June 2003

Deanna Witkowski - Wide Open Window
Khaeon Records CD-KMW200303
Released: 2003

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

A lot of good things have happened to Deanna Witkowski since she recorded her debut, Having to Ask, in 1997. She won the 2002 Great American Jazz Piano Competition in October, and she was the subject of a lengthy interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition a few weeks ago. In March, she taped a segment of Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland, which NPR will broadcast next Fall. She’s poised, it would seem, for jazz stardom.

Witkowski recorded Having to Ask when she was 26, but she was already a confident and resourceful player. Her melodies were fresh and spontaneous, and while she paid homage on occasion to pianists like Bill Evans or Chick Corea, she never relied on them or anyone else for her sound. On Wide Open Window, her second disc, she has further developed her already impressive technical skills and broadened her emotional reach.

Cole Porter’s "All Through the Night" opens Wide Open Window audaciously. Witkowski plays the tune with breathtaking energy and spins out a seemingly endless series of variations on Porter’s melody. She also slyly introduces a Latin rhythm into the arrangement, demonstrating her exquisite feel for unusual time signatures. Witkowski’s interest in Latin jazz led her to study with jazz pianists Chucho Valdés and Hilario Duran and with percussionist Bobby Sanabria. She also spent some time in Kenya and South Africa and absorbed the rhythms of the music in those countries. As a result, her music shows a tremendous ease with complex rhythms.

"A Rare Appearance" is an upbeat tune that Witkowski wrote as an assignment for a class she took with Brazilian percussionist Vanderlei Pereira. He told her the tune did not follow the traditional pattern of the baiao rhythm -- the goal of the assignment -- but she says, "I liked how it came out anyway!" The song highlights one of the most striking aspects of Witkowski’s artistry: She writes melodies that are memorable and likable without being cloying. It’s also one of three tracks that feature her wonderfully light, airy vocals.

Wide Open Window doesn’t use exotic rhythms on every tune. The title track, which Witkowski dedicates to Mary Lou Williams, is the most blues influenced composition she’s recorded so far. She begins the song by hanging close to the beat, injecting at several points some witty, Monk-like accents with her left hand. As the song builds, her rhythmic curiosity comes into play. She fragments the beat and comes at it from different angles, especially in her exchanges with the other players on the track: Jonathan Paul on bass, Tom Hipskind on drums, and Donny McCaslin on tenor.

Witkowski wrote half the tunes on Wide Open Window and she chose five standards -- three of them by Cole Porter -- to fill out the disc. Each of the songs gives her the chance to explore music rhythmically, harmonically, and emotionally. I never sensed that on Having to Ask Witkowski ever fell back on technique or that she hesitated to plunge full force into any of her improvisations. But on Wide Open Window she brings an added urgency and range to her playing. She was clearly confident on her first disc. Here she cuts loose in a way that seems to me utterly brave, allowing her talent and inspiration to flow without limit. To state it plainly, she tears it up.

Her accompanists are with her at every step. Paul and Hipskind play live with her regularly and appeared on Having To Ask. Hipskind is a loose-limbed and powerful drummer whose cymbal work is a highlight of the disc. Throughout Witkowski’s solos, Hipskind’s cymbal and snare drum accents push her along, exhorting her to go further. Paul also gives her firm rhythmic support and plays some wonderful melody lines that harmonize effectively with Witkowski’s.

Donny McCaslin joins Witkowski’s trio on half the tracks and he displays a strong sense of melody and, on the tracks that call for it, a forceful grittiness. He does a tremendous public service on an arrangement of Cole Porter’s "From This Moment On" by reclaiming the soprano sax from the smooth-jazz hucksters who have so dominated the instrument for the last decade. Witkowski brings out the best in the other musicians on the disc, but she also seems to evoke a spirit of generosity among them. Even when all the players are firing at full force, they never play over each other. Each of them works to underscore the others’ strengths.

As she did on her debut, Witkowski conveys a message of hope and beauty on Wide Open Window. She has added an occasional edginess and dissonance to her writing and playing, particularly on a composition like "New August Tune," where she and McCaslin trade melodies that have a slightly dark hue to them. Yet she always returns to a feeling of optimism. Witkowski acknowledges life’s difficulties -- this isn’t light jazz -- but she doesn’t linger on them. Her music embraces life in its complexity.

With Wide Open Window, Deanna Witkowski becomes more than a jazz musician of great promise. She is now a pianist who clearly has a lot on her mind and she is determined to express it with skill and conviction. With her formidable talent, there’s virtually no limit to what she can play.