New York City-based jazz musician and composer Deanna Witkowski visited the Collegeville Institute as part of the Writing Theology for the General Reader: A Week with Thomas G. Long summer writing workshop. It’s been a long-standing conviction at the Collegeville Institute that “unlikely conversation partners” frequently yield unexpected insight. With that in mind, we invited Witkowski to speak to the group of pastor/writers about how the practice of musical improvisation relates to the daily work of serving a parish, and to writing itself.
Witkowski is a graduate of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, and is the winner of the 2002 Great American Jazz Piano Competition. She has recorded six albums ranging in style from jazz standards to Brazilian-flavored pieces to jazz adaptations of hymns and classical music.
As part of her “text” for the evening at Collegeville, Witkowski played two jazz hymn arrangements from her new recording, Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns, as well as three original songs from her 2009 liturgical jazz album, From This Place. Susan Sink sat down with Witkowski when she returned to campus a few days after her talk as a participant in the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians (ALCM) Conference. As one of three composer recipients of the LutheranArts-sponsored Martin Luther Hymn Prize, Witkowski had recently composed a new choral work that received its premiere at Central Lutheran in Minneapolis.
What did you share with the participants of Thomas Long’s workshop?
The central idea was that pastors can learn to use the lessons of improvisation as part of their practice, both in their actual writing and speaking and in their daily interactions with congregants. I asked that, prior to my time with them, workshop participants listen to two very different recorded versions of the the hymn tune, ST. ELIZABETH (“Fairest Lord Jesus”) from my upcoming album. This is the only solo piano track on the recording; the rest is trio with bass and drums. Unlike the 13 other tracks, this was the only hymn tune that was not arranged in advance. During the recording I had complete freedom to change harmonies, key centers, to extend phrases– to not follow a set form. I also have played “Fairest Lord Jesus” in many contexts over the last two decades, so I know not just the tune, but a particular text to the tune (in fact, the title of my new recording, Makes the Heart to Sing, comes from the one of the verses of “Fairest”).
I started my presentation by playing my arrangement of HYFRYDOL (one text to this tune is “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”). This jazz arrangement was originally written to facilitate congregational singing, which makes its function (and how I improvise on it) different than the solo versions of ST. ELIZABETH. I demonstrated how I improvised over a specific structure of the tune, and how I have optional extra bars that I might leave in or out when playing while a congregation is singing. I also talked about how, when I play this with my trio, there is a huge element of interaction that happens between piano, bass, and drums: we all make reflexive musical choices that are based on listening to each other in the moment.
The main thing that guides all of my improvisation is listening. In ST. ELIZABETH, I was able to focus solely on the sound I was extracting from a particular piano (as a pianist, I have to improvise all the time, as each instrument has its own peculiarities). If I loved the sound of one particular chord, or note, I could repeat it or lengthen it. I had no ties to having to “lead” a congregation in singing. This was very different from HYFRYDOL, where the arrangement was written to support group singing.
All of this can relate to pastors: how can I make a particular text new when it has been heard a hundred times? Where are the openings where I can sit in a passage and observe my reactions? I’m very into the Ignatian practice of imaginative prayer, so I love reading a gospel story, or a hymn text, and inserting myself into the scene in some way. I would argue that the entire act of writing and improvising comes from a heightened awareness, a deep listening, that guides all of your choices.
That seems similar to revising poetry or writing poetry.
One of the writing workshop participants asked if my arranging is similar to writing poetry or a short story where you follow a character or a thread, not knowing where it will lead, and arrive at an ending that is both surprising yet inevitable (that comment actually reminded me of a Denise Levertov poem, “I learned that her name was Proverb,” which I set for a women’s choir).
I definitely experience surprises in arranging, and especially in improvising in a group context. I don’t always know what chord or note I’ll close a piece with– and if the direction of an arrangement is headed in a particular direction, I often feel like my final choice is not inevitable. I’ll spend a lot of time trying out different harmonies to see which one sounds most like the right one to end on at the time. But because my harmonic sense is more wide open than much traditional harmony, or even much jazz harmony, the final chord often provides a sense of opening, rather than a sense of closing. It’s not like, let’s call them, traditional chord progressions: if you sing “Happy Birthday,” and sang the last phrase, “happy birthday to…,” you’re set up to end on the tonic chord and note. But if I reharmonize the entire tune, I have a lot more choices in terms of what my final chord will be.
This brings up another key element that we discussed at the workshop: tension and release. All music has movement between various degrees of these two things. I’m playing with this a lot in terms of harmony and rhythm, and these elements together create movement and dynamic shape, something that is again a vital part of writing.
How did you get started in church music?
Usually the question I hear is, “How did you get into jazz?” While much of my work involves sacred music, my overarching work is simply being a jazz musician and, more broadly, an improvising musician who works in many different styles.
