Take Five With Deanna Witkowski

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Meet Deanna Witkowski: Deanna WitkowskiWinner of the 2002 Great American Jazz Piano Competition and a past guest on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz, pianist/composer/vocalist Deanna Witkowski has been heralded for her "consistently thrilling" playing and her "boundless imagination" (All Music Guide). Her brand new fourth release, From This Place, focuses on her sacred jazz material with musicians including Donny McCaslin and John Patitucci.

Witkowski was featured on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday on April 12, 209; her trio will present Moving With the Spirit: The Sacred Jazz of Mary Lou Williams at the Kennedy Center on May 16, 2009. To hear the interview, watch the Kennedy Center performance, or listen to the new disc, visit Deanna's website.


Piano, voice, flute.

Teachers and/or influences? I didn't start studying jazz until college (I was a classical piano major). Since my school didn't have a jazz piano teacher, I started studying with one of the two part-time jazz instructors: a great tenor saxophonist named Larry Panella.

I studied alto and tenor with Larry for several years. At the end of my sophomore year, I was dying to study jazz piano with someone, and Larry referred me to Brad Williams. Brad taught out of his home near Chicago, so I'd drive to lessons once a week in addition to keeping up my classical lessons. I also drove to another college once a week for two years just to be able to play in jazz combos. I was very driven to play jazz!

Soon after moving to New York 11 years ago, I studied Brazilian music with drummer Vanderlei Pereira for two years. Vanderlei was (and is) a great teacher. I play in Vanderlei's sextet, called Blindfold Test. It's a great group with Jorge Continentino, Paul Meyers, Itaiguara, and Susan Pereira. I feel very proud and honored to get to play in Vanderlei's band!

My favorite pianist is Ed Simon. I love not only his beautiful playing and composing, but his whole approach to music-making, and his centeredness. He exudes calmness, even when he's playing fiery, soulful material.

I have definitely been very influenced by Latin and Brazilian music. I would like to have my next record be an all-Brazilian project.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when... I never remember not wanting to be a musician. My kindergarten teacher had a piano in the classroom, and we sang songs as a class. My teacher told my mom that she thought that I was musically gifted, and that I should have some kind of music lessons. I didn't start lessons until I was nine—and when I started, my family didn't have a piano. We had a two-and-a-half octave Organaire. You'd turn on this switch and the instrument would make this whirring engine-like sound! There's a picture of the Organaire at my website.

Anyway, I never remember not wanting to practice. When I needed more keys beyond what the Organaire offered, I practiced on a neighbor's piano until my family purchased an upright for $50. I played on that upright all through high school.

Your dream band:

I would really like to work with more Brazilian artists. I'd love to play with Leila Pinheiro, Monica Salmaso, Filo Machado, Djavan and Ivan Lins (as the second keyboardist!).

I feel very privileged that on my new release, From This Place, I had such great musicians to work with: Donny McCaslin, John Patitucci, Scott Latzky, and guest vocalists Laila Biali, Peter Eldridge, and Kate McGarry. I'm ready to make another record with all of them!

I also don't really think in terms of a "dream band" for my own group. I have been playing with my core trio of Dave Ambrosio and either Scott Latzky or Vince Cherico for so long (with Dave, for 11 years) that it's already my "dream band." Now the "dream" is to get a lot more bookings happening!

Road story: Your best or worst experience: Ask Dave Ambrosio (bassist) or Vince Cherico (drummer) about taking grapefruit across the Canadian border. That's all I'll say in print.

Dave and Vince (and also Scott Latzky) and I have toured a lot together. It's like having a family history—we can go back and recall stories from gigs that we did eight years ago (and usually we laugh about them, even if they were stressful at the time).

Your favorite recording in your discography and why? My recordings are all pretty distinct from each other, so I don't know that I have a favorite. However, right now I'd say that I'm partial to From This Place, because it shows some aspects of myself that aren't on my other recordings. My singing is much stronger, thanks in large part to my vocal coach, Jocelyn Rasmussen; there are three pieces with original lyrics; and fourteen of the fifteen tracks have original music.

The focus on resetting sacred text is something that is unusual, and which is making this recording stand out. Also, having the expanded pieces with three to four singers really added a new dimension to this release.

The first Jazz album I bought was: Shirley Horn's Here's to Life. It's still one of my all-time favorite recordings.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically? That's probably for someone else to determine, as I'm too close to the music to say what I'm contributing.

However, I'd say that the most important thing that I can contribute in general is allowing myself to follow my own path—and to sharing that in music and in life in general.

CDs you are listening to now:

Dori, Nana, and Dorival Caymmi, Para Caymmi (Warner Music);

David Binney, Third Occasion (Mythology);

Ed Simon, Edward Simon (Kokopelli);

Toninho Ferragutti, Nem Sol Nem Lua (Biscoito Fino).

What is in the near future? presenting my project, Moving With the Spirit: The Sacred Music of Mary Lou Williams, at the Kennedy Center in May, 2009.


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