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JGT Lesson: ‘Waltz For Debby’ Etude




Jazz guitarist Barry Wahrhaftig provides a very detailed breakdown of his ‘Waltz for Debby’ Etude – with video.

We can learn a lot by studying the ideas and approaches used by the top jazz players, including non-guitarists, which brings us to the genius of Bill Evans and his iconic composition ‘Waltz for Debby.’ It was composed in 1956 by Evans as a tribute to his niece. He included the piece in a set that he played with his trio (which included Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums), at the Village Vanguard in 1961. The set was recorded and released on two records ‘Waltz for Debby,’ and ‘Sunday at the Village Vanguard.’  His lyrical style and impressionistic harmonic palette were quite groundbreaking then, and now, and we can learn a lot from his playing, and his writing, especially on ‘Waltz for Debby.’

Let’s begin by analyzing the piece, and also by checking out what Evans does with it. It’s a 32-bar form that uses chord changes and inversions often found in classical music (7th – 3rd bass movement in bars 5-11, and then 3-7 in bars 21 – 24). Evans played a lot of classical piano repertoire in his formative years and studied it at college as well.   The harmonic & melodic aspects of the piece always reminded me of Chopin.  

The piece is in F Major, with a shift to ‘A’ in bar 29, (or bar 15, in 4/4). On the 1961 live recording the song is played in ¾ the 1st time through, then the melody is stated again, but in 4/4 swing. There is an element of ‘theme and variations’ (also found in classical music). Evans plays the melody again after the 1st time through, now in 4/4 with some fills, rather than improvising. It’s worth listening to the ’61 recordings to hep to understand the song and Evan’s concept.

Evans solos on the form beginning on the third time through the form in 4/4. Note how he uses space, and how he plays behind and ahead of the beat with great effect.

The song can be a bit challenging to improvise on, mainly because there are some unexpected or disparate changes at times, which is why I thought an etude would be helpful. And I suggest that you write your own which you can share with me and the other players at Jazz Guitar Today. I tried to come up with a nice ‘singable’ line for the 1st 24 bars, to basically ‘connect the dots’ and sound good. We’ll cover the rest of the piece next time. 

Waltz For Debby – Etude

Written by Bill Evans & Gene Lees Etude by Barry Wahrhaftig

Etude Arrangement by Barry Wahrhaftig – For Educational Purposes

The 1st two bars include the 3rds of the Fma7, Dmi7, Gmi7, and C7 chords. Nothing complicated here, I just heard something in my mind that I liked.  There is a 3-7 move on the 2nd beat of bar two, which I’ll talk about later.  Staying around the ‘A’ natural in bar three – the common tone that fits over the A7 & D7 – then I used a bit of an F minor pentatonic for a Wes/Benson feel on beat 2 of bar 4, connecting it to a bit of the melody on the 3rd & 4th beats of bar 4, then three-note idea reminiscent of Charlie Parker.

I tried to leave some space, and I also avoided outlining every change, which can make your solos sound needlessly busy. Bar 6 uses part of a Bebop cliché usually called ‘Cry Me a River,’ because it’s used in the song by that name. See Examples 4 & 5 at the end of the Etude.  The riff starts on the 11th of Gmi7-5, then spells the 3rd-7th & b5 of the chord, going to the ‘A’ natural – ‘G’, (13th-5th of C7, landing on a ‘C’ which is the root of C7, held over into the next change, so it becomes the 3rd of Ami7.  Another pro tip, use the phrasing of the melody to help to shape your solo. Gypsy Jazz great Fapy Lafertin hipped me to that.  

Bars 7 – 8 uses more bop language, (Joe Pass, etc.), using the ‘Tea for Two’ 3-7 idea that I mentioned earlier. See the examples at the end of the etude. The idea starts on the ’A’ on beat 2, (root of the Ami7), moving chromatically down to the 3rd of the D7, then going up to the b9 of the II chord, (Eb on the D7),  using chord tones and passing tone to get to the 3rd of Gmi7 and then another 7-3 bit with enclosure to end the 1st eight bars.

I started off measure nine, [A2], by quoting the song ‘I’ll Take Manhattan’ by Rodgers & Hart, then using a Wes style minor 9th idea on the Gmi7 in bar 10, connecting the 13th, root & 7th of the C7 to the block chord A13 on the + of the 4th beat, anticipating the A7 in bar 11, (playing ahead of the beat, or a bar-line shift).  Bar 11 uses a chromatic descending harmonic cliché which works well on consecutive Dominant 7 chords. Bill Evans uses it in his recording, so it seemed like a good idea!

Bar 12 uses a diatonic sequence based on the melody leading to an A7+5, or just the top note ‘A’ again anticipating the change on the 1st beat of bar 13 by an 8th note, and using a tie to lead to the triplet figure on the 1st beat, then using enclosure on beat two to encircle the target note ‘F’, which is the 3rd of Dmi7, then using an idea that follows the contours of bar 13 in bar 14 for the B7-E7 change, setting up the new key of ‘A’ Major with another iteration of the triplet trill to end with a bluesy Benson type idea that uses enclosure to end on a double stop C#-A, the 3rd and root of the chord. 

For bar 16, I intentionally left some space. Music is all about tension and release, it usually works well to create some dissonance over Dom. 7 chords, even though they are already dissonant. We are adding tension to tension, and then releasing it with a resolution in bar 16, which is the new key of A Major.

We can’t rest there long, because at letter ‘B’, bar 17 we are back in ‘F’ major, via the 11 – V in ‘F’, (Gmi7-C7). I began the idea in bar 17 by preceding it with an ‘A’ natural for a smooth transition, to connect the tonal centers. Also, the iii chord, Ami7 is a sub for the tonic – Fma7. 

 I used another 7-3 in bar 17 with a slight rhythmic variation to keep it interesting, and then played a similar idea in measure 18 with an added b9 on the D7 chord, (typical bop stuff), then used scale tones d-c to target the 3rd of Gmi on 1st beat of bar 19, then going to a triplet root, #7-nat. 7 on beat two, then using a similar figure [going up this time], beginning on the 5th of A7 up to the ‘G’ nat. – ‘E’ on the last beat, [enclosure again], to target the F in bar 20 1st beat. I then anticipated the 7th of F7, [Eb], on beat 2, [the F7 is on beat 3 + 4]. I played a riff that uses the 13th to the root then b13 to target the 9th of the Bb chord in bar 21, pulling off to the Bb, then outlining the chord, going to a #11 of A7 on beat 3, up to the 5th, [E], using G -E, [enclosure], to set up the ‘F’ on 1st beat of bar 22, then outlining the upper part of Dmi9 to the ‘E’, then moving down a whole step to ‘D’. Similar to the melody, then just using block chords – AbMa7 to DbMa7, then end the 1st 2 using diatonic thirds, [double stops], played as quarter-note triplets bars.

Lastly, keep in mind that in 3/4 each change lasts for a measure, but in 4/4 there are usually two chords in a bar. And also, besides doing some homework by listening to Evan’s recordings, it’s a good idea to get a good copy of the chart, the revised legal ‘Real Book,’ is a must-have for any serious aspiring jazz guitarist. In the series ‘Better Call Saul’  the character Mike Ehrmantrant, a grizzled ex Philly cop, tells a babe in the woods neophyte ‘you gotta’ do your homework if you want to be a criminal.’ So I’d say the same applies if you want to be a good jazz guitarist!

I hope that you enjoyed the Etude. You can email me with questions and comments, and feel free to send me your own etudes on the 1st 24 bars and I’ll share them with the rest of the ‘Jazz Guitar Today’ family!

Barry Wahrhaftig [War-hof-tig], is the leader of the Hot Club of Philadelphia Gypsy Jazz band, he can be reached at or the band’s website – the band’s Facebook page

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