My start in merging jazz and liturgy happened when I moved from Chicago to New York City in 1997 to work as music director at All Angels’ Church (Episcopal). The church specifically wanted a composer and pianist who could lead a gospel choir, play classical music, traditional hymnody, pop, and could incorporate as many congregants as possible in the musical life of the parish. I composed a Mass setting (my Evening Mass) for the 5 pm service that was more R&B/contemporary gospel and another for the morning (my Morning Mass) that was still jazz influenced, but less “poppy” than the evening music. I literally composed or arranged new music for the church every Sunday.
When I left All Angels in 2000, I realized that I had a large body of original congregational music that could be used in other churches. At the same time, I began booking my first out of town tours with my trio, soon after we played at the Kennedy Center for the first time. For my tour bookings, I began contacting area churches that I thought might be open to having jazz as part of their worship services. Since then, I’ve played at over eighty churches as a guest music leader.
Jazz is perfect music for worship because it is such a broad, deep genre that can encompass so much of the human spirit: joy, lament, contemplation, rest, conversion. It’s not just happy music with a swing feel. Also, because of the ability to improvise– to adapt quickly to a situation– jazz musicians are super sensitive to the environments in which they play. We know how to collaborate with others, how to support group singing, how to let others solo, how to take the lead, etc. The skills we’ve developed over decades of practice and interaction with our rich tradition are quite similar to skills that pastors develop over years in their prayer practices, in their staying with a text, in responding to a congregant who has just experienced a major tragedy or a major joy.
How did you choose songs for the new recording?
Most of the hymns come from the last two decades of my work in specific church situations. Beyond this, I wanted to choose tunes that were really “the standard of the standard Protestant hymn tunes.” Most of these hymn tunes are well known to churches that use hymns! Out of the 14 tracks, ten are arrangements that were created for group singing: in other words, I or my trio would play these arrangements with a congregation singing. In most cases, the congregation can just open their hymnal or look on the video screen for the words/tune and sing as usual. What they hear “underneath” is different harmonies and rhythmic movement that they wouldn’t otherwise encounter. Only one of the arrangements, LASST UNS ERFREUEN (“All Creatures of Our God and King”) has syncopated rhythms in the melody that require hearing once or twice before joining in.
I wanted the recording to be a resource for church musicians, which is why I’ve created a corresponding sheet music book with piano scores for all 14 of the arrangements on Makes the Heart to Sing. Keyboardists who aren’t jazz players can listen to the recording, even playing along with the scores, and can also sing the text as they hear or play the arrangements.
How do you usually work with churches?
I try to share as much music as possible with the music director in advance of a visit. I ask for an order of service if it’s not a standard liturgy (like the Mass), and will suggest specific pieces that might work well for the congregation and choir. I have so much music that can fit all throughout the service– psalm settings, prayer responses, hymns, original songs, choral pieces– that it’s often easiest for me to offer suggestions of what I have first, and then we go from there. I also share my list of hymn arrangements so that if we want to use a standard hymn, we can use something I have already arranged.
On the same day that I gave the talk at the Collegeville Institute, I was a guest musician at Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Oakdale, Minnesota. Their music director, Roger Stratton, had contacted me a little over a year ago after he typed “jazz magnificat” into a Google search and found a video of my trio on YouTube. He was looking for sheet music and kept buying more of my arrangements from my website. His church was so excited to host me: to hear over 200 people singing my calypso, “Come and Feast,” was truly a heart-opening moment.
What other projects have you been working on?
Lately I’ve been doing more choral concert music. Last year I won the Illinois American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) composition contest with my women’s choir setting of “Where Shadow Chases Light,” a poem by Rabindranath Tagore. I also just won a contest sponsored by the Colorado Chorale to write a new work for them that will be premiered next March.
I also have been writing more original songs that are winning awards: “We Belong to God,” was just named as the winning entry in the Hymn Society in the US and Canada’s call for a new setting of Psalm 100. The sheet music will be available soon on my website. And my song, “We Walk in Love,” is about to be included in a free songbook sponsored by a new movement called Justice Choir, which provides resources for groups who want to have new music to sing at protests and rallies.
The biggest thing coming up is that I’ll be in Bahia, Brazil, for two months next spring as a recipient of the Sacatar Institute Fellowship. I’ll be doing research related to my next recording/composition project, called the Nossa Senhora Suite, which will combine Afro-Brazilian versions of the Virgin Mary (such as Nossa Senhora Aparecida, patron saint of Brazil) with jazz composition. The idea is to combine regional rhythms or songs associated with these manifestations of Mary with music that I’ll compose for my instrumental jazz quartet plus voices. I’m fluent in Brazilian Portuguese and have been to Brazil three times, but my last visit was seven years ago so I can’t wait to go back!