Deanna Witkowski: Length of Days (2005)
Brian Camelio's ArtistShare model, allowing music to be distributed without the inherent loss of profitability that comes from dealing with all manner of middle men, has taken off in the past two years, with releases by artists like Maria Schneider, Jim Hall, and Cuong Vu. By placing more control in the artist's hands, he's made it possible for the kinds of sales numbers associated with jazz's more marginalized position to not inherently result in financial loss. And while the idea of internet-only sales is relatively new, the success of many of ArtistShare's releases proves that people are willing to accept innovative ways to get their music.
It's an especially important concept for less-known artists like pianist/vocalist Deanna Witkowski. While her first two albumsHaving to Ask (Orchard, 2000) and Wide Open Window (Khaeon, 2003)demonstrated an emerging talent, Length of Days is her most fully-realized to date, and consequently a perfect fit for the growing reputation and influence of ArtistShare.
It's no surprise that Witkowski studied with Chucho Valdés and Hilario Duràn, as her own writing clearly reflects an interest in Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music. But she's equally informed by the more detailed compositional approach of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays. The airy two-chord vamp that provides the foundation for her solo on "Beautiful Hands sounds, in fact, like an outtake from Pat Metheny Group (ECM, 1978), specifically the popular "Phase Dance. But her conception is all-acoustic, incorporating her wordless vocals in the same way that Metheny would on later albums like Still Life (Talking) (Geffen, 1987).
Still, while Witkowski retains strong ties to the music of Brazil, her references are subsumed in a distinctively soft veneer that isn't afraid to apply bolder contemporary harmony. When she sings lyrics, as she does on the little-known MGM tune "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo and her own title tracka melancholy ballad which still possesses a clear optimismshe remains whisper-like and understated.
The overall ambience of Length of Days is relaxed and gentleintrospective, evenalthough the quartet's look at Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night has a slow burn to it, as does the aforementioned "Beautiful Hands. And while Witkowski's piano style bears little of Monk's quirkiness on the classic "Straight, No Chaser, her endingwhere she and saxophonist Donny McCaslin take the final phrase and reiterate it on a continual ascension into the stratosphereshows that she's not without a sense of humour.
Witkowski's playing is considered but never contrived. Though she reflects some of Lyle Mays' romantic impressionism, she's a more steadfastly economical player. McCaslin, on the other hand, generates real heat on "Beautiful Hands and meshes beautifully with Witkowski's voice on "Song for Sarah and in playful call-and-response fashion on Prayer for Linda.
The depth of Witkowski's approach is almost concealed by her elegant delivery, but she's another contemporary jazz artist who successfully masks complexity in an undeniably accessible sound. Length of Days is a high water mark in Witkowski's career to date, and one well worth checking out.
Note: ArtistShare releases can only be purchased through the artist and/or ArtistShare sites.
Track Listing: Beautiful Hands; Hi-Lili, Hi-LO; Straight, No Chaser, Length of Days; Prayer for Linda; In the Still of the Night; Feed the Birds; Song for Sarah; I'm Beginning to See the Light.
Personnel: Deanna Witkowski: piano, vocal; Donny McCaslin: soprano and tenor saxophones; Dave Ambrosio: bass; Vince Cherico: drums.
Record Label: ArtistShare