An amazingly diverse bandleader who moves with remarkable ease between Brazilian, jazz, classical, and sacred music, pianist-composer-vocalist Deanna Witkowski consistently thrills audiences with explosive performances that combine virtuosity and heart. Winner of the Great American Jazz Piano Competition and a past guest on Marian McPartland’s historic Piano Jazz radio program, Witkowski’s accessible yet surprising sound is unmistakably her own.
Witkowski’s rare ability to combine strong, soulful jazz with a marked generosity towards her audiences and band members continues to attract jazz and non-jazz fans alike to her music, as evidenced in her win as best pianist at the 2016 HotHouse New York Fans Decision Jazz awards. Her six recordings range from hard-swinging, adventurous arrangements of Cole Porter standards (Wide Open Window; Length of Days) to sparkling trio reimaginings of traditional hymns (Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns) to solo piano that blurs the lines between Brazilian, jazz, and classical (Raindrop: Improvisations with Chopin). Witkowski has recorded with jazz luminaries including bassist John Patitucci, vocalist Kate McGarry, and saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who was an integral member of Witkowski’s quartet for four years.
Alongside her fiery instrumental music, Witkowski brings an innate sensitivity to text and the human voice to her choral works. Her compositions have won the ChoralArt New England Carol Contest (A Christmas Carol), the Illinois-ACDA Choral Composition Contest (Where Shadow Chases Light) and the Colorado Chorale commissioning contest. Recent commissions have included new works for the Choral Arts Initiative PREMIERE|Project Festival (Oração da Viajante), Palmetto Girls Sing (His Eye is On the Sparrow), and St Peter Episcopal Church in Ashtabula, Ohio (Who Do You Say?).
Witkowski’s lyrics as well as music impact audiences and performers. Her modern anthem, We Walk in Love, appears in the Justice Choir songbook and has been sung at the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine at Central High School in Little Rock, AK; by a 1000 voice choir at the 2018 St. Olaf Choral Festival under the direction of Anton Armstrong; and by school, church, and community choirs across the country. We Belong to God, her samba/pop/jazz original paraphrase of Psalm 100, won the 2017 Hymn Society in the US and Canada’s Annual Hymn Search and will be published by GIA as part of a larger original collection in 2020.
Witkowski has also performed and toured with renowned vocalists Lizz Wright, Nnenna Freelon, Erin Bode, Filó Machado, and Vanessa Rubin. Her astonishing sight-reading abilities and prowess as a soloist were in abundant display during her ten year run as the pianist in the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra, the ensemble of top-level New York players that perform new music written by members of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop.
In attempting to categorize Witkowski’s music, one reviewer commented, “I was trying to liken her to another pianist’s style, living or deceased, and I came up with…no one.” Witkowski shares this “beyond category” distinction with Mary Lou Williams (1910-81), the innovative pianist who has become her lifelong mentor. Taking it upon herself to delve into Williams’s music when Dr. Billy Taylor invited her to lead her quintet at the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Festival in 2000, Witkowski’s initial listening marked the beginning of a now twenty year research journey. Lecturing and performing Williams’s music at the University of Pittsburgh, Duke University, and most recently as a featured performer with the Pittsburgh Symphony, Witkowski is recognized as a noted Williams scholar. Her upcoming biography, Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul, will be published by Liturgical Press in late 2020.
Bilingual in Portuguese, Witkowski’s love of Brazilian culture fuels her upcoming project, the Nossa Senhora Suite. The suite will merge Afro-Brazilian expressions of the Virgin Mary with new jazz composition for Witkowski’s quartet, percussion, and four vocalists. As a 2018 Sacatar Institute Fellow, Witkowski spent two months in Bahia, Brazil visiting religious ceremonies and interviewing women with particular devotion to Mary. Nossa Senhora Suite is a fiscally sponsored New York Foundation for the Arts project and received a 2018 New York State Council on the Arts Individual Artist Grant. Witkowski plans to record the work in 2021.
Connecting jazz with other incalculably deep musical currents is what makes Witkowski such a visionary artist. Her intuitive, articulate music crosses boundaries and cultures, inviting all to come, listen, and be changed.