Deanna Witkowski: Liturgical Jazz The pianist for the BMI/New York Jazz Composers Orchestra is also a singer and a former musical director at an Episcopal church. Her latest studio album elaborates on familiar jazz forms while embracing sacred texts, including a piece for Easter vespers.

Deanna Witkowski: Liturgical Jazz

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Liane Hansen is away, but she spoke with a jazz pianist, whose new album could be appropriate for an Easter service.

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Deanna Witkowski is a pianist and vocalist, whose latest project embraces the sacred. Like Mary Lou Williams before her, she's taken her jazz talents and merged them with liturgical music.

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HANSEN: DeSantos(ph), the high point at evening mass can be heard on Deanna Witkowski's new CD, "From This Place." This is her fourth recording. And for the past three years, she's been the pianist for the BMI New York jazz composers orchestra, led by Jim McNeely. Deanna Witkowski joins us from our bureau in New York. It's so nice to talk to you again.

Ms. DEANNA WITKOWSKI (Musician): Oh, it's great to be back on.

HANSEN: DeSantos that we listened to is a high point in the evening mass in the Catholic tradition, certainly. Why did you arrange it the way that you did? Why those notes?

Ms. WITKOWSKI: Well, this was written for a specific congregation called All Angels Episcopal Church, which is on the upper west side of Manhattan. I found out that there was a tradition in the church that music directors there would write a mass setting specifically for that congregation.

So this particular service at All Angels was primarily gospel music. We had a gospel choir. So I wanted to write something that kind of fit in with the music that was already present there.

HANSEN: Do you come from a faith background? Did you spend Sundays in church, yeah?

Ms. WITKOWSKI: Yeah. I did, yes.

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Ms. WITKOWSKI: My family moved 11 times before I finished high school. So we didn't even always stay within the same denomination. Sometimes my mom didn't have access to a car.

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Ms. WITKOWSKI: So we went to the church that was closest. But it was mostly Protestant churches growing up.

HANSEN: So you didn't grow up listening to all of that liturgical music.

Ms. WITKOWSKI: I didn't.


Ms. WITKOWSKI: I did grow up listening to hymns, though, or at least singing them in church. So some of the record that takes old hymn text and resets them, those are hymns that I've sung for years.

HANSEN: Do you change them in any way to make them your own?

Ms. WITKOWSKI: Definitely. I don't change the text. The text is the same, but I've written completely new music. And for the one instrumental track, which is retitled "Oh, the Deep Deep Love," it takes the same hymn tune, minus the text, because often the text and the tune were not written at the same time. They weren't written one for the other.

And there can be many hymn tunes. Like if you look in the index in the hymnal, you might see one hymn tune that has three different texts set to it. So for that one particular piece, I took the tune and just reharmonized it, tried to give it a different feel.

HANSEN: And playing it with your quartet.



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HANSEN: You did write lyrics to the title tune, "From This Place."


HANSEN: Tell us the story you're telling.

Ms. WITKOWSKI: Writing this piece was kind of like a long prayer for me. A couple of years ago my quartet was asked to lead a Jazz Vespers at St. Peter's Church in New York. And I wanted to write something specific for the day, because it was on Easter Sunday. And so, of course, one of the techs tells the story that is told every Easter about Mary Magdalene going to Christ's tomb to anoint him.

And finding he's no longer there, she's outside the tomb and there's a person there who she thinks is the gardener. And she says to him, sir, you know, what have you done with Christ's body. Or do you know who's taken him out of the tomb? Why isn't he here? And then the gardener says her name, Mary, and she recognizes that this man is the risen Christ.

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Ms. WITKOWSKI: (Singing) It only shines on your tomb. It only shines on where the door is gone, my feet touch stone cold earth, and I…

HANSEN: When you're writing sacred music like that and this is one you composed and you wrote, given that it's within what could be considered liturgical music, do you set boundaries for yourself? Or are there boundaries that are already imposed about what you can or can't do if you're doing something that is meant to be sacred?

Ms. WITKOWSKI: Well, you know, for this particular piece from this place, I didn't put any boundaries, because first of all, I knew I was just doing it with my quartet. I mean, I think if anything, there's different parameters in my mind if I'm writing for a congregation. And it actually has more to do with what can a large group of people sing together well in a way that they feel comfortable singing, in a way that there's not too much syncopation, there's not too much of a huge range or jumps or things like that.

So it's actually more musical considerations and there, again, I'm most of the time taking text that's already in scripture or old hymn text or mass text. So I don't have to get into big theological debates about what the text is about.

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HANSEN: What has happened when you've played it in a hall or a club? Because, you know, you do have a CD and you will be promoting it, what kind of reaction would you get in a club, yeah?

Ms. WITKOWSKI: Sure. Well, I'm very sensitive to the way I present this music. I don't necessarily do every single one of these pieces in a club. But I think that often, just the way it's presented makes a real difference so that people can feel like whether or not they come from a Christian tradition or have any faith background at all. Or they still at least feel the story and can experience the story in some way or just experience the music.

HANSEN: What kind of music do you like to listen to?

Ms. WITKOWSKI: Right now I listen to a lot of Brazilian music and jazz. I mean, I really think that, you know, if it's up to me, though, I don't know if it is, but the next record I want to do is going to be all Brazilian music.

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Ms. WITKOWSKI: That I've wanted to do that for a long time, because in the last few years I learned to speak Portuguese, I sing in Portuguese and I play a lot of Brazilian music here in the city, have been to Brazil a couple of times, would love to live there for a while. So I can only do so many things at one point.

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HANSEN: So next season we'll get Mardi Gras. You figure you've done the Easter season and Lent before you've done an advent season, you're just going along. Yeah.

Ms. WITKOWSKI: Yeah, no, I just go…

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HANSEN: Deanna Witkowski is a pianist and vocalist and her new recording of liturgical jazz is called "From this Place." She joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much, Deanna.

Ms. WITKOSWKI: Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: Happy Easter.

Ms. WITKOWSKI: Happy Easter to you.

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HANSEN: To hear more of Deanna Witkowski's new CD, go to

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