Pianist and composer Deanna Witkowski pays tribute to the legendary Mary Lou Williams with her latest album Force of Nature.
Witkowski’s seventh album as a leader serves as a companion to her recently published book, Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul. The biography of the “First Lady of Jazz Keyboard” is the culmination of 20 years of research into Williams’ life and music. Force of Nature highlights the spiritual and musical connection between the two artists.
Mary Lou Williams wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements for the likes of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and many others. She made more than a hundred records and was a friend and mentor to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and other fellow jazz icons. Along with her exceptional musicianship, Williams was known for being one of the first jazz artists to incorporate elements of her Catholic faith into her music.
After arriving in Mary Lou Williams’ hometown of Pittsburgh for research, Witkowski met up with guitarist Marty Ashby, the executive producer behind the jazz program at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and the MCG Jazz label. “I was telling him how the research was going and said, ‘It’s really a shame that I have this book coming out but I don’t have any recordings of myself doing Mary Lou’s music,’ which I have been playing a lot, for quite a while. So Marty said, ‘Well, we should do something about that.’ So that’s kind of how it started.”
Most of the compositions on Force of Nature were written by Mary Lou Williams, with Witkowski using her high level of musicianship and mastery of techniques from various genres to re-interpret movements from some of Williams’ most famous compositions such as Zodiac Suite. Stompin’ at the Savoy, one of the album’s only tunes that Williams didn’t write, still incorporates major events from her career in the ‘40s, making reference to her move to Sugar Hill in Harlem, the closing of the Savoy Ballroom and the 1943 Harlem Riots.