Listen to this track by powerhouse jazz-pop crooner Tony Bennett, and impressionistic ivory-tinkler Bill Evans. It’s “Waltz For Debby”, an original melody written by Evans that turned into something of a jazz standard from when it was first recorded in the mid-fifties.
This version appears on the pair’s 1975 collaborative effort, The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album, which was the first of two albums from them. It represents a high watermark in the catalogues of both men, which considering the calibre of talent at work here, is really saying something. In some ways, the likelihood of this record being as transcendent as it is seems unlikely on paper. As dextrous as Bennett has always been as a vocalist, by this time in his career he was a traditional pop singer, and not noted for a pure jazz style. In contrast to that, Evans was known for his complex and even cerebral approach to jazz. Although like Bennett, he’d traded in the interpretation of jazz standards for a good deal of his career by this time, Evans’ tendencies to deconstruct those melodies stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from the vocalist.
With all that said, this album works anyway, and gloriously so. And this rendition of Evans’ tune, with lyrics written by Gene Lees is one of the most powerful. This is down to the strength of the song as interpreted by Evans for this duet. But, Bennett does more than his part to bring it to life, a story about childhood, adulthood, and the bittersweet process of seeing one fade to make room for the other.
Besides superior command of phrasing and breath control, Bennett has the chops of an actor when it comes to interpreting material. That’s what all singers are at the root. They are actors, inhabiting the worlds and the points of view of their narrators.The lyrics are the script they follow. But the emotional depth is all on the singer. This rendition of Evans’ song is an example of what happens when the singer gets it right, and then some.
Of course, it helps that the lyrics of this song are so poignant, and matched so perfectly with Evans’ melody and chords. This is a song about the innocence of childhood, and about what gets lost when childhood ends despite all the gains that adulthood holds in store. It’s from the point of view of an adult. Evans wrote it in 1956 for his niece. When Bennett sings it, somehow we know he’s playing the role of a father. Everything about this version is understood from that vantage point. Debby loves her dolls, clowns, and big purple bear today. But, tomorrow she will be on to other things, leaving them behind. The little girl she was will be gone, and a woman will stand in her place who will be beloved, but will be a different person. That’s a good thing. But on a certain level, it’s sad too.
This song is about the little girl. In only a few lines though, Bennett makes this song about the father: “They will miss her I fear, but then so will I” This one line is packed with meaning on Bennett’s delivery. This isn’t just about Debby leaving her fanciful world of girlhood. It’s about how everything changes, and that sometimes parents feel just as left behind as a silly old bear once clung to at bedtime, now outgrown and not needed in quite the same way. This is a song about the inevitable. It’s about mortality, ultimately. But its a reminder that we die and are reborn through out our lives, and our parents get say goodbye and hello to many versions of us.
With all that in place, one gets the impression that this isn’t really a lament. Bennett leaves it open ended just by the subtlety of his delivery, helped along by Evans’ sympathetic second voice on the piano, with bright and shadowy melodic touches through out. It’s a bittersweet celebration of how a father loves his child at every stage, cherishing the details as captured in the moment. It’s a tribute from a father who takes notice of his child, because he knows that every moment in her life is precious and emphemeral, as all lives are.
Tony Bennett and Bill Evans would record one more album together, called Together Again in 1977. Evans would die in 1980, leaving behind this song which is still interpreted by jazz artists to this day. This is in addition all of the ways that Evans pushed the musical envelope for jazz composition and improvisation.
Tony Bennett is still singing today at age 89, having since duetted with k.d lang, Lady Gaga, and Amy Winehouse. You can learn more about his celebrated career at tonybennett.com.