Lucid Culture


Deanna Witkowski Revisits Mary Lou Williams with Depth and Insight

It’s hard to think of anyone better suited to playing Mary Lou Williams tunes than the woman who wrote the book about her. Pianist Deanna Witkowski just published her biography of the pioneering, individualistic jazz pianist. Despite daunting odds, with Witkowski’s New York band scattered across the country after the 2020 totalitarian takeover, she’s released a new album, Force of Nature, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a dynamic, inspired mix of Williams hits and rarities along with a couple of concert favorites and a lone original.

The opening number is a very fresh take of Gjon Mili Jam Session, which Williams dedicated to the photographer who snapped the Life Magazine shots which introduced her to a national audience. Witkowski romps through bluesy variations, up to a striking, stern modality over the floating swing of bassist Daniel Foose and drummer Scott Latzky, trumpeter Clay Jenkins raising the energy with his soaring, sailing lines.

Next Witkowski plays three segments from Williams’ iconic Zodiac Suite. The trio of Witkowski, Foose and Latzky have their horns down for Aries, through a pulsing bass solo to the cold ending. They reinvent Taurus with a dusky spaciousness before converging with a boogie-tinged disquiet. Jenkins returns for a spare, lustrously elegiac diptych of Cancer and Act of Contrition, from Mary Lou’s Mass. For a completely different but equally interesting interpretation, check out Chris Pattishall’s version of the entire suite.

From there the quartet burn through a hard-swinging but brooding interpretation of Lonely Moments: Witkowski really gets that persistent dichotomy in Williams’ music, and the rhythm section’s darkly latin inflections as the song peaks out are spot-on.

Next, she pairs What’s Your Story, Morning Glory with Ghost of Love in an expansive, lyrical take, beginning with a glittering, spacious solo intro, then rising to an incisive chordally-fueled intensity. Then she returns to a spare, sagaciously bluesy approach, leaving just enough space for that ghost to get in. Witkowski’s original here is the glistening, verdant title track, peaking out with a considerably darker, anthemic sensibility.

She resurrects the rare Williams b-side Carcinoma in its original piano/bass/drums trio form: it’s much more suave and upbeat than the title would imply. And she reinvents Stompin’ at the Savoy as a stunningly plaintive, plainspoken, understated lament commemorating events in Williams’ life, including the 1943 Harlem riots.

Witkowski teams up with bassist Dwayne Dolphin and drummer Roger Humphries for a deftly latin Ellington-ized version of Intermission, breaking up her icepick modalities with the occasional judiciously slashing riff over terse variations on a bass loop. Juan Tizol would be proud.

They reach from a drifting chill to a defiant sense of redemption in Williams’ JFK requiem Dirge Blues. Witkowski’s final number with this trio is My Blue Heaven, shifting from a slinky bolero groove to terse, punchy swing and back, with plenty of colorful tradeoffs. It’s awfully early in the year to be talking about the best jazz albums of 2022, but this is a gem.

February 6, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Sound Assembly – Edge of the Mind

Truth in advertising: this is an edgy album. Basically a big, powerful vehicle (eight horns, five reeds, piano, guitar and a rhythm section) for the work of composers JC Sanford and David Schumacher, Edge of the Mind by Sound Assembly pushes the envelope, finding yet more new places where big band jazz can go. This is the kind of cd that you want to listen to analytically but always end up hearing emotionally. Helpfully, the cd comes with extensive liner notes by producer John McNeil which, rather than being plot spoilers or totally Phil (as in Phil Schaap), help the listener look for key moments which more often than not are crystalized and understated, done almost before you notice. The arrangements here take on a lush, rich feel, very evocative of Gil Evans’ orchestration with Miles Davis. What’s most striking is that the charts themselves more often than not carry the rhythm, the bass and drums taking on an auxiliary role adding subtly fluid embellishments. Yet perhaps the most captivating aspect of the entire cd is how those big charts intersperse themselves within all the individual solos – and vice versa. Not only is there interplay between the instruments, there’s also interplay between improvisation and composition. This is very cerebral music. Yet it’s also breathtakingly beautiful in places for many, many reasons, a few of them enumerated here.


There’s Schumacher’s kite flying piece Edge of a Window, the cd’s second track, slow and atmospheric with elegant trumpet from John Bailey and a long, brightly ornamented piano solo from Deanna Witkowski, Eric Rasmussen’s alto sax picking up the pace a bit as the whole band pulses in, rhythmically upping the ante. Track three, Slide Therapy, by Sanford opens with slippery slides from both trombone and guitar, woozy and eerie until the band jumps in and takes over with a clever arrangement that alternates groups of players warping the time signature.


A playful, swinging vibe takes over on another Sanford composition, the vintage post-bop style Chuck ‘n Jinx, a tribute to a man and his cat featuring an expansive Mark Patterson trombone solo and several trick false endings. With Kate McGarry’s soulful, understatedly exuberant vocals over the longing of horn swells and sweet baritone sax from Dave Riekenberg, The Radiance of Spring (by Schumacher)  is the romantic highlight of the cd. By contrast, Rhythm of the Mind (by Sanford) opens with a circular, nebulously African melody carried by horns and chanting voices. How the melody grows as the orchestration builds is nothing short of fascinating.


My Star (by Schumacher) is a richly lyrical piece lit up by a strikingly low-register Alan Ferber trombone solo – and then David Smith’s trumpet comes flying out of it with complete abandon as the band swells. Ives, Eyes (by Sanford) has a similar brightness, Witkowski’s vivid, slow piano abetted by tersely colorful bass by David Ambrosio. The cd closes on a clamorous, hectic note with the tensely energetic BMT, evocative of Mingus at his most carefree, Ben Kono’s wildly offhand, “gotta run” tenor solo clearly late for the train and ably making up for lost time.


The only quibble with this cd is the couple of annoying, gratuitously garish Steve Vai/Buckethead-style electric guitar solos: they could have been edited out and the album would be stronger for it. Memo to axeman: just because you can play like that doesn’t mean you should.

March 11, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments