The Best-Sounding "Waltz for Debby" Ever
Bill Evans' classic gets an old-new sheen
When I opened the package that contained this album, I rolled my eyes and said, “Just what the world needs, another audiophile reissue of Waltz for Debby.” But on a few seconds’ reflection, I dropped my cynicism. The previous reissues, on vinyl anyway, were either out-of-print or available only as part of an enormous, expensive 11-album boxed set, so, yes, this is at least one of the things we can welcome to the world with joy.
Waltz is the best album in Bill Evans’ vast discography; it’s one of the best-sounding live jazz albums, period; and—here’s the news—this latest edition, released by Craft Recordings as part of its Original Jazz Classics series, is the best-sounding of all the pressings.
Evans was 31, drummer Paul Motian was 30, and bassist Scott LaFaro was 25 when they stepped on stage at the Village Vanguard in June 1961 to record this wondrous set. Already, they had made their marks as something new: Evans, a pianist who seamlessly combined classical harmonies (especially Ravel) with jazz rhythm and a novel style of improvisation; the threesome, not the usual piano-backed-by-bass-and-drums but a true trio, an isosceles triangle of musicians playing off one another with equal force, Evans coaxing complex but gorgeous chords from the keyboards, Motian brush-slamming the drumkit with off-kilter polyrhythms, LaFaro not just anchoring time but plucking countermelodies like no bassist ever heard before at the time. (His good friend, Charlie Haden, was doing something similar with Ornette Coleman but not quite as vibrant.)
LaFaro died in a car accident just days later. (Evans, devastated, wouldn’t lead another recording date again for more than a year.) Waltz for Debby was the second album released from the session. Sunday at the Village Vanguard came first because its tracks contained the best bass solos, and Evans meant the album to memorialize LaFaro. But he and the producer, Orrin Keepnews, soon realized that most of the best material overall was still in the cans, so a half year later came Waltz for Debby—and, though Evans never lost his greatness, this still epitomizes his sound, the unique touches he brought to jazz, and the (much-imitated) innovations in his concept of the piano trio.
The album is also one of the most thoroughly accessible jazz masterpieces: the tracks are standards (except for the title tune, which Evans wrote, and it quickly become a standard), they’re melodic, romantic, wistful, and swinging—yet the playing is inventive enough to startle the most entrenched aficionado.
But the sound, you may be asking, what about the sound? Analogue Productions’ HQ-180 pressing, mastered by Doug Sax and released in 1992, has been the sonic standard-bearer till now, especially for capturing the thwack and sizzle of the bass and the drums. Just mind-blowing! In 1997, Analogue Productions released a 45rpm boxed set of Evans’ complete Riverside recordings (11 albums, 22 slabs of vinyl, all from the original analog tapes), and that pressing of Waltz for Debby, mastered by Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman, surpassed Sax’s version for the piano’s glow and the overall ambience but fell short of the bass-and-drum’s excitement.
When I reviewed the boxed set for Stereophile in 2017, I tried to plumb the reasons for this difference. Chad Kassem of Analogue Productions told me he recalled Sax working very hard on the ’92 master. He didn’t remember what the issue was (and Sax wasn’t available for questions, having died long ago). But it’s my guess that Sax goosed the EQ on the bass and drums, both of which are in the left channel (the piano is in the right). My theory is bolstered, a bit, by Krieg Wunderlich, who mastered Mobile Fidelity’s 45rpm pressing of Evans’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard, which came out shortly before the latest edition of Kassem’s boxed set (the first, pressed at Pallas was a 2010 release). Wunderlich recalled having to set up the machines “asymmetrically,” in order to balance the left and right channels. Maybe that’s what kept Sax busy, and maybe as part of the rebalancing he boosted the treble. That may be what’s energizing Motian’s cymbals and LaFaro’s pluckings.
Kevin Gray, who mastered the new Craft pressing, has vastly upgraded his mastering gear in the last few years, and maybe—I’m still speculating here—this allowed him to make the bass and drums sound exciting without having to boost the treble. Certainly the wood resonance of the bass and the airy whoosh of Motian’s brush-on-snare strokes are warmer and clearer—I’ve never heard every note that LaFaro plays as clearly as I’m hearing on this pressing. There’s a moment on the title tune when LaFaro plucks the hell out of a bass string. It’s hair-raising on Sax’s pressing—the transient is so sharp, so real. On the new Craft pressing, the moment is just as sharp and exciting, the pluck is still palpable—but it doesn’t stick out so much, it’s of a piece with the whole bass instrument, which is equally real.
One way to say this briefly: The Sax pressing sounds more hi-fi (in a very good sense); the new Craft pressing sounds more like a live set at the Village Vanguard.
Craft’s Original Jazz Classics series marks a revival and modernization of the OJC series started by Fantasy Records back in 1982. The major labels had largely abandoned new jazz, so Fantasy Records started reissuing titles (eventually more than 800) from the inventories of the labels that it had bought up—including Prestige, Riverside, Contemporary, Galaxy, and Pablo—replicating the original covers and liner notes. I bought dozens of OJCs back in the day—they filled many gaps in my jazz education—so it’s a pleasure to see Craft bringing back some of these titles, this time mastered from the original analog tapes and stamped on 180-gram vinyl. Evans’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard will be out soon. If Waltz is any indication, the whole line will be worth watching and buying quickly before they sell out.
Here's a later performance with Chuck Israels on bass. No less enthralling.
Note: this is not a limited edition release! The Craft website may say "sold out" but retailers should have stock and Craft assured Tracking Angle that if the supply runs out it will press more!