Debby was Bill Evans’ niece, but I like to imagine to myself that she was a mysterious stranger, swathed in cosmic mystery and down-tempo nonchalance. The silhouette on the front could be Debby. We assume it to be anyway. But it is wonderfully vague. Up close, the lines are blurred and unclear; the profile looks incomplete and hardly human. But from a slight distance and at less detail, the hazy lines assemble themselves neatly in place, and Debby’s profile is rendered clearly. It’s the kind of extravagant legend you can only expect from a person who has a personal intimacy with the highest highs and the lowest lows.
I first heard of this album when I read its title in Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood. I was so enamored with the book and its strange sense of tumultuous self-reflection that I researched its real world counterpart, only to find the same sentiments voiced through jazz. The straight-faced, but fluctuating highs and lows mirrored in the novel are apparent from the get-go, as evidenced in the album’s first track “My Foolish Heart”. Throughout the entire song, there is a sensuous smoothness that flows right through the speakers from the first understated notes from Evans’ piano and Scott LaFaro’s upright bass, and the soft crescendo from drummer Paul Motian’s cymbals. As the shortest song on Waltz, this track makes its movements count. There are no lengthy, sweeping explorations into foreign sonic territory; neither are there angular, dissonant phrases that seek to enlighten the mad geniuses of the post-bop world. What the trio does is nothing short of amazing, transforming a soft-spoken statement into a shape-shifting mouthpiece for the ambiguity of the cover art. Not once does the group stray from their signature even-handed cool, but in the course of five minutes, they constantly switch back and forth between morose and sentimental and every step inbetween, grabbing the listener by the heartstrings in the process and tugging hard.
Perhaps in an opposing stance is the last track on the album, “Milestones”. Here, the trio is seen setting the world ablaze with solos and fugue-like lines dotting the recording all over. Where “My Foolish Heart” saw the group acting as a subtle crowd of talented artists, “Milestones” sees them flourishing on their own while backed by the other two members. In full on manic mode, we finally see LaFaro step out from behind the spotlight of Evans’ piano in the lengthy middle passage. Everything lights up and blurs, much like the shadowy portrait of the front cover, but this time the vagueness comes from the blurring excitement of it all.
The beauty of this classic jazz record lies in its subtlety — the strong and moving emotional undercurrents never seem to bob above the surface of the water, leaving a sense of the unhurried genius of Bill Evans and his trio. Debby’s murky portrait on the cover shows us the beauty of something so vague, we don’t know it when it stares us right in the face.
Artist: Bill Evans Trio
Album: Waltz for Debby
Tracklist & Review (Allmusic)
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