Witkowski is an astonishingly versatile bandleader. –Time Out New York
Some musicians keep a foot in two or three worlds, bouncing between styles and traditions as called for by the situation or assignment. New York pianist/composer Deanna Witkowski simply invented her own verdant, borderless realm. Possessing a supple sense of swing, ravishing touch, and vast harmonic resources, she has created an utterly personal body of music informed by her deep knowledge of jazz, European classical and Brazilian forms. The winner of the 2002 Great American Jazz Piano Competition, Witkowski has released five critically hailed albums over the past fifteen years, with each new project revealing a steadily evolving sensibility marked by melodic invention and emotional connection. As JazzTimes noted, “if Brad Mehldau and Bill Charlap represent the gold standard among contemporary pianists, then Deanna Witkowski deservedly ranks as their sterling sister.”
A skilled accompanist, Witkowski has toured with soul-steeped vocalist Lizz Wright and held down the piano chair in the Jim McNeely-led BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra. Her recordings feature some of jazz’s most celebrated artists, including bassist John Patitucci and saxophonist Donny McCaslin, and she’s performed widely in a rhythmically charged duo with Filó Machado, the great São Paulo-based guitarist/vocalist.
As a composer, Witkowski creates masterly works setting sacred texts to music and was selected for one of five coveted spots in 2015’s Composer-Librettist Studio at New Dramatists, a New York institution that supports playwrights in creating new works for the stage. But she’s spent most of the past two decades forging an urbane, pan-American sensibility that combines the irrepressible joy of Errol Garner with the probing intelligence and harmonic insight of Bill Evans.
“Errol Garner uses a lot of upbeats in his left hand, which is very reminiscent of Brazilian music,” Witkowski says. “Some of my other favorite pianists are Cesar Camargo Mariano and Ed Simon. On Cesar’s recordings with Romero Lubambo and Elis Regina he gets a huge range from the instrument. The groove is amazing, and nothing feels forced. I feel that way about Ed too. He’s so centered. Everything feels very open, like he’s exploring.”
An exploratory spirit animates Witkowski latest album, Raindrop: Improvisations with Chopin (Tilapia Records), a solo piano session that seamlessly combines jazz, Chopin, and the music of Brazil. The project grew out of an invitation she received to participate in a New York City celebration of the bicentennial of the composer’s birth. Her ingenious improvisation-laced program transports Chopin to Rio with arrangements of classic pieces the flow into standards by the likes of Jobim and Dietz/Schwartz.
Witkowski credits her adaptability and openness to new sounds to her highly itinerant childhood, which included about a dozen moves by the time she reached high school. “I do think that having moved around so much influenced me as a musician,” she says. “Exploring different cultures, learning languages, and adapting to new musical situations is a big part of who I am as a person. I believe that jazz isn’t one thing. It doesn’t even always have to have improvisation. It’s this big tent that can welcome all these different influences.”
In many ways, Witkowski’s creative identity is built on her gift for gracefully bringing together seemingly disparate elements. On her fourth album, 2009’s From This Place, she set ancient and modern sacred texts to jazz-steeped scores, exploring an array of formats from three-part women’s a cappella to an instrumental quartet. Whether working with the Mass, verses from the Bible, 19th-century poets, or her own luminous lines, Witkowski displays a striking gift for wrestling with a text and expressing in her music the deep insights she’s gleaned.
From This Place resulted from Witkowski’s longtime interest in combining jazz and liturgy, an area in which she has gained widespread renown. A frequent presenter on jazz and spirituality, she was the opening lecturer at the 2011 William H. Shannon Chair in Catholic Studies lecture series at Nazareth College, and in 2013, she was a featured presenter at the biannual International Thomas Merton Society Meeting. In July 2015, she presents a workshop focused on providing resources for churches seeking to incorporate jazz into their services at the international Hymn Society conference in New Orleans. Another high point of her liturgical practice took place in 2010 when she led 6,000 participants in singing her commissioned piece, “Faith, Hope, Love” at the United Methodist Women’s Assembly in St. Louis.
Not surprisingly, Witkowski has paid close attention to legendary pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams, who spent much of her career combining her spiritual vision with her stylistically encompassing jazz sensibility. Witkowski encapsulated more than a decade of study in her program Moving with the Spirit: The Sacred Jazz of Mary Lou Williams, which was selected as the official educational component of the 2009 Mary Lou Williams Festival. She also presented the program at Duke University, where Williams was artist-in-residence at the end of her life, and the International Association of Jazz Education (IAJE) conference. On her memorable Piano Jazz encounter with Marian McPartland the grand dame immediately recognized Witkowski’s deep affinity for Williams, noting “you even have a little bit of her style without copying anything.”
