Stella By Starlight "Unlocked"

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Stella by Starlight: An harmonic analysis by Jon Dalton.

Stella, as she is affectionately known is one of the greatest standards in the real book. It is also one of the trickiest tunes to truly master from an improvisational standpoint. That said, the piece offers several invaluable harmonic “keys” which can help the improviser to unlock doors not only in this piece but in many other and often radically simpler jazz standards.

It’s important to remember that these “keys” are only that. Once the door is open it’s up to you to decide exactly how to walk down that corridor and also to nurture the knowledge that further sub-corridors may exist through which one can amble before reaching the desired harmonic destination.

Let’s begin staring with the sequence:

|| Em7b5 / / / | A7 / / / | Cm11 / / / | F7 / / / |

| Fm9 / / / | Bb7 / / / | EbMa7 / / / | Ab13 / / / |

| BbMa7 / / / | Em7b5 / A7 / | Dm7 / / / | Bbm7 / Eb9 / |

| FMa7 / / / | Gm7 / C7 / | Am7b5 / / / | D7+ / / / |

| G7+ / / / | / / / / | Cm7 / / / | / / / / |

| Ab7 / / / | / / / / | BbMa7 / / / | / / / / |

| Em7b5 / / / | A7 / / / | Dm7 / / / | Fdim / / / |

| Cm7b5 / / / | Ebdim / / / | BbMa7 / / / :||

Bar 1 features an E half diminished (minor seven/flat five). A common interpretation of the minor seven flat five is through the use of major scale tones built on the key centre one half step above the chord’s root note.

i.e. F major will provide a useful harmonic “wrap” for Em7b5 but in order to avoid sounding “plodding” perhaps we should build our scale from the stated chord’s root note. This gives us an F major scale played from E to E. If you prefer to think modally this can be thought of as an E Locrian scale. The Locrian scale runs: semitone, tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone.

The E half diminished can also be thought of as a cut-out section from a Cdom9 chord holding, as it does, the third, seventh, ninth and fifth of a C9 within its basic structure. Try overlaying an arpeggiated C9 chord over the Em7b5 and seeing how you like the sound. (n.b. the reason why this works is that, going back to our F major interpretation of this chord, C7 is the diatonic 7th chord built on the 5th step of an F major scale).

Continuing along the diatonic path we can also pull out a useful tool (vicar!) in the form of a G minor (ext. 7th/9th/13th) as a close relative to the Em7b5 chord. The basic G minor triad is chord 2 in F major diatonic terms (and overlaying the G minor triad on the Em7b5 represents: tonic=m3rd, m3rd=b5, 5=dom7). A lovely flavour can be obtained by featuring a reverse G minor 9 arp. (9/7/5/3/9) over the Em7b5 chord and, in continuing down the F major scale from the 9th (A) to land on the b5 (Db), one is conveniently placed at the major 3rd of the subsequent A dom 7th chord (classy!).

Consider that any relative diatonic triad built on F major will be “not wrong” harmonically in the Em7b5 context. That doesn’t mean it’s right but your ears can steer you towards satisfactory melodic paths. After a while you’ll begin to see all diatonic chords as split sections of one huge “fractal” chord with all the arpeggiate possibilities that that represents, as well as the modes that sit underneath each diatonic chord allowing you to slide up and down the chord’s tone centres. Also bear in mind that a “not wrong” harmonic possibility that sounds yucky to you now may make perfect sense to you in six months time when a light comes on in your head and allows you to steer it with confidence and understanding (trust me!).

Bar 2 features Adom7. Here we step out of F major harmonically (the chord would need to be Am7 to stay in F major) and step into a wider realm. The chord is perhaps best thought of as a passing point and benefits from a number of approaches.

Firstly try executing the D harmonic minor scale under the A7 chord. This gives a quite Hungarian or Baroque flavor to the section and also opens up the possibility of interpreting the chord as A7+5. This works because the A+ chord represents the 5th, 7th, and 3rd steps of the D harmonic minor scale.

If you want to be really cheeky and step further outside the harmonic box you could substitute an A7b5 for the given chord and further build an Eb9b5 on that basis. This isn’t as weird as it looks at first. Consider that the b5th in A7b5 constitutes “root” in the extension chord and that 7=3, 3=7, (and here’s the out bit!) +5=9, root=b5. I think the best way of describing this is that the Eb9b5 acts as an harmonic “glue” between A7+ and A7b5. In isolation these chords couldn’t be more different but can be brought into commonality through A7+ (sharp 11) which is of course the same as Eb9b5 with an A root added below and contains both the diminished AND augmented 5ths of A (phew!).

Here’s one you might not have thought about. Try representing the A7 as chord 5 in a diatonic D major scale. In similar practice to our exersise with the Em7b5 we can build a Locrian mode on D flat (the third of A7). Try modulating from F major (chord one) to D flat Locrian (chord two) take the Locrian mode all the way up to its 9th step (D) and drop chromatically down two half steps landing on the tonic note of Cm9 (chord three), arpeggiate down one octave and slide down four chromatic steps to A (the third of F7, chord four). Wow! What an harmonic journey and all within four bars! Of course you’ll have to pick judiciously from the above palette to avoid it sounding like an exersise but with taste and timing this could sound quite stellar (Stella! Geddit? Groan!).

Final suggestion (for now) re: chord two. Why not build a G diminished scale over the A7 starting at G (the 7th in A7) and ascending up through Bb (the flat 9th ext. of A7) up to C (tonic of C minor; chord three) or am I being a drama queen?

