Deanna Witkowski | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Deanna Witkowski 

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In 1997, when pianist Deanna Witkowski recorded her debut album, Having to Ask (reissued recently by Jazzline), she had just turned a corner in her music, locating a coherent instrumental voice and accenting it with the Afro-Cuban rhythms she'd begun to explore a few years earlier. Then, before the disc's release, she left Chicago for New York. Most of her local fans have had to rely on her occasional return engagements to stay up-to-date, but the best place to keep tabs on Witkowski turns out to be the Web, where you can find some excerpts from a performance her quartet gave at the Kennedy Center's Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival this May. The four tracks accessible through (enter "Witkowski") suggest a further refinement of her deliberative style, which emphasizes thoughtful chording and chiseled right-hand lines: there's less Bill Evans and a little more Keith Jarrett in her work, and her playful solos and savvy compositions seem to have gathered more emotional weight. Her singing has come along too; it's throatier, and promises to deepen further, in expressive range as well as in tone, as she approaches 30. In her brief career Witkowski has made a habit of surprising those people who take her diffident demeanor and shy smile to indicate a lack of drive: since leaving town she's appeared as a semifinalist in the Montreux Jazz Festival Piano Solo Competition and the American Jazz Piano Competition, and for two years running she's been a finalist in the Great American Jazz Piano Competition in Jacksonville, Florida. Her music remains a work in progress--but it's progressing pretty nicely. Witkowski's Chicago itinerary includes a duo, a quartet, and three trio dates, spread out over six days and five different venues. She'll draw from the personnel of her regular quartet: bassist Jonathan Paul, drummer Tom Hipskind, and saxist Jim Gailloreto. (The duo will be with Paul, the trios with Hipskind and Paul.) Thursday, August 17, 8:30 PM (trio), Lush Life, 226 E. Ontario; 312-649-5874. Friday, August 18, 9 PM (quartet), Pops for Champagne, 2934 N. Sheffield; 773-472-1000. Sunday, August 20, during services beginning at 9:30 and 11 AM (duo), Lord of Life Church, corner of Lafox Rd. and Rt. 38, Lafox; 630-513-5325. Tuesday, August 22, 12:15 PM (trio), Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6630. Tuesday, August 22, 8 PM (trio), Hothouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707. NEIL TESSER

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