Monday Notes

Bill Evans, Waltz For Debby. From Debussy to the jazz piano

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[Monday Notes no. 61] Bill Evans combined jazz and the harmonies of European classical composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. No wonder then that many of his compositions have the 3/4 time, used in Europe but almost non-existent in jazz, at least until the 1950s. Let’s analyze his jazz waltz entitled Waltz for Debby.

Despite having a classical education, Bill Evans was one of the pianists who most revolutionized the language of piano jazz. Waltz For Debby is one of the pianist’s most important and favorite compositions. The theme is harmonized in thirds at measures 7-9 and in sixths throughout the second line of the example. Here is the score.

L'inizio di Waltz For Debbie, il tema è armonizzato per terze e per seste
The beginning of Waltz For Debbie, the theme is harmonized in thirds and sixths.

Among Bill Evans’ many qualities, the most amazing is how he was able to harmonize even improvised phrases always leading the individual parts of the chords in a masterful and flawless way. This kind of discipline must have required hundreds of hours of study even to a musician as exceptionally talented as he was.

Another technique of which Bill Evans was an absolute master is that of “drops”, that is, open chords in which a note is moved to the lower octave. We can hear an example of this in the performance of the theme, at minute 0’36”.

Nella prima misura, osserviamo un esempio di "drop"
In the first measure we observe an example of a “drop”

In this version Waltz For Debby Bill Evans plays with Scott LaFaro on double bass and Paul Motian on drums. This band was particularly innovative because of the way the three instruments dialogue, freeing themselves from the pre-established roles they had before: lead piano, drums keeping time, double bass playing the “walking bass”.

Let’s listen at the beginning of the piece to how the double bass interacts with the theme played by the piano. The bass rarely plays the root notes of the chords, playing a second melodic line instead.

Waltz For Debby opens in 3/4 time as one would expect from a waltz, at min. 1’04” the piece shifts to 4/4 time instead, which is more convenient for improvisations. During the piano solo, the double bass continues to improvise melodic lines alternating with passages in which it accompanies, before taking a real solo at min. 3’58”.

Unfortunately, this live recording is one of the last of the trio, since a few weeks later Scott LaFaro tragically died in a car accident. The episode had serious repercussions on Bill Evans, who was literally destroyed. Knowing that the miracle of this trio would be broken soon after, makes these recordings even more valuable.

Until next Monday!

This piece is part of the list How to Learn 100 Jazz Standards

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