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Jazz Piano Lessons: “Stella By Starlight” - Arranging for Upper Structure Triads

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No discussion about
jazz harmony is complete without
a lot of appreciation for Bill Evans.
He was somebody who took a lot of great
information from a variety of places,
modern composers like Claude Debussy, for
example, and
brought it into the jazz world.
He brought a really unique touch,
a way of shading things,
of accentuating some notes in the chord,
letting others kinda be ghost tones, just
little overtones and things like that.
He Played with Miles Davis.
He's on Kind of Blue, plays so great.
And a lot of the stuff that he was
doing early in his career was this
kind of upper structure triad based thing.
He was finding these voicings.
I arranged this tune,
Stella By Starlight, a classic standard,
using kind of as many different ways
of implementing upper structure
triads as I can think of, and
it comes out really quite nicely.
It's a little bit,
kind of maybe in the style of Bill Evans.
You might hear a piece or
two go by that remind you of things
that he was doing in the 50s.
Great record called
Everybody Digs Bill Evans,
if you wanna get into
really early Bill Evans.
Miles, when he heard him,
he said I gotta work with that guy, and
he put him to work on a couple of
really beautiful tunes on Kind of Blue.
I think it's actually,
most of it I think is Bill.
So let's play this,
I'm just gonna play it down once and
then I'm gonna play it through and
talk a little bit about what I'm doing.
And there's a PDF download of this so
if you wanna play it yourself you can.
And the PDF is annotated with
what the upper structures are and
a little bit of notes about
what the thinking behind it is.
So I'm just gonna play it first.
Let's step through this now and
I'll talk about what I'm doing and
a little bit of why,
the kitchen sink is in here.
And mostly I did this to
show you the potential and
the power of this upper
structure triads idea.
And you'll see what I'm talking about.
First thing we hit.
The first chord is a minor 7 flat 5.
There's regular minor 7.
Flat the 5.
And this is what's really designed
to precede an altered 7th chord.
We're gonna get to this chord
in the next few lessons.
And I put an upper structure triad on it,
of a D.
And part of the thinking there is
that that's a classic voicing for C7.
And the two notes that really
define an E minor 7 flat 5 are
the E and the B flat,
just like the guide tones of the C7.
Then I go to kind of a standard
issue altered voicing for
A7, cuz I wanna get that
sonority established.
I kinda just want to get
the guide tones in there.
And then check this, we've got.
Those are all three upper structure
triads, and they're all composed of
tensions that are good on an A 7th chord.
First one an E flat triad.
Then we can walk right up to an F triad,
that's a whole step above
our E flat triad, and
up another half step, and
that's the melody to this piece.
And there we are on our C minor 7,
and there I'm using a B
flat triad over C minor,
just like we've discussed.
we're on the F7, and I'm using the sharp
11 triad, which is the G over F7.
Gives us that nice buzzing B on there.
The sharp 11.
Then we've got our F minor chord there
if you're following along on your chart.
And I'm putting my E
flat triad above that.
Then I'm going to a G
triad over our B flat 7.
Because the G is in the melody.
And I could go with that.
But how much more interesting is that?
That's a much more poignant sound.
And that is the natural 6 major triad.
We've experimented with
that as a blowing device,
as something to use when
we solo by arpeggiating it.
If you remember,
I like it cuz it's got an altered tension,
a flat 9, but also that in there, too.
Now, I'm putting in a little
passing chord here,
what's called a tritone substitution.
You can almost always,
if you're on this and you're going here,
you can move your bass note down
a tritone and the same voicing will work.
I decided to darken this one
up a little bit, though,
and put a D flat triad over
our guide tones to E7.
And of course, E7,
that really just wants
badly to go there and
resolve to E flat major 7.
I should point out also that we've
got this in here then we've got this.
Is that a legal chord?
It doesn't even matter,
I love the way it sounds.
Weird collection of intervals.
Tritone on the bottom, tritone on
the top and a substitute bass note,
it's all great.
Now I'm gonna put in
a little bit of our
all that stuff is our moving triads.
Remember these voicings?
Flat 7, 9 and 5 and move it around.
Then here.
There's our D triad
over an E minor chord.
And here I'm just not even
putting the G in there.
I'm letting it sit there
like its own sonority.
