With each new recording leading up to this one, Makes the heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns Deanna Witkowski has shown herself to be a composer who is nothing short of brilliant. On one level, her music is an example of supreme craftsmanship – she has mastered with mathematical precision the complexities relating to counterpoint, producing keyboard music in which various lines of argument have been wonderfully sustained. On this 2017 recording, she has pared down her music to that performed in a trio setting, staying close to music of a sacred nature. On Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns Miss Witkowski re-creates music of the deepest humanity, coming to life the quite drama of Jesus Christ’s own divinity and humanity.
At the heart of each of the fifteen tracks is music that is an integral component of the praise and worship included in Church liturgy, with a strong emphasis on congregational participation in the form of their (original) chorales. These (original) hymns were not narrative pieces – that is, derived from Biblical narratives – but functioned as commentaries on biblical texts; even Gospel readings. The texts are extremely pious, almost all of which emphasise God’s mercy in the face of the abject nature and, more importantly, in the sending of his only Son, Jesus to redeem man from his sinful nature.
The composers of the originals vary from St. Francis of Assisi (Laudato Si -“Lassi uns Erfreuen/All Creatures of Our God and King”) arranged from the German Jesuit hymnal (1623) to the Welsh (“Hyfrydol/Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”), a tune by Rowland H. Pritchard (1830) and later, better-known ones such as the African American Spirituals “There is a Balm in Gilead” and “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian”, (both undated) as well as “Abbot’s Leigh” by Cyril Taylor (1942). In each of the fourteen + one tracks the vocal parts have been removed so that the trio stands alone. This might be seen as a natural corollary to the arrangement of each hymn for an improvising trio. But it is, in fact, a rather courageous one as it leaves all of the emotion to piano, bass and drums.
Of course the onus is on Deanna Witkowski to deliver the usually soaring vocal line and the counterpoint. This she does to great success through the magical use of dynamics with both her left and right hand. With her extremely light touch Miss Witkowski lets the melody float with elaborate grace to often infusing into the simple chorale tune – with her left hand – strands of polyphony with which she creates an elaborate fantasia. Here, with wonderful arrangements often featuring a delicate curlicue of a bass line here and a drum frill there, Miss Witkowski’s spare modern arrangements still manage to build large and magnificent musical edifices around these hymns.
Clearly drawing avowed inspiration from the great composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams, Deanna Witkowski nevertheless makes this music ‘sing’ in a voice very that is much her own. Hers is a pianism crafted to soar, aria-like (or like so much ‘vocalise’), almost mystically conjured by gilded arpeggios and gleaming glissandi. With superb harmonic accompaniment by Daniel Foose on bass and Scott Latzky on drums this is an album to die for.
Track list – 1: Cwm Rhondda (Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah); 2: Hyfrydol (Love Divine, All Loves Excelling); 3: There Is a Balm in Gilead; 4: Lasst uns Erfreuen (All Creatures of Our God and King); 5: Nicaea (Holy, Holy, Holy); 6: Woodworth (Just as I Am); 7: St. Elizabeth (Fairest Lord Jesus); 8: Kings of Orient (We Three Kings); 9: Beach Spring; 10: Foundation (How Firm a Foundation); 11: Hymn to Joy (Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee); 12: Lord, I Want to Be a Christian; 13: Holy Manna; 14: Abbot’s Leigh; 15: St. Elizabeth (Fairest Lord Jesus)
Personnel – Deanna Witkowski: piano and arrangements; Daniel Foose: bass; Scott Latzky: drums
Released – 2017
Label – Tilapia Records
Runtime – 53:50