Some arranging thoughts on “Waltz For Debby”
This week’s Sunday Morning Music piece is pianist Bill Evans’s beautiful jazz waltz. Arranging it for solo guitar was an ambitious project, and one in which I came up against both the limitations of the guitar and the limitations of my own guitar playing. The first question that arises when arranging a tune for guitar is “what key signature shall I play it in?” Of course, jazz snobs would always go with the original key, no matter how hard it is on the guitar. Many jazz tunes are written in the flat keys (F, Bb, Eb, Ab, etc), because those keys are more comfortable for horn players. If you’re willing to use open strings on the guitar, the sharp keys (C, G, D, A, E, etc) are more comfortable for guitar. In this case, I stayed with the original key, F, mostly out of stubbornness, saying to myself, “Jeez, you can’t play EVERYTHING in C!”
For whatever reasons, my arrangement is much more sedate and less swingin’ than Evans’s. (Could it be the fact that Bill Evans was a musical genius and avatar? Or is it the piano?) One issue is that, after the first statement of the melody, Evans deserts the “waltz” form of 3/4 time, and swings the piece in 4/4. Here it is from a concert performance:
He goes into 4/4 at 1:00, and never looks back. From there on, the waltzing is over. It is a swingin’ thing of beauty, and makes me wonder why I even tried…did I mention that I can be stubborn?
Okay, so, given that I decided to do this, I was just stumbling along in the key of F when I came upon this very helpful video explication by piano instructor Kent Hewitt:
This gave me some wonderful insight into the structure of the piece, especially the movement of Evans’s bass lines. After awhile, I had put together a fairly satisfactory setting for the melody. It took 2 or 3 months before I could actually play it, but I felt that I was on track.
Now, normally, when I play a tune for “Sunday Morning Music!”, I’ll play the “head”, then play an improv verse or two, then return to the head and finish. These pieces are often just sketches, and I long ago made the decision that I would just “do what I do” and post it, warts and all…maybe not the smartest thing in the world for someone trying to “look good” on the internet, but there ya go.
In this case, all my improvs sucked, so I finally decided to compose a variation. (It’s worth mentioning here that Evans does not wander very far from the melody at any point in his performance, either…) In doing so, I tried to add a bit of a classical feel in some of the phrasing. “Waltz For Debby” has harmonic movement that could easily have come from Bach, so this felt okay. I set to work on this, and, after a week or so of woodshedding with it, came up with the version you’ll hear here:
As I said, it’s much more sedate than the Evans version, it doesn’t really swing, but I still think that the beauty of the tune comes through. Now it was time to record it. When I do these videos, I usually just fire up the computer and play the tune several times, looking for the most musical rendering to post. If the tune is a very difficult one, I may stoop to an edit or two, but never more than two.
In the case of “Waltz For Debby”, I recorded about two dozen versions, some of which were edited, and four of which, in succession, were considered postable, and then not. When I have qualms, I play the video for my wife Jan. If she’s enthusiastic, I usually consider it done. If she says something diplomatic, like, “Wow! That sounds really hard!”, I know it sucks, and I go back to the drawing board. In this case, I was up against the physical difficulty of playing the piece in F, and I reached a point where I was ready to give up. I considered borrowing my neighbor’s Parker Fly solid body, and playing it on that, but I knew the neck was a bit too thin. Then I thought about how George Van Eps, the great harmonic jazz guitarist, used to tune his guitar a whole step below concert pitch because he wanted it to feel more like a nylon string classic guitar. I said, “What the hell…I’ll give it a try.” On the third or fourth try, I got a version which, while imperfect, was fairly musical and had no edits. So, while I’m playing out of the “F” positions, the tune is actually in Eb. That’s what you hear on the video above. In some ways, of all the videos I’ve ever posted, this one may be the least relaxed and “free-ed up”, but I hope that doesn’t communicate to the listener. It’s been an experiment and an experience!