It has been said that the greatest compliment Duke Ellington could give another musician was to say that he or she was "beyond category." If you would like to hear what he was referring to, listen to the new double CD by guitarist Mimi Fox, Perpetually Hip, on Favored Nations Cool Records. This is a flawless recording. The first disk is Fox and her four man backup band, featuring Billy Hart on drums, Harvie S on bass, Xavier Davis on piano and percussionist Michaelle Goerlitz. There are only seven numbers on this disk but each is given a generous and spirited rendition. There are no shortcuts here, just great music. And as if it was not enough that Fox plays on each song as leader, she also produced the recording and contributed three of the songs, as well.
Born in New York City, Mimi started playing drums when she was nine, and then guitar when she was ten. She was inspired by the wide variety of music enjoyed by her family -- show tunes, classical, Dixieland, Motown -- and her own youthful inclination toward pop, folk, and R&B. When she was fourteen, she bought her first jazz album "because it was on sale." The one she chose had no guitarist, but she was "blown away by it." That album, John Coltrane's classic Giant Steps, changed the course of her musical life. The same may just happen here to some young musician who comes across Perpetually Hip, on sale or not.
The title track "Perpetually Hip" was inspired partly by a friend of Fox's who spoke only in hip jazz terms, so Fox dubbed her perpetually hip and a song was born. Each of the seven tracks on the first disc display the seemingly effortless playing of Fox as she and her band mates breathe new life into each selection, on some of the classic numbers it's as if you are hearing them for the first time. "The Song Is You," as an example, swings with a flair and an exuberance that is infectious to listen to. (If you listen closely you can hear Xavier Davis in the background scatting along to the song.) "But Beautiful" has a warm Latin flavor to it and the playing is elegant and refined, the kind of playing that can transport you to a warm beach in South America.
"Saluting the Groove," the second of the three Fox originals, has a kind of improvisational sound to it. There is a soulful give and take between guitar and bass that demonstrate the level of skill that is at work here. Each adds to the sound of the other without overtaking it and these two are, to use a cliché, in prefect harmony.
It can be a daunting task to re-record a standard, especially when it has been done so many times before, and even more daunting when the song belongs to Cole Porter. "Night and Day" is given a new life and in Mimi Fox's hands it soars and swoops and delights. Mr. Porter would be proud. "While Bangkok Sleeps," the last of the fox originals, is another gentle ballad that showcases not only the guitarist but the songwriter as well. The number is another that was inspired by real life and like "So Many Stars," the song that closes out disc one, is a lush emotional experience not to be missed.
Now, if you would like to have a near religious experience, try disc two. This one is Mimi Fox solo and these are among some of the best solo guitar recordings you are likely to ever hear. When you talk to Mimi Fox, as I had the chance to recently, she speaks at ninety miles an hour. There is so much life behind that smile and so much passion for not only living but for playing music that you cannot help but get carried away. If you doubt me on this check out the six numbers on disc two. You will wonder how so much music comes out of only one instrument and from only one player. If the first disc did not make you a fan, this one will. You will believe in the enormous talent of this musician and you will want to hear more.
The second half of this set is made up of standards like "Caravan," "Polkadots and Moonbeams," "On Green Dolphin Street," "Someone to Watch Over Me," and in a salute to the people of New Orleans, "When the Saints Go Marching In." Each is given the Fox stamp and each becomes, yet again, another classic. If there is one negative note, here, it is that trying to find a favorite song among these gems is a waste of time. This is a recording with a timeless quality to it. Duke would have approved, because it, like Mimi Fox, is beyond category.