Tall, a little gangly, and almost childishly shy, 26-year-old pianist Deanna Witkowski doesn’t exactly exude the confidence of your typical young lion. But as she constructs sturdy solos from concrete riffs, juggles lessons learned from Chucho Valdes as well as Thelonious Monk, and manipulates musical space to give her solos their crisp grace, she sure sounds like one. Witkowski left Chicago to work in New York at the end of last year, but not before recording her debut album, Having to Ask (for which this writer supplied the liner notes), just released on her own Tilapia label. Her piano work is lovely and lithe, and her compositions–many of which reflect a keen command of Afro-Caribbean music, even though she discovered it only a few years ago, as a graduate student at DePaul–are lively and promising. On standards, particularly ballads, her purposefully somber harmonies deepen the melodies and complicate the lyrics, which she sings in a thin but surprisingly lusty voice. But she sings only on occasion; unlike most of the double threats who’ve popped up with increasing frequency in recent years, Witkowski focuses on the distinct expressivity of instrumental music and on the balance of emotion and intellect unique to unadulterated jazz. For the first of her four performances here, she’ll lead a quintet starring saxophonist Jim Gailloreto in celebration of the new CD; for the rest she’ll revert to her most natural habitat, a standard trio. And for the final gig, next week, the trio will concentrate on the streamlined, handsomely appointed compositions of bop pianist Elmo Hope, as part of the “Birthdays at the Cultural Center” series. Friday, 9 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552. Saturday, 1 PM, Jazz Record Mart, 444 N. Wabash; 312-222-1467. Sunday, 8:30 PM, Pops for Champagne, 2934 N. Sheffield; 773-472-1000. Next Friday, June 26, 1 PM, Randolph Cafe, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-1426. NEIL TESSER
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.