Sunday, October 11, 2009

Deanna Witkowski

This interview I did with Deanna Witkowski appears in the Oct. 11, 2009 issue of The Living Church Magazine.

Mary Magdalene has meant different things to people throughout the ages. For Deanna Witkowski, she was the inspiration for the title track of her new CD of sacred jazz, “From This Place.”

Scheduled to perform for Easter vespers two years ago at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, commonly known as “the jazz church,” in midtown Manhattan, Witkowski wanted to write an original piece appropriate for the service. She meditated on the assigned scripture passage about Mary Magdalene going to Jesus’ tomb and finding it empty, trying to put herself in the story and imagining more.

“She probably has all these other things she wants to say,” and so Witkowski let her say them.

Early, I wake in the gloom, shell-shocked dreaming awake,” to go to the tomb, only to find it empty with two angels who ask her why she weeps. “And I wonder if they want to hear the story of my life. The darkness that I carried before I met this Christ.”

In scripture Mary says little, but in Witkowski’s song she is heard.

“Performing it I feel I go on a journey with Mary,” she says. “It’s something to do with finding joy, coming to the place for Christ to speak my name, something to dwell on.”

Witkowski recalled her own journey one humid Sunday afternoon sitting in the choir room at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side before leading the young adult choir for the evening Mass. With her long honey-blond curls piled up on the back of her head and wearing no make-up, she looks at least a decade younger than her 37 years.

Baptized into the Episcopal tradition, she went from church to church as she moved with her family 11 times as a child. Many of the congregations were evangelical, nondenominational or whatever was closest if her mother didn’t have a car. Later, when it was up to her as a student at Wheaton College, a Christian school 30 miles west of Chicago where she majored in classical jazz performance, she chose Episcopal churches, first the Church of the Resurrection in west Chicago and later St. Mark’s in Geneva, IL.

After graduation, the Episcopal tradition was to come to her again and have a large impact on her life. In the late 1990s she took a job in New York as music director of All Angels’ Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. One of the appealing thing about this church was its practice of having its MDs compose Masses of their own. Witkowski, a singer, pianist and composer, took to the high church liturgical music. More than a third of the works on the new CD are from this time, including the “Kyrie,” “Gloria,” Sanctus” and “Agnus Dei” she reimagined and arranged for the church’s gospel choir, which was made up largely of homeless people.

As with the Mary Magdalene song, she had tried to relate to the ancient hymns of the Mass; for the “Kyrie” she made a list of things she wanted God to have mercy on, both for herself and the world. “Doing that work helped me be in the text more.”

All of the hymn resetting (“Take My Life,’ “I Heard the Voice,” “Pass Me Not”) were written for All Angels' services. “Take My Life” was originally written as a duet for her and Tyrone Flowers, her gospel choir co-director who did a lot of work backing up gospel singers, Cece Winans among them.

The All Angels’ job was followed by one at the Church of the Redeemer, a bilingual (English/Spanish) Episcopal church in Astoria, NY, where she was writing bilingual prayer responses, children's choir music and arranging hymns so that they had salsa, reggae, or bolero feels. The English language service had a small congregation, only about 25 people, while the service in Spanish had more than 200. Witkowski focused on developing a repertoire that could be used at both services.

While much of the music on the new CD has its roots in All Angels, some comes from Witkowski’s work with the Rev. Bill Carter, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Clarks Summit, PA, and founder and pianist with the Presbybop Quartet. He met Witkowski in 2002 when he was working on a jazz hymnal with some grant money from Calvin College. The hymnal was called "Swing a New Song to the Lord," and Carter wanted to compile fresh settings of congregational music in a jazz vein. A quick web search revealed Witkowski's name as a possible contributor to the project. She was invited to meet with the project committee in a retreat center just north of New York City.

“Her talent overwhelmed us, and we were delighted to commission her to compose a couple of the tunes,” Carter said. “She is the real deal: a gifted jazz musician who is a person of profound Christian faith. We are delighted that she continues to cultivate her abilities, and that she integrates them so joyfully in her life and work.”

“From This Place,” her fourth CD, features Witkowski as vocalist and pianist, with Donny McCaslin (saxes), John Patitucci (bass), Scott Latzky (drums) and guest vocalists Laila Biali, Kate McGarry and Peter Elderidge. It is also available as sheet music from her web site,

“Music can be one big unifying factor in the church,” she says. And she expects it to be with the CD, with the Catholics and Episcopalians at home with the music from the Mass and Protestants relating to the 19th century hymns like “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” “Pass Me Not” and “Take My Life and Let It Be.”

Beside going in a new direction musically, her faith journey also was changing course as she began reading books on contemplative prayer -- “to sit and enjoy God’s presence and not have to have it be all that talking” -- and delved into reading mystics like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. “I realized all these people were Catholic.” And so she made the decision to join them; at Easter Vigil this year she was received into the Catholic tradition at St. Paul’s.

Although based in New York, Witkowski has toured extensively, performing in such far-flung spots as Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, at the Tel Aviv Opera House and three times at the Kennedy Center. With “From This Place,” she is presenting herself in a new way.

“One really interesting thing in terms of all the different kinds of interviews I’ve been doing is it’s forcing me to think about how I present my faith,” she said. “With this CD, I hope if people don’t identify themselves as Christians they can find something that gives them hope or touches them in some way.”

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