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Monika Herzig: A Portrait of a Hero

Hrayr Attarian By

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German-born and US-based pianist, author and composer Monika Herzig released her most accomplished work to date the sublime Sheroes in March of 2018. This cohesive album is a celebration of women in music and particularly jazz, on it Herzig's group of women instrumentalists stimulatingly interpret several originals and two covers. Herzig has a doctorate in music education and is a Senior Lecturer at Indiana University in Bloomington. She also has authored two books and has several recordings both as a leader and co-leader. She is the recipient of the 2015 Jazz Journalist Association's jazz hero award and is very active in advocacy.

All About Jazz: At what age did you start playing an instrument?

Monika Herzig: I started with nine, begged my parents for a piano and added church organ a bit after—I subbed for services in the large German catholic churches during my teenage years which was terrifying but also great experience.

AAJ: Was piano your first or did you also study others?

MH: First instrument to study seriously, I was involved in a lot of musical church groups—in college I played alto saxophone for a few years.

AAJ: How did you get interested in music, and particularly jazz, as a career?

MH: Music has always captivated me—I got interested in jazz during High School when I started playing in bands. I loved the creative process and being in a group rather than having to play by myself as a pianist.

AAJ: Who are your major influences in both composition and in performance?

MH: I'm the biggest Chick Corea nerd—his compositions and virtuosity have always been a model. Finally, last year I got to share my nerdism by publishing Exploring Chick Corea: A Listener's Companion on Rowman & Littlefield—the book was also a finalist for Best Book on Jazz 2017 nominated by the Jazz Journalist Association. In composition, I adore Carla Bley—her minimalistic compositional and performance style are so deep and effective. I saw her in the '80s at a jazz festival in Austria conducting her Big Band and she became one of my biggest role models. David Baker was a very special mentor for me especially during the years getting my Doctorate at Indiana University. It was an honor to be able to put a book on his work together published in 2011 on IU Press.

AAJ: Your earlier recordings were with collaborative groups such as The Time Flies and BeebleBrox that had a more electric sound. What do the names mean and how did you get involved with these bands?

MH: BeebleBrox was the first group my husband Peter Kienle and myself headed up when we moved to the US for a good decade and recorded seven albums with. We both are avid composers and the electric sound of the '70s is one of our big influences. The group was quite successful with two overseas tours and opening slots in Indianapolis for Tower of Power, Dixie Dregs, Sting, Yes, Santana. The Time Flies is our recent follow-up project of BeebleBrox that we started two years ago on the request of a studio/label in Germany (Flavored Tune) that wanted to produce limited edition LP release series and was interested in a series of tracks that we recorded with Bob Berg in the 90s. We formed a group with two young amazing musicians that came out of the IU Jazz Program—Josh Roberts and Quinn Sternberg—and took them to Germany for the sessions. In addition to reworking the Bob Berg track, we invited various saxophone stars from Germany as guests: Peter Lehel, Lutz Haefner, and Sandi Kuhn. The LP was released last year and this year we're returning for more recordings and concerts. It's a very tight band that mastered our complex originals and it's super fun to dig out the keyboards again and turn it up. We'll be featured at the ISME Conference in Baku, Azerbaijan in July as well as the Etud Jazz Bar there. The Time Flies is a play on words in literal sense as well as metaphorical.

AAJ: You also recorded with, the aptly named, Monika Herzig Acoustic Project. Did you feel more at home with this formation as opposed to the ones above?

MH: The Acoustic Project was the first group that I got to lead by myself. Of course, I love working with my husband, but just like marriage it's a constant balancing act to match both compositional voices and some pieces just don't match. When our first baby was born we decided to pursue individual projects for a while so we could switch off doing babysitting—which worked out partially as we always do a lot of other performances together. I love the Acoustic Project though because I get to do all my compositions and arrangements and play a lot of piano.

AAJ: How did each of these different styles influences your later work?

MH: Working continuously on composing and arranging music in bands adds experience, refines the style, adds to the repertoire. And if you listen closely—all of those influences, styles and compositions come together in the Sheroes project.

AAJ: In 2015 you were named one of the jazz heroes by the Jazz Journalists' Association. Can you please tell us a bit about your work that lead to that award?

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