeated tones, and then she nods toward the second half of the melody just two or three times. It’s a performance that is both boldly imagined and seemingly tossed off like an after-hours time killer. And, you bet, it will kill you.
That said, Perpetually Hip contains a whole lot of more straight-ahead music that may get in the way of anyone hearing what is so original in Mimi Fox. It sounds terrible to say that a record can be bogged down in a kind of professional excellence, but this disc risks a certain mainstream fatigue. The striking work, however, is there to be found and enjoyed amidst the rest of the fine playing.