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Deanna Witkowski, Live in Studio 4A

Wide Open Window, Witkowski's latest CD.
Wide Open Window, Witkowski's latest CD.

It was her third try, but Deanna Witkowski finally landed first place in the Great American Jazz Piano Competition last October. She took top honors with her rendition of "You and the Night and the Music" by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz.

In a journal entry on her Web site, Witkowski describes what it was like to perform the ballad in Jacksonville, Fla., that fall evening: "This arrangement, which takes a Chopin etude and fuses it with the jazz tune, is something that just kind of takes over once I start playing it. I really felt the energy of the audience — almost breathing with me — as I played."

As she demonstrates in a Weekend Edition Sunday visit to NPR's Studio 4A, Witkowski's influences don't stop with classical and jazz. She also draws upon the standards of Cole Porter (playing his "All Through the Night"), Latin rhythms (she was recruited into a salsa band while attending grad school in Chicago) and a bit of blues in the style of the eclectic pianist Mary Lou Williams.

Witkowski tells NPR's Liane Hansen why she dedicated the title song of her soon-to-be released CD, Wide Open Window (Khaeon), to Williams. "I just tried to reflect in this tune Mary Lou's spirit of just being really adventurous. The melody's kind of bluesy but again the harmonic progression snakes around quite a bit and so it seems to just sort of take off in a lot of different directions whenever we play it. It's a window on something different whenever we try it."

Witkowski opens her 4A performance with the percussive Chick Corea-style "A Rare Appearance," which she wrote as a homework assignment while studying with Brazilian drummer Vanderlei Pereira. "He wanted us to write something in this typical Brazilian rhythm called baião. So this is what I wrote for class." Witkowski took the lesson in a different direction, though. "I think he liked the tune, but I don't think it's what he had in mind," she says and laughs.

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