Monday, January 20, 2020

I'd Love to Turn You On #248: Bill Evans - Waltz For Debby (1962)

Waltz For Debby is an amazing live document of one of the best jazz trios in peak form. The trio, consisting of Bill Evans on piano, Scott LaFaro on bass, and Paul Motian on drums, was in the process of redefining and expanding the language and roles of the piano trio. Traditionally the drums and the bass would serve as a foundation for the piano to rest upon, but the trio had evolved to a band that functioned more as a musical equals than a band that allowed one player to monopolize the musical landscape. In a traditional piano trio the piano is featured very prominently with the drums and bass playing a supporting role. The drums may provide texture and comping, while the bass provides a steady pulse and harmony. This group would redefine the jazz trio for the genre, providing a new model of excellence and grace.
"My Foolish Heart" opens the record with Evans’ trademark gentle touch. LaFaro plays clear and uncluttered harmony while Motian fills the space on the cymbals and prods with gentle brush work. Part of the magic in this recording is the stereo mix, with the piano in the right channel and the bass and drums mostly cut to the left. When I listen in headphones it gives the music life. There is a tiny portion of ambient club sound but just enough to add sonic depth. The sound is immaculate and any time LaFaro adds multiple notes to flesh out harmony the recording captures it precisely. The clarity of interpretation that comes across in this take speaks to the high level of mastery by the musicians. It also communicates the intent of the ballad, which is intimacy, longing, and a warning to a foolish heart that has been fooled before.
"Waltz For Debby," the song, is a great illustration of the kind of innovation that the trio was enacting. In the left speaker you can hear Scott LaFaro playing in the high register to complement Evans' piano playing. It is not until the after the one minute mark that he moves down to play a more traditional bass role. He is using notes that are harmony and color tones, tones that are not the standard designated function of bass players. Because of the range he is playing them in they are functioning as melodic tones rather than bass fundamentals, giving a new advanced melodic freedom and expressiveness to the bass that the instrument had been lacking before. On Evans' part he is as ever is treating us to the smooth voice leading that is one of the hallmarks of his style. This is to say that within the harmony between two chords he either kept common tones or found the shortest distances between notes so that the transition was not jarring, and that the overall effect sounded smooth and effortless. This is especially evident in a song like "Waltz For Debby" where the overall harmony is quite complex but the effort that it takes to play it seems minimal and graceful. One of the features of the song is a series of cascading chords which descends down and then circles quickly back up to repeat the cycle. Paul Motian drops in around 1:20 and the group starts to play more like a traditional trio. LaFaro is still hitting all kinds of upper color notes fleshing out the harmony during Evans' piano solo. Motian is laying down solid brushwork, and doing occasional cymbal splashes. He switches to a light cymbal ride pattern under LaFaro’s acrobatic solo. Evans returns to play the melody before the brief coda of the tune. "Detour Ahead" is a ballad-ish tune. Evans and LaFaro demonstrate how familiar they are with the song by playing spaciously around each other. LaFaro will cover the bass harmony and dart into the high register to add some melodic interjection over Evans’ chordal approach. Motian backs them up with stellar brush work. Evans takes the first solo, although LaFaro is so active it might be considered a duet. LaFaro takes the next solo, and then they return to the melody. I think what you can glean from an interpretation of a song as rhythmically interactive as this is how much synergy the trio was working with. Something with as many layers as this has to be developed by working on group interplay and communication, and this group was an amazing example of that kind of work.
"My Romance" features a lovely Bill Evans solo introduction. It is a simple run through the melody but it once again gives us insight into his voice leading approach. Evans has an economical approach that results in a gentle sound, one that utilizes common tones and close neighboring tones to minimize unnecessary movement. Once Motian and LaFaro enter, the song becomes a more swinging number rather than another ballad. The group interplay displayed during Evans’ solo is hard to match, and furthermore the bass solo might be the most virtuosic on the record, with LaFaro dazzling and flashing unbelievable technique. Listening to the way this trio treats time - stretching it, leaving empty spaces for other members to occupy - it is evident just how much of the ground work they have laid for modern groups' rhythmic concepts. Listeners can see the influence of this trio all around the jazz genre, but you really see the influence in groups like the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock, or Brad Mehldau’s trio.
"Some Other Time" is a beautiful ballad with a minimal approach that lets the melodic content do the work. Evans’ classic voicings really shine in this song. The harmony in the first part of the tune allows LaFaro to back up Evans with harmonics, an effect that produces a higher pitched portion of a note by partially applying pressure on a specific part of the string. Jaco Pastorius would later become famous for using harmonics extensively on the electric fretless bass. Scott LaFaro can be heard using harmonics to accompany Evans all throughout the song, providing a shimmering, high-pitched accompaniment on the double bass.
"Milestones" is a fast uptempo tune and a real showcase for Evans and LaFaro. Although I haven’t mentioned his name tons in this review let me take a moment to celebrate Paul Motian. As a player, he is what the music calls for, which is the kind of egoless playing that makes these records so great. It prevents it from being excessively technical. Scott LaFaro was a technical master and this was balanced by Motian whose technique was present but understated. Motian prods uptempo swing numbers like this with crisp, light, cymbal work that keeps the song buoyant. It is light and delicate so you can still hear the details of LaFaro's playing which is also light. It is the opposite of a heavy thunderous drummer like Elvin Jones.
So many things about this group are amazing. Tragically, Scott LaFaro died in a car accident in 1961 bringing this group’s growth to an abrupt halt, and stopping Bill Evans from even playing for a period of time. I always wonder what the group concept would have evolved into if Scott LaFaro had not passed away. Bill Evans went on to work with a number of great bass players that played amazing music, not confined to the rigid structures of bebop or traditional jazz. I just happen to think that this particular group was the pinnacle. I hope you enjoy Waltz For Debby!

- Doug Anderson

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