Reviews Zone

Deanna Witkowski: Makes The Heart To Sing: Jazz Hymns (Tilapia Records) 3rd Nov 2017



3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)



Music reviewers often use the words “honest” and “real” and “passionate” when describing a performance on recorded work or on stage. Is it always justified or just lazy journalism? Well, here all three of those words are pretty accurate, and the one I would like add to make it spot on would be “spiritual”.

But don’t let that word, “Spiritual” scare you off if you are not into religious stuff. This is not a gospel album per say, but it is sacred music if you like. A spiritual connection between stripped down jazz and hymns.

In pianist Deanna Witkowski, we have a gifted musician who is clearly comfortable in her own skin on this material, and ably supported by two marvellously measured players; drummer Scott Latzky, who she has played with for more than two decades, and bassist Daniel Foose, a more recent collaborator.

The trio deliver 15 cuts, all instrumentals, centuries-old hymns sung and played in churches globally, given skillful arrangements by Deanna here. On paper, a jazz trio playing only hymns with no vocals and no choir, sounds a little tame and unlikely to hold the attention unless you are heavily into secular music. But on this album, that preconceived stance is easily put to bed.

Her mission is to get this music played more widely outside of church, and this record is part of a larger project that includes the publication of a folio of Deanna’s arrangements. Plus she aims to also get these jazz arrangements played inside churches. The album is a kind of ‘demo’ for church music directors, and the arrangements are meant for congregational singing.

Deanna settled in New York more than 20 years ago to take up the role of church music director, after earning her degree at Wheaton College, Chicago in 1993 and working for four years on the windy city jazz scene.

What hit me between the eyes on first listen to this album is how easily and smoothly the hymns fit into a jazz vibe. Most of the tracks are under four minutes and they lock tight as a trio, not over indulgent in padding out the set with long solos, more likely to nail the groove, make it swing or lay back and leave space, as a unit.

We have a waltz tempo, gospel pop, funk and soul here…and unadulterated jazz. No hiding place without vocals or other instruments aside from piano, bass and drums. Deanna’s touch on the keys is graceful, serene and at times, rambunctious.

I was trying to liken her to another pianist’s style, living or deceased, and I came up with…no one. Her arrangement of “Hymn To Joy (Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee)”, the Beethoven melody from his ninth Symphony, rises with the grandeur of an Ellingtonian theme.

This is all deeply thought out, emotionally connected, flows like a gentle stream and delivers an even listen of reflection, joy and hope. If you do not believe in God or higher powers, fine; this is highly crafted jazz. If you do, and you love jazz too, you are on a win-win here. It  is 21 years since Deanna first arranged hymns, and I think she has got the hang of it by now!

Deanna was the winner of the 2002 Great American Jazz Piano competition, has released six albums in the last 20 years, and as an accompanist, she has toured with soul singer Lizz Wright (love me a bit of Lizz Wright’s music), and held the seat at the piano for 10 years  in the Jim McNeely-led BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra. Her projects as a leader have featured heavyweights like bassist John Patitucci and saxophonist Donny McCaslin.

Her next project will take her back to Bahia in Brazil, for the whole of April and May 2018, where she holds a residency at the Sacatar Institute, a non-profit foundation that sponsor creative individuals of all disciplines. There she will undertake research for her upcoming composition and recording, the Nossa Senhora Suite.

Merging elements of African-Brazilian ritual chants and text with new music for her quartet, plus four vocalists. Each movement of the suite will explore different a Brazilian version of the Virgin Mary, including Nossa Senhora Aparecida, Patron Saint of Brazil, and Iemanja, a Goddess of the seas.


By Simon Redley




1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5) ‘Dull Zone’
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’


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