Born in Exeter, New Hampshire, Witkowski grew up around the northeast, and by high school her family had settled in Rochester, New York. Both of her parents had musical backgrounds—her mother played classical violin and her father jazz guitar—but Witkowski had little knowledge of their interests, though her three younger siblings also pursued music seriously. At home she played an electric Organaire. When she started kindergarten her teacher was struck by Witkowski’s knack for the piano in the classroom and suggested to her mother that she start taking lessons. Witkowski actually studied violin for a year before she started piano and flute lessons in the fourth grade, and she pursued both instruments intently through high school.
“It never felt like a question or a choice,” she says. “I always wanted to play music. My senior year in high school I played in six different groups: a woodwind quintet, a classical piano trio with violin and cello, musicals, jazz groups. I was always doing music.”
As a piano major at Wheaton College outside of Chicago, Witkowski caught the jazz bug. Exploring the alto saxophone, she started studying with Larry Panella (now head of the University of Southern Mississippi’s jazz department). She was serious enough that her first summer home from college she took a six-week course with pianist Bill Dobbins at the Eastman School of Music. With no jazz piano teachers available at Wheaton, Panella connected her with Brad Williams off campus, and Williams turned her on to Bill Evans, Errol Garner, and other masters.
Wheaton is also where Witkowski started getting serious about composing. She took several composition courses, but with few jazz combo options she started commuting to nearby Benedictine University to play. Soon Witkowski was bringing in original tunes and arrangements to try out in a trio format. The day after graduating she moved to Chicago, and sought out every opportunity to play at jam sessions. “That’s how I learned a lot of tunes,” she recalls. “I would just go to these sessions, and for any tune I didn’t know, I’d write down its name and go learn it.”
She started a jazz studies program at DePaul and played in the Chicago Jazz Ensemble led by Bill Russo, but didn’t complete her masters until years later at City College after she had moved to New York City. The cauldron of the Chicago scene provided plenty of stimulation. She started writing for liturgical settings, got a gig accompanying a jazz singer who incorporated Brazilian tunes into her repertoire, and was recruited to play in a salsa band. She also started leading her own combo, Odd Fish Quintet. Each situation provided numerous opportunities to stretch her wings as an arranger and composer.
Though all signs were pointing east—guitarist Russell Malone encouraged her to move to New York City after they played together at a Montreal International Jazz Festival jam session— Witkowski hesitated to take the leap. In 1996 she studied with Cuban piano maestro Hilario Duran in Toronto, and the next year she was hired as the music director at All Angels’ Church in Manhattan.
Witkowski made her recording debut as a leader with 1998’s Having to Ask on her Tilapia Records label, an album that earned her accolades from Jazz Journal International as “one of the best of the new generation of jazz pianists.” Already well on her way to forging a personal synthesis of jazz, Brazilian, and Afro-Cuban influences, the pleasingly fluent album documents her working Chicago band. Focusing on her impressive original tunes, the session also features a captivating arrangement of “Blame It On My Youth,” and a blazing take on Charlie Parker’s blues “Au Privave.”
She followed up with 2003’s Wide Open Window, a tremendously accomplished quartet session alternating her originals with standards, mostly by Cole Porter. Much of the music was inspired by her collaboration with powerhouse tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, often creating gorgeous voicings by pairing his horn with her vocals. “His [McCaslin’s] playing is so interesting, rhythmically and harmonically,” Witkowski says. “There was so much interaction. I loved not knowing what was going to happen next.”
Witkowski’s third release, 2005’s Length of Days, confirmed her status as one of jazz’s elite artists. Introducing eight arresting originals (and a beguiling arrangement of the Ellington classic “I’m Beginning to See the Light”), the quartet session once again pairs her piano and vocals with McCaslin’s tenor and soprano saxophones. Bassist Dave Ambrosio and drummer Vince Cherico provide superlative rhythmic support throughout.
Rather than pulling her in different directions, all of Witkowski’s interests have created a critical mass so that her musical passions feed and reinforce each other. She’s planning a trip to Brazil to write a large-scale project, using regional rhythms to write pieces for patron saints. And she is looking to collaborate with established gospel artists to record her songs. She continues to set sacred texts to music, creating work in which communion with the ineffable is inseparable from communication on the bandstand.
“I have a much wider view than I used to have about what prayer is,” Witkowski says. “I almost think it means being fully present in the moment. I think that’s what the best music, the best jazz is when you’re on the edge of something else and not being able to articulate it. Prayer is about listening intensely, which is a big part of jazz. It’s being able to take in what is happening at the moment and responding without any sense of self-questioning.”