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.
Force of Nature was originally planned to be recorded in May of 2020, but the pandemic interrupted the sessions and delayed the project until January of 2021.
“It was pretty amazing that we could do this at all,” Witkowski says, “because by then I had moved to Pittsburgh; my drummer, Scott Latzky, was in New York; and my bass player, Daniel Foose, had moved to Austin. But they all came in, and then [trumpeter] Clay Jenkins came down from Rochester, N.Y.” Force of Nature also features native Pittsburg musicians Roger Humphries on drums and Dwayne Dolphin on bass for three tracks on the album.
Not only inspired by her life and music but also her faith, Witkowski says she looks at Williams as a guiding force in her life.
“I think of Mary Lou as a mentor, because she’s someone who was able to really integrate her spirituality, her Catholicism, with her music,” says Witkowski.
Here’s the track listing:
- Gjon Mili Jam Session
- Aries (from Zodiac Suite)
- Taurus (from Zodiac Suite)
- Cancer (from Zodiac Suite) / Act of Contrition (from Mary Lou’s Mass)
- Lonely Moments
- What’s Your Story, Morning Glory? / Ghost of Love
- Force of Nature
- Dirge Blues
- Stompin’ at the Savoy
- My Blue Heaven
Deanna Witkowski’s Force of Nature is out Jan. 28, 2022, via MCG Jazz.