The next three chords constitute a standard two, five, one. Countless studies have been written on this most common of sub-structures and you probably know many of the options already. You might not have considered the following:

Substitute an AbMa7 for the Fm9 in bar five this can lend a truly sweet tonality. Substitute E9b5 for the Bb7 chord. This works for the reason stated in the A7 analysis as does Bb7+ for similar reasons.

You might want to build an Eb Dorian (from the tonic of EbMa7 asc: tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone, tone or Db major played from the second to the ninth step) as a way to seamlessly navigate the rather unexpected Ab13 in bar eight. Of course you may chose to treat the Ab13 with more literal regard (and I wouldn’t blame you if you did!).

Bar nine is a nice and simple BbMaj7 which need only be considered as Bb major. Bar ten is the first to feature two chords with two beats per measure. This bar is a microcosm of bars 1 & 2 featuring the same chords and resolving briefly to a Dm7 (sub. BbMa7) in Bar 11. Bar 12 is a two/five in the key of Ab major.

My treatment of bar 14 may be considered slightly controversial in that I see it as two beats each of Gm7 and C7. Some versions of this tune represent bar 14 as | Em7b5/A7/ | but in my opinion this represents one key change too many (bars 13 & 14 played | FMaj7/// | Gm7/C7(+)/ | remain in key (F) at one/two/five respectively).

Bars 15 & 16 constitute a G minor two/five (try an A diminished arp.) but the resolve is not quite as expected landing as it does on a G7 aug. (G7+). It’s a good idea to try and navigate via the 3rd of D7 as this serves as a useful pivot point but if you’re feeling “bad” may I suggest going down even further with a chromatic drop from tonic to dom 7th. You badass mo’ f****r, you!

Now, I don’t know if it’s just me but there’s something creepy about bar 17 & 18’s G7+. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against G7+ as a chord and I’d happily take G7+ home to meet mum for tea but in this instance I’m a-feared. The chord only lasts for two bars but somehow whenever this chord comes up on the bandstand those bars seem to last a great big, barren eternity. In this context the chord feels like dragging a 300lb man in lead boots out of quicksand. Here’s some rope (try not to hang yourself!).

OK! it’s a chestnut but why not try cyclic augmented arpeggios in ascending major 3rds e.g. G7+, B7+, E flat 7+ (the whole tone scale serves as an underscore) or this triplet-set climb: d/b/c, f/d/e flat, a flat/f/g flat, b/a flat/ a, d,/b/c. This is one of those augmented “stair-climbers” than can zoom up the octaves indefinitely and makes you sound very clever. Just be clever enough to untie yourself for the two measures of Cm7 that follow (diatonically chord two in Bb Major) or you’ll look like a wally!

Another option is the trusty C harmonic minor scale (for the gypsy in you!) which opens nicely to D Phrygian (D to D using the notes of Bb major) over the Cm7 (it kind of stresses the 9th).

Finally, in a “what goes up must come down” vibe: descending augmented arpeggios Eb>B>G with the minor 3rd (Eb) of the Cm7 chord as a goal, sound suitably grave.

Moving on to bar 21 we find ourselves back at Ab7. Now we could use the same Eb Dorian trick we exposed in bar eight and it would work just fine, as would a number of approaches built on Db major tonalities but a useful curve can be found in the form of BMa7. OK, strictly speaking this falls outside of the diatonic box but it does sound really nice (it shares some common tones with Ab9). In manipulating the harmony thus we avoid thinking of Ab7 as a chord that happens “below” the tonic Bb. I’ve heard countless versions of this tune where the soloist feels compelled to descend melodically at this point but given that this whole section (from bar 17) is so, potentially, charged and expectant it does make a certain melodic sense to keep the “suspense” pot boiling. An added plus to this approach is the way one chromatically “falls” from BMa7 down onto BbMa7 for a final moment of relief before the closing section.

Bars 25 & 26 are a repeat of bars 1 & 2 but try to avoid repeat phrasing here. There’s a whole diatonic floor for you do dance upon so get out those pumps and “Tango!”.

In consideration of bars 27 to 32, well gosh there’s a lot of accidentals and stuff going on here. You may be one of those dogged individualists who insist on exploring every harmonic nook and cranny (trust your therapist, he knows!) but for the lazy minded why not try the cheats version. Instead of getting bogged down in all those diminished and half-diminished measures you could view this section thus:


| BMa7 / / / | G7 / / / | Cm7 / / / | F7 / / / |

Effectively we’ve transformed this section into a standard jazz 1/6/2/5 turnaround and, considering all the headaches we’ve experienced up to this point, I think we deserve a break.

So there we have it. I hope these insights will prove useful to you and will serve as a reference in this and many other harmonic environments. The more astute amongst you will have realised that, whilst effective, this treatise is by no means harmonically comprehensive, relating as it does many of its harmonic choices to the major diatonic skeleton. There are further layers to be considered. For instance; Em7b5 also serves as chord 6 in a harmonised G melodic minor scale, chord 7 in a harmonised F melodic minor scale and chord 2 in a harmonised D harmonic minor scale. Similar theoretics can be applied throughout but for now at least you can enjoy making convincing sense of this great yet befuddling tune.

By the way, does anyone know the words?

Didn’t think so!

(copyright the author 2002 for personal and educational use. Permission must be obtained from the author to reproduce this work in any form).

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