Lo! Jazz has flexed its spiritual wings and married the hymn. Pianist Deanna Witkowski, leader of the eponymous Deanna Witkowski Trio, fused the two integrating liturgical music with several other styles, including Brazilian music and jazz improvisation.
For those of us familiar with the Northeast Florida music scene and its laurels, the Great American Jazz Competition is a BFD. Witkowski won it in 2002. Since then, she has accomplished a great deal, earning several more awards, touring across the country, and having her original arrangements performed in more than 200 churches throughout America. Her most notable and original work is to arrange liturgical music in a jazz style.
“Doing liturgical music is a big part of my work,” she tells Folio Weekly, “although it’s not the only focus of my performances.”
In addition to playing standards, working in other bands and arranging secular music, she spent years as church music director in New York City, her current home. During this time, she began arranging traditional hymns that impressed church directors in the Big Apple and beyond. She recorded the album, Makes the Heart to Sing, in 2017 to share these creations with the world, as well as to show church musicians how to perform her arrangements.
When arranging the pieces, Witkowski spent a lot of time considering how to combine jazz and hymns in a way that would touch those without a background in music.
“When I arrange the tunes for group singing,” she says, “I arrange them in a way that supports the song’s purpose, which is singing. We’re trying to make sure it’s as user-friendly as possible, working within the environment of the church. I’m trying to do it in a way that helps to bring out something in the text and gives people a chance to breathe when singing together. It’s being really conscious about entry points for people to get into the music to participate and sing with it.”
She’s not afraid to rearrange harmony, or extend passages to emphasize certain phrases or make room for a solo. Her performances receive an overwhelmingly positive response in both churches and concert halls.
“People really respond to the harmony of my arrangements because they’re so different and rich,” she explains. Many churchgoers have told her they thought they didn’t like jazz before hearing her arrangements.
When playing in secular environments, she appeals to what she calls the “hymn nerds.” As a self-described hymn nerd herself, Witkowski likes to share information about the tunes, letting her audience know about the composer and the history of the songs.
Witkowski is still finding inspiration in religion-based music, working on an impressive original project, the Nossa Senhora Suite. For years, she’s been performing Brazilian music in her own group and with other performers. She visited Brazil and was struck by the central role Catholicism has in everyday life, particularly for women.
“I wanted to write a piece that looks at the Brazilian experience of Mary,” explains Witkowski.
She interviewed women in Brazil to learn more about incorporating Mary in their daily lives, helping them make decisions. She also attended churches that welcome those who practice Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion that features distinct drumming and rhythms. Witkowski has been studying these rhythmic patterns, putting them “in her hands” when composing her piano parts. Her goal for this monumental composition is a performance that includes her core trio, four singers and an additional percussionist.
Her forthcoming Riverside appearance promises a smorgasbord of tunes, from hymnal jams to Cole Porter tunes to Witkowski originals. Her trio, featuring drummer Scott Lasky and Lady Gaga’s bassist Daniel Foose, will also play pieces from Witkowski’s 2014 album, Raindrop: Improvisations with Chopin, in which she reimagined European classics with Brazilian syncopation.