It is always challenging to create an album based on songs by someone as great as Joni Mitchell
. Monika Herzig, pianist and composer, went for this challenge inspired by vocalist Janiece Jaffe
. Although they recorded the project together, Jaffe passed away unexpectedly after heart surgery in November 2022.
Shocked and devastated by the passing of her friend of 31 years, Herzig committed to finish the project and share it with the world. The album Both Sides of Joni
was released on April 1, 2023, with promotional concerts scheduled throughout 2023. Herzig took time out to talk about her career, her various projects and the process of making Both Sides of Joni
Herzig grew up in Germany. Like many kids who learn to play piano, she started as a classical pianist and only later discovered jazz. In 1987, she received a scholarship for a one-year exchange program to the University of Alabama. She left Germany with guitarist Peter Kienle
, her partner at the time and now husband.
"That was the opportunity to make a career with the music we love. That was our opportunity to go to the United States and find a way to make that happen. So we did. We bought one-way tickets and sold our stuff."
The transition from Germany to the United States was initially a cultural shock for both Herzig and Kienle. They had to adjust to a different culture and language, and figure out how things work in the United States.
"It is a way of just realizing for yourself that things can be done in any way. Just because you are used to one thing does not mean it is the right thing. There are so many options to do and interact. It is a good thing. I would recommend to anybody to just go somewhere else and try to live there and figure out how to adapt to a new culture."
Herzig and Kienle ended up staying in the US and little by little, they built their music careers. After the program in Alabama was over, they moved to Indiana. At Indiana University in Bloomington, Herzig got an opportunity to study with legendary jazz educator and composer David Baker
"He is one of the foremost educators that we have. Being able to learn from him was a great thing. He was a wonderful teacher. He sees exactly what you need. He does not have a "one-size-fits-all" formula. He would listen, watch it and know what to tell you and what to give you.
At Indiana University, Herzig completed a Doctorate in Music Education with a minor in jazz studies. Later, she became a faculty member in Arts Administration at IU. She has also become a professor of artistic research in Vienna, managing to split her life between the two continents. She has released more than a dozen albums and toured many times across the United States and Europe.
Herzig has been an active researcher. She has published and contributed to several books, including David BakerA Legacy in Music
(IU Press, 2011), Experiencing Chick Corea: A Listener's Companion
(Rowman and Littlefield, 2017) and The Routledge Companion to Jazz and Gender
In 2014, Herzig started a project called Sheroes, which has become life-changing for her. The idea of the project was to bring together fellow women in jazz and present powerful role models on stage. This project was also her way of breaking stereotypes about female musicians in jazz.
"There is a lot of push right now to equalize and showcase. But the generation I am in, we had to fight for ourselves. I decided to change some perceptions. That was an amazing thing. I love seeing that a lot of other similar bands came along. I guess I love to claim a little bit that maybe they were influenced by us. So, we started something, which is good."
Herzig says that without projects like Sheroes, gender representation in jazz just stays the same in a self-fulfilling cycle. Therefore, her goal is to break the cycle and eliminate the stereotypes related to women in jazz.
"There are specific perceptions that people have when you look on a stage because that is the picture you have from the media. If you put more of these really powerful and strong all-women bands on stage, these underground stereotypes that people have, you can break them little by little. That is the main purpose of putting those groups together."
Since Sheroes' inception, many great female musicians have been a part of it, including Rosa Avila
, Jamie Baum
, Lakecia Benjamin
, Jane Bunnett
, Anna Butterss
, Mayra Casales
, Arianna Fanning, Ingrid Jensen
,Linda May Han Oh
, Reut Regev
, Ada Rovatti
, Akua Dixon
, Leni Stern
and Jennifer Vincent
. They have released three albums: The Whole World in Her Hands
(Whaling City Sound, 2016), Sheroes
(Whaling City Sound, 2018) and Eternal Dance
"You gather the people in music and get a set of repertoire. Once you got to record it, you put it on the road. While you are on the road, you will develop a new repertoire. So you keep getting stronger and stronger with the project. We managed a bunch of tours through the US. We did three European tours. I found a few grants for the US artists that were helpful."
The album Eternal Dance
came out in March 2020 and the release tour was cut short due to the pandemic. Herzig hopes that they can produce another project and bring it on tour. The biggest challenge is to find the funding for putting an album together like this, as all the musicians are of the highest caliber.
"You cannot just ask them to come along. You have to make it worthwhile. If people are gone for three weeks, you have to get them the income that is worth three weeks."
The music that Sheroes have been producing is mostly originals. Sometimes Herzig arranges songs in a new way, for instance, "We Are the Champions" and "House of the Rising Sun." She turned David Bowie's "We Can Be Heroes" into "We Can Be Sheroes." She wants to eventually arrange Beyonce's "Run the World." Yet, Herzig makes sure to focus on the individual compositional voice of the group members, so they featured compositions by the members of the project.
"It is important to put those original voices out and have that as part of the mix. All of them are great composers. You write your tunes and bring them to the table. Of course, they develop while you play them together and take on different shapes and formats."
Both Sides of Joni
The idea of creating the album Both Sides of Joni
based on the songs by Joni Mitchell came from Herzig's long-time friend and colleague Janiece Jaffe. Herzig and Jaffe initially met at Indiana University and had worked together for more than thirty years since then. They performed a lot, but it was not until Both Sides of Joni
that they collaborated on a full album. It was the summer of 2020 when they started to prepare the repertoire for the album. Mitchell's songs revealed deeper meaning for both of them, especially during the pandemic.
"When you arrange something instrumentally, you need to make sure the words fit on top and the meaning still works. We were meeting up every week, trying, experimenting and getting it worked out. We did the first concert in the spring of 2021 when things were just opening up. It was such a special experience. People were so grateful that they could come together at all and get these songs. These words helped look at life from different angles."
The process of re-imagining Mitchell's songs was challenging as they are already strong and there are already many wonderful versions of them. In her arrangements, Herzig wanted to amplify the text of the songs and stay true to its meaning.
"Every time, I looked at the meaning of the song and thought about what musical elements could support the words. I always approached it in support of what the song means and how I can strengthen that with the music, instead of coming up with some cool reharmonization. Keeping the words and the melodies intact was a tricky thing, too. It was tricky, but I think we got it."
They recorded the album and Herzig started putting the dates for the tour together. Jaffe's passing in November 2022 was a shock for Herzig, but she decided to complete the release and go on tour anyway. She made it the legacy album of Jaffe to commemorate her life.
"That was a big 'now what' moment. Should we just not do it? Can I do it with somebody else? Luckily, Alexis Cole
from New York agreed to take Janiece's place." In addition to Cole (vocals) and Herzig (piano), Carolyn Dutton (violin), Greg Ward (saxophone), Jeremy Allen (bass), Peter Kienle (bass) and Cassius Goens (drums) took part in the project.
At the time of working on the project, Herzig and Jaffe decided to name the album Both Sides of Joni
of course as a word play on Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," but also with a hint on both of them bringing in their personalities and music to show a different side of the songs. Herzig says that what Jaffe gave to this world is so special and she hopes more and more people will join the celebration of Jaffe's life. Herzig also wants Mitchell's incredible messages in the songs to be heard.
"Music is a way of expressing anything beyond words. That gives a bigger language where we can go directly to the emotions and the senses. But when we bring them together in the right way, we can double up both of their meanings."
While sending Both Sides of Joni
to the world, Herzig is already planning her next project and working on more original music for the Sheroes project.