A tune, and making sense of jazz

Wrote a tune, and tried my best to analyze a jazz standard.

Here’s a tune that I’ve been writing and revising over the past week or so. It’s in C in the first part and in E in the second part. I might write down the chords that I use for it later.

My jazz class recently started working on the jazz standard “Stella by Starlight.” The chords are odd—there’s a lot of changes that don’t seem to make sense on paper, but of course they sound great if you just play them. Here’s my attempt to make sense of it.

First I’ll show the chords. Then I’ll discuss the changes.

Below is my alternate notation for the tune. If a chord is in brackets, that’s the chord for that point in the tune. ⇘ means progress one step down the circle of fifths—so, travel a perfect fifth downwards. (I’m using thick arrows because the thin arrows come out as gigantic images on WordPress for no discernible reason.)

The characters after the arrows denote the quality of the chord: “M” means major seventh, “7” means major-minor seventh, “m” means minor seventh, and “+” means augmented.

If there’s no arrow, then the chord doesn’t travel, but its quality could still change.

All minor chords are implied to be minor seventh chords. All major chords are implied to be major seventh chords.

[trisub i] | ⇘7            | [ii]     | ⇘7
m          | ⇘7            | ⇘M       | ⇘7
[I]        | [trisub i] ⇘7 | ⇘m       | [i] ⇘7
[V]        | [trisub i] ⇘7 | m        | ⇘7

⇘+         | %             | ⇘m       | %
[VII]     | %             | [I]       | %
[trisub i] | ⇘7            | ⇘m       | ⇘7
⇘m         | ⇘7            | ⇘M       | %

With this, it’s easier to see how the changes work.

The tune begins with a ii V resolution starting on the tritone. Then it proceeds to do the same thing but starting on the [ii]. I’m not quite sure why this works, but I can say that the first two chords have a certain feeling to them, and the second two chords have that same kind of feeling but stronger. The second chord and the third chord are separated by a minor third—this might be part of why the progression works. The rest of the first eight measures is a standard ii V I cyclical progression with some allowable variations in the chord qualities. It ends on a [VII7].

The ninth measure is a bit of a reset; it begins on a [I] chord. It then does a ii V i resolution starting on the tritone. If tritone substitutions make sense—which they roughly do, to me—then this is all fine. It ends on a [iii].

The twelfth measure begins another ii V resolution starting on the [i] chord (resulting in progression [i IV]), and then in measure thirteen it goes to a [V] chord. This is a classical kind of chord progression, so it feels weird when it’s in jazz. When I listen to it, I notice that it feels like the fanfare progression [VI VII I]. This is because [i] contains the triad for [III] and so the progression feels like major chords stepping upwards: [III IV V]. The jump from [iii] to [i] at the start is smooth because [iii] is a tonic variant—going to the tonic from there isn’t a stretch at all.

The remaining measures in the first part are a standard ii V cyclical progression starting on the tritone and ending on [III7]. I believe that it works to go from the tritone from [V] because the tritone chord is a dominant variant of [V]. (By this I mean that it is a variant of the [II] chord, which is the [V] of [V].)

The second part is a lot simpler. The first two chords are just a progression down the circle of fifths from the previous part (the augmented bit is to accommodate the melody). This ends on a [ii]. After that it goes down a major third to [VII7]—this transition is smooth because the [ii] triad is contained in the major seventh chord [VII]. Then it resolves to [I], which works because [VII] is a dominant variant. The last eight measures are just a cyclical progression starting on the tritone and ending on [I].

2 thoughts on “A tune, and making sense of jazz

  1. Hello,

    Stella By Starlight is a great tune to learn, and also one that’s filled with many a peculiarity.

    I’m wondering if there might be some confusion though over the concept of tritone substitutions, and if I might clarify a little. Hope that’s ok.

    When you refer to the E-7b5 in the first measure, I think you’re referring to that as a tritone sub since E is a tritone away from the key of Bb. Is that right?

    A tritone sub has to do with dominant chords, no matter if it’s a secondary dominant or the dominant chord of the primary key center. So, F7 is the dominant for the key of Bb; the third (A) and the seventh (Eb) are also the third and seventh of B7 (now as D# and A). This means that the B7 can be substituted for the F7, and either will resolve to Bb just fine.

    For chordal instruments, I can speak about piano specifically, the left hand primarily plays only the 3rds and 7ths, adding and altering upper extensions, but usually avoiding the root and 5th all together. Common left hand voicings from the bottom up for dominant chords are 3-b7-9 or b7-3-13; and generally, while taking the melody into consideration, the 9, 11, and 13 can be altered as needed or wanted.

    This also affects the tritone sub. If voicing a F13 with Eb-A-D, that would translate to a B7(#9) as a tritone sub (D#-A-C##). Same notes, slightly different sound depending on whether the chord has an F or a B in the bass, but both resolve equally to Bb (and to E!).

    Nice piano music you’re posting, and the fiddle videos are really great as well. Thanks for sharing your work.


    • Yeah. I was assuming tritone substitutions occurred for the tonic, though I didn’t understand why it would work.

      What you’re saying makes sense. I’ve been thinking of an alternate analysis for the Edim7 chords in this piece, so I’ll work on that and update this accordingly.

      I appreciate the detail on piano voicings.

      Thank you for the compliments, and for enjoying my work!


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