Jazz Hymns,” Set for November 3 Release

“Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns,” the new CD by pianist Deanna Witkowski.

Music in a lot of churches is one specific thing, traditional hymns done in a traditional way. . . . But there’s this ‘folk music tradition’–hymns–that everybody knows. I always draw on my jazz background when I arrange service music, and hymns are an integral part of the repertoire.

Grace, serenity, and rhapsody are on abundant display throughout the 14 songs pianist Deanna Witkowski performs with her trio on “Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns,” set for release November 3 on Tilapia Records. One would expect this to be the case, given that the source material is not the Great American Songbook, but the centuries-old trove of hymnody used in churches around the world.

Witkowski succeeds in offering a luminously lyrical piano trio session interpreting a spiritually charged body of music rarely investigated by jazz artists. Some of the tunes—like “Kings of Orient (We Three Kings)”—will be immediately recognizable to secular audiences while others will be as familiar to the choirs and congregations of Protestant churches worldwide as the standards of Porter or Gershwin. Her arrangement of “Hymn to Joy (Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee),” the popular Beethoven melody from his 9th Symphony, rises with the grandeur of an Ellingtonian theme.

“Makes the Heart to Sing” is part of a larger project that includes the publication of a folio of Witkowski’s arrangements. “It’s an instrumental jazz trio record, but the mission is to get this music played more widely outside of church,” she says, “and to bring these jazz interpretations into circulation inside churches. The album is almost a demo for church music directors, and the arrangements are meant for congregational singing.”

Witkowski is passionate about the primal, transporting power of group singing, and her trio brings a similar collective ethos to the music on the album. She’s played with drummer Scott Latzky since she settled in New York City two decades ago, having moved there with a full-time job as a church music director after earning her degree at Wheaton College in 1993 and working for four years on the Chicago jazz scene. Bassist Daniel Foose is a…

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