Life has a way of changing one’s perspective on its constant onslaught of challenging times. At the somewhat tongue and cheek start of my review of Michigan born, Honolulu based jazz treasure, pianist and vocalist Maggie Herron’s spirited 2019 album Renditions, I referred to the title of her previous collection A Ton of Trouble to convey the idea that she was emotionally free from some of the difficult circumstances surrounding the writing and recording of that previous set.
In addition to mentioning that A Ton of Trouble had earned Maggie her third Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award (Hawaii’s Grammys) for Jazz Album of the Year, I wrote that she recorded it “during a year where she suffered from the flu, broke her arm, experienced the natural lowering of her voice and dealt with the fear of the eruption of Kilauea only eight miles from her home.”
Those were the comparative good ol’ days compared to what Maggie is dealing with, emotionally, spiritually, every which way as she gears up to release Your Refrain, a truly masterful collection balancing wit and whimsy with deep poignancy, featuring seven originals and beautiful Herronesque re-imaginings of “Both Sides Now” and “God Bless The Child.” Like most gigging musicians whose lives were upended by COVID-19, she is still on hiatus from her extraordinary eight year run as resident musician in the Halekulani Hotel-Waikiki. Just as she was coming to terms with that, on April 5, her beloved daughter, songwriting collaborator and brilliant lyricist Dawn Herron was killed in a bicycle accident.
Compounding the tragedy for Maggie is the fact that Your Refrain marked the full-on blossoming of their long-gestating songwriting partnership after a few co-writes on previous projects. After choosing their favorite material, the two had begun recording for an intended 2021 release. Once Maggie lost her gig in March, she decided to make the project her full-time gig. She and Dawn were talking about the songs just hours before the accident. Her daughter told her that her favorite collaboration to date – and now fitting as the album centerpiece - is the poignant, haunting yet ultimately hopeful “crossroads” song “Watching the Crows,” whose recorded version features the lyrical soprano sax of Bob Sheppard.
Dawn had written the lyrics for a close friend whose husband announced he wanted a divorce – but when Maggie infuses them with her earthy, dusky vocals, it’s as if she is reflecting on what her life will be now with the physical loss of her true soul mate. The same sort of emotional time traveling, cosmic chess moves seem to take place with the graceful and heartfelt, classically influenced title track “Your Refrain,” which features Maggie on piano and vocals with lush strings arranged by Duane Padilla. Maggie explains that it took many years for Dawn and her to write this song for her first-born baby, who died due to a faulty heart. The song now serves the needs of a grieving mother and grandmother reaching out to both Dawn and her beloved grandson Nalu. She experiences them still, just in a different way: “Without breath, without sound, you still remain. . .I feel your presence, faint but clear.”
“I feel crushed by the grief, and the realization that we will no longer write together,” Maggie says. “But recording our songs somehow makes me feel like I am keeping her alive, for myself, her sons, her husband, father, siblings and friends. I couldn’t think of any other way to memorialize her. The songs exist because her lyrics inspired the music. She was my muse.”
Though grounded in those moments of sorrow and catharsis, the most amazing aspect of Your Refrain is the joyful exuberance Maggie conveys singing Dawn’s witty lyrics on tunes like the jaunty, New Orleans flavored “He Can’t Even Lay and Egg”; “In Case of Love,” a whimsical romp offering her daughter’s crafty directions for lovers getting in a bit too deep, featuring the spirited vocal harmonies of Gillian Margot and Brandon Winbush; and the sparkling, playfully swinging “I Can’t Seem To Find My Man” – about the many possible places to misplace your loved one. These songs truly establish a legacy for Dawn’s humorous and thoughtful talents as a songwriter – gifts we will long cherish. The duo’s original songs, which also include “WhatNot,” the soulful opening ballad about trying to figure out the causes of a lingering feeling of personal malaise (a subtle hint about COVID-19), and the dreamy, poetic romance “Touch,” were created as vignettes. There’s no specific narrative connecting them, other than a mother and daughter who loved the process of creating a short story song together.
When Dawn passed away, Maggie had already tracked “In Case of Love” and the instruments for “Touch.” Dealing with unbearable grief, she decided to go ahead and record the keyboard and vocal tracks for the other seven songs – which she accomplished in only a week. She had spontaneously decided to include “Both Sides Now” (one of Dawn’s favorites) and “God Bless the Child,” a song Maggie has long cherished and which fits this moment as a salute to the Black Life Matters movement.
Because of the pandemic and her being in Hawaii, Maggie created the album while sheltered in place, sending bare tracks of her at the piano, singing and playing with basic charts. Her masterful collaborators – including Sheppard, bassists Dean Taba and David Enos, drummer John Ferraro, guitarist Larry Koonse and pianists Larry Goldings and Bill Cunliffe – worked their magic remotely, and the result is an album of extraordinary intimacy and spontaneity that sounds like it was a live in the studio recording. The wonders of technology are only surpassed here by the transcendence of the heart and human spirit. “They all know about Dawn,” Maggie says. “The love and thoughtfulness they put into their playing is evident.”