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Bill Evans: Waltz for Debby


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Bill Evans performed his composition Waltz for Debby at dozens of clubs and concert halls and recorded it several times in the studio between 1955 and 1980. In my opinion, he aced it only once.

Waltz for Debby sounds deceptively easy to play but it isn't. Having played Bill Evans transcriptions in my teens, I can tell you that it's loaded with complex passages that are easy to rush, trip over or simply miss the right feel. Which was true even of Evans, who frequently played it too fast and without his original gentle, tidal feel.

Evans was discovered by guitarist Mundell Lowe. The pianist played in Lowe's group in New York in the early 1950s.

Here's what Mundy told me:

JazzWax: You were the one who told Riverside Records' producer Orrin Keepnews about Bill?

Mundell Lowe: By the mid-1950s, I had signed with Riverside Records, and Orrin was a friend. I told him, “You need to hear this guy, Bill Evans. He plays wonderfully.” I knew that Orrin was trying to build a catalog for the label. He said, “OK, OK, send him over and I’ll listen to him.” The rest, as they say, is history. Bill’s first album as a leader, New Jazz Conceptions, came out in late 1956. Up until that point, Bill had been a sideman and wasn't thought of as a leader by producers yet.

Evans introduced an abbreviated and tentative solo version of his composition Waltz for Debby on New Jazz Conceptions. But who was the Debby in the song?

JazzWax: Bill Evans' —who was it written for?

Mundell Lowe: It was written for two Debbys—my daughter and Bill's niece. Both were named Debby. My Debby was 3 years old when Bill played in my trio with Red Mitchell in the early 1950s. He liked her very much. The tune was a melody Bill had been fooling around with since college. It was a foregone conclusion that he wrote the song with both Debbys in mind.

As I mentioned above, Evans aced the song only once. On the impeccable version, his pacing was loving and spry, with a surging undertow. The song always pulled to move faster, but on the perfect version Evans remained restrained. The tough transitional spots were measured and executed flawlessly, and the section that picks up in energy was done with majestic strength and grace.

The version I'm referring to is “Take 1" recorded live at the Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961, with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. For some strange reason, producer Orrin Keepnews selected “Take 2" for the LP, Waltz for Debby (Riverside), released in early 1962. “Take 1" wouldn't appear until 1992, when the album first appeared on CD with bonus tracks.

“Take 2" does not include Take 1's exquisite dense-chord build and, at 3:03, Evans even seems to momentarily lose his momentum.He also plays flat coming out of LaFaro's bass solo and ends with a dull broken chord rather than the bright “spling" of “Take 1."

Evans would spend the rest of his career fully aware that he had achieved perfection on “Take 1" in 1961. Yet he tried again and again to top it without satisfaction. I like to think that this futility made him somewhat happy. After all, his goal had been reached many years earlier. Everything that followed was just gravy.

JazzWax clips: Here's the extraordinary “Take 1" of Waltz for Debby, the aced version that mysteriously did not appear on the original LP...

And here's the inferior “Take 2," which Orrin Keepnews chose instead...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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Track Listing

My Foolish Heart; Waltz for Debby; Detour Ahead; My Romance; Some Other Time; Milestones.


Album information

Title: Waltz For Debby | Year Released: 1962 | Record Label: Riverside





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