Deanna Witkowski has red hair, grew up in the western half of New York State and Pennsylvania. Nothing unusual there, but then you come to the part where she plays a style of jazz that is heavily influenced with Latin vibes. Whoa, where did that come from? We could make this into a story that says Witkowski had designs on being a famous Latin artist from the time she was a little girl, but the truth is, at least in the beginning, it was more a fluke.
She recalls, "I was in graduate school at DePaul University in Chicago. I remember this very clearly--it was the summer before I started (my program). I didn't have a piano in my apartment so I would practice at the school. Each of the practice rooms would have these little panes of glass so people could see you when you were practicing. I was playing in one of these rooms," says Witkowski, "and this man came and knocked on the door. He said he was looking for musicians for the salsa band. I guess he figured if he went to the music school, he might find some people for his band. He asked me if I was interested."
"He brought in some charts. I didn't know a lot about Latin music. I had only been playing jazz for about three years at that time." Witkowski laughs while telling the story and says she told the man, "I will try and see what it is like."
Witkowski started attending the Salsa band rehearsals and found she was listening more frequently to Latin Jazz. "I played with their band for about two years and at the end of that time, I started playing with a jazz singer named April Aloisio."
Witkowski couldn't go wrong with tutelage from the soprano noted for her exotic Brazilian tunes. Aloisio has been compared to Astrud Gilberto and Flora Purim.
Witkowski's mentoring continued under drummer Vanderlei Pereira. "He would put rhythm sections together," she says. "He would have a pianist, bassist and accordion player join him on the drums. Vanderlei would show me on the piano how to split up a groove between different parts of my hand, having certain fingers play one part and having other fingers play the other part. It was during this time that I started listening to more Brazilian music."
Deanna Witkowski has been immersing herself in learning Portuguese (the language of Brazil) the past three years. She believes that by becoming more engaged with the culture of Brazil, it will assist with her compositions. "I wanted to arrange more Brazilian tunes around singing," says Witkowski.
"The last two summers, I attended this program outside of San Francisco called California Brazil camp. It is a camp in a redwood grove in Sonoma County," she says. "A bunch of musicians from the Bay area and Brazil come and teach for a week. For the last two years the main guest artists have included a guitarist named Guinga. Guinga is from Rio (de Janeiro). He is well known in Brazil for his compositions, which have a lot of classical influences and are very romantic. He combines it with Brazilian grooves."
Witkowski refined her Spanish hues with pianists Chucho Valdes and Hilario Duran. Although originality is something to be applauded and is often missing with today's music scene, it can bring with it a different set of challenges as Witkowski has discovered.
Not all artists travel with a full compliment of musicians and often need to source local artists. "It is really hard to play with pickup musicians because for one thing my music isn't straight ahead," says Witkowski, "it's not all Brazilian--it's not all Latin Jazz. There are so many influences. I need someone who can play all these different styles of music. It isn't as though I am doing standards or songs that are all one style."
Often what separates the good artists from the great ones is their ability and willingness to experiment outside their comfort zone. If that is to be used as a barometer then Witkowski is well on her way. She has remained open and flexible while staying true to her mixed jazz roots.
"I have listened to a lot of different styles of music and have been like a sponge," she says. "I don't have any intention of being a jazz purist or only playing music from a (particular) decade. I am transparent with my writing and I think that is a big part of my music. I would never want to lose that. I think it is really important and allows people to see or have some kind of connection emotionally to the music. It is a trait that separates good creative people from great creative people," she says.
Noted New York based Jazz singer / composer Julie Hardy acted as her vocal coach prior to the creation of Length of Days. Witkowski credits Hardy with taking her vocals to a new level. The singer possesses an ethereal quality to her voice, which is particularly noticeable on tracks such as "HI-LILI, HI-LO" and the title cut "Length of Days."
A big part of Deanna's success has been her ability to keep the same group of New York musicians together for several years. She started performing with bassist Dave Ambrosio eight years ago when she first made the move to the Big Apple. Soprano and tenor saxophonist, Donny McCaslin, who was magnificent on the Wide Open Window CD, has been with her for the last five years--while drummer Vince Cherico has shared the stage for the past four.
Witkowski tells me that she derives a little more pleasure from her performances than the time spent composing music, but she had to be really pressed to choose one over the other. "The composing is very well thought out. Sometimes it is a slowed down mental process. With performing, I am not thinking so much technically. I am thinking more about how much I can listen to what is going on, respond, and add something. It is almost like my brain is functioning in a different way. Composing (consists) more of my sitting down, playing something and trying to see if I can find a germ of an idea that I like," she says. "It may be just a couple of chords that fit together. (Sometimes) it is part of a melody, a rhythm or a line. It is like a little puzzle."
Many of Witkowski’s compositions come straight from her personal life. "Prayer For Linda" reflects a time of sorrow as she reached out to a friend whose brother had just died from brain cancer. "Song for Sarah" was a birthday gift to a friend, and "Beautiful Hands" was birthed from a compliment she received from Billy Childs concerning her abilities as a pianist. Those skills are particularly noticeable on Cole Porter's "From This Moment On" (Wide Open Window).
Still other pieces are comprised of what she likes to refer to as the reworking of non-original compositions. In speaking about one such piece, "Hi-LILI, HI-LO" she says, "I thought it would be cool if I could just take the melody extend it and not make it feel so metrical. I colored the harmonies to make them darker."
Despite the fact her last two albums, Wide Open Window and more recently Length of Days, have started to attract the attention that eluded Witkowski earlier in her career, she remains humble. Appearances at the Kennedy Center's Women in Jazz Festival and an appearance on Marian McPartland's
Piano Jazz radio program have created a demand for Witkowski's music. With reviewers in some circles writing that she is a rising star on the jazz scene, you would think she would draw a deep breath and enjoy the moment. She is, however, not content and simply tells me there is much work to be done.
You can listen to samples of Deanna Witkowski's music at her website.