Yesterday, I discovered a sequence in Stan Getz’s 1952 Clef recording of “Stella by Starlight,” (MGC 137). The three-by-three format unfolds as Stan finishes the bridge on his first chorus. Here it is:
If you’ve studied “Stella,” you know that the final 8 bar section of the form contains the intriguing 6-bar harmonic sequence shown below:
As shown here, that harmonic sequence features 3 iterations of 8 beats each, for a total of 24 beats. But Getz begins his amazing melodic sequence 2 beats before the passage shown above, so he needs to fill 26 beats.
The diagram below illustrates the incredible way he accomplishes this Herculean feat. Stan’s motif of six eighth-notes covers 3 beats and is repeated three times on each of three starting notes. But on the second iteration of round two, he leaves out a beat. Thus, the total episode comprises 9 + 8 + 9 = 26 beats. Even at 160 beats per minute, Getz is able to execute this monumental feat so smoothly that it sounds effortless.
Playing through transcribed solos of the masters at slow tempos is an eyeopening experience, because their melodic lines make equal sense at any tempo. For the most part, even though originally executed at blinding speeds, the internal logic of these timeless improvisations holds together perfectly, offering the listener a sense of unity, variety, and coherence, as if carefully and meticulously composed.
To what extent are these compositional masterpieces actually improvised on the spot? Obviously, great players are intimately familiar with every aspect of the underlying song being performed. And yet, their solos come off sounding so spontaneous and fresh. What are your thoughts about this paradox?
“Stella by Starlight” has been a favorite for numerous players since its introduction in 1944, and an abundant array of wonderful recordings is available for you, if you need fresh ideas for navigating these invigorating changes. Stan Getz produced at least two exceptional recordings of “Stella” that I know of. Each is great, although they are distinctly different from one another. Here’s his 1952 recording in its entirety: