The improvisatory phrase and the song of praise don't stem from the same place, but who's to say they can't break bread together? With Makes The Heart To Sing: Jazz Hymns, pianist Deanna Witkowski erases lines between the strict-toned sacred and malleable secular, creating music that manages to be tradition-minded and open-minded all at once.
The fifteen tracks contained herein pull from myriad sources and eras. An African-American spiritual cozies up next to a 17th-century German hymn, a folk melody calling back to Central Europe leads to American clergyman John Henry Hopkins' famed "Kings Of Orient" melody, and a bit of Beethoven's most joyous contribution to the classical canon follows an upbeat taste of the shape note hymnal Southern Harmony. Through it all, the tie that binds is Witkowski and her deep and abiding passion for this music. Whether painting "There Is A Balm In Gilead" with appropriately soothing tone colors, giving "Lasst uns Erfreuen" a contemporary sheen, or playing atop a standard rock backdrop on "Hymn To Joy," she keeps a keen eye and steady hands on the scales that balance reverence and relevance.
It takes sensitive souls to work this particular seam, and Witkowski's bandmates fit the bill. Bassist Daniel Foose brings fluidity and warmth to bear in the grounding he provides, also making his mark out front on a relaxed "Lord, I Want To Be A Christian," and drummer Scott Latzky plays with mature restraint, shadowing Witkowski in softer environs and laying down hip, light-touch grooves, as with the foundation of "Foundation."
While the livelier fare on the album has its charms, it's the mellower material that makes a greater impression. The calmer the atmosphere, the more moving the music becomes. There's nothing showy here, nor is there a need for any fireworks. The measured approach preferred by Witkowski and company accomplishes the mission. The heart sings and the heavens listen.
Cwm Rhondda (Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah); Hyfrydol (Love Divine, All Loves Excelling); There is a Balm in Gilead; Lasst uns Erfreuen (All Creatures of Our God and King); Nicaea (Holy, Holy, Holy); Woodworth (Just As I Am); St. Elizabeth (Fairest Lord Jesus); Kings of Orient (We Three Kings); Beach Spring; Foundation (How Firm a Foundation); Hymn to Joy (Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee); Lord, I Want to Be a Christian; Holy Manna; Abbot’s Leigh; St. Elizabeth (Fairest Lord Jesus).
Deanna Witkowski: piano, arrangements; Daniel Foose: bass; Scott Latzky: drums.
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