For one thing the G is way too low
down there and I want it to feel more
open than if I, that's actually
really nice though too, isn't it?
But my thing was to just
leave it as an open D over
E in the bass and then here I'm
doing kind of an interesting one.
What this is,
it's our familiar 6th major triad.
This note is in the melody, however, so
there's really no way to voice this up
here where we would ordinarily voice it.
So I'm putting it down here and
I'm leaving out the G again because
I want that bi-tonality thing.
I want it to sound like two
chords happening at once.
So what we end up with here is actually
an F sharp 7th chord, not just a triad.
But since the melody was up there
I figured why not work with it
as it's written and
here we have a very similar idea.
Now we're on the D minor 7,
I decided to voice that up as
a D minor with a major 7 in it.
So our upper structured triad on
this chord is an A over D minor.
Again, I don't expect you to be
frantically writing all this down.
It's available as a PDF.
The idea here is just to get you going
on what the potential of this stuff is.
Transcribe some Bill Evans.
That would be such a great exercise
to see if you can figure out all
the secret harmony in there.
[SOUND] There we are.
there [SOUND] I'm taking this down here.
It's kind of a little bit of
a voicing of a G over the D minor,
which is another great voicing.
Big spread out thing with
six different notes in it.
F triad over E flat seven.
[SOUND] Here we have [SOUND]
our F triad over G minor seven,
which is a really nice little voicing.
We've seen it before, [SOUND] in this way.
Again, there wasn't really a way to
get it up here without obscuring
our melody note which is the G, so
I just hit it in [SOUND] there and
it makes a beautiful little cluster
that gives us that bi-tonal thing.
If this was a Herbie Hancock chord, Herbie
would have six more notes in that cluster.
But his touch is such that
each one would be meticulously voiced
to put a little rub on this thing.
Nobody has a touch like that.
Here we have another minor seven flat five
chord, which is same as a minor chord but
the five is flat, and
I'm putting my G triad above that.
Once again, we're gonna have our six major
triad over the D7 and
I'll show you something.
If we put the nine in there,
we've got the flat nine of course.
That's a flat nine.
There's the tonic.
Let's add the E in to buzz against that
flat nine.
That's a classic WC chord right there.
He would probably take it,
move it around like that.
Herbie would do that, too.
Once you get a hip voicing, seeing where
you can go with it in parallel is a great
way to expand your harmonic vocabulary,
create a little melody out of it.
I'm walking down those upper structured
triads again from the B to
the B flat to the A flat.
You probably recognize these sounds.
Here I decided to expand
in a different way.
And what this is, again,
I'm choosing to take my top note and
buzz it up by putting
a major 7th below it.
But with all this combination of tensions,
what we're ending up with effectively
is E major seven over G seven.
There's our guide tones.
There's a nice chord that's got all kinds
of interesting rubs in it.
Look at this.
We've got that major seven and
a major seven sitting on the major seven.
That's what gives that thing such a great,
great kind of a complex feeling to it and
a real bitonality.
once again I'm going with the G triad over
the C minor sonority,
great upper structure triad.
where we are.
We're at that A flat seven,
except I decided to leave
this out of there and
just let it be more of a bitonal thing,
cuz if you can take two of
the same chord quality and
stack them up on each other,
you get more of that sense.
Rather than just being
a complex combination of notes,
it's really quite bitonal like this.
And you hear this interesting
characteristic sound of
having two things going on at once.
Here I'm doing
something a little unusual.
I'm using a D major triad over a B flat.
And, if I was really hardcore with this,
I would leave that suspended.
You could do a vat with it too,
but why poop the party?
Leave it suspended.
There's a stark little voice, and
we've had all these really
rich voicings going on.
This one,
I'm not putting anything on the third, and
it's kind of just a very open thing to
give us a breather from all the density.
And there's another.
What I'm doing there, the thinking is
I'm making a little parallel move with
this full step cluster and, again,
giving us a little bit of a breather
from all that dense bitonal harmony.
Same idea here.
Three upper structure triads in a row.
Here's an F triad over G.
Very pretty sound.
And the thinking here,
that's a standard suspended 7th voicing.
And what I'm gonna do with it next,
I'm gonna put a rub up here on the top by
putting an E triad over our G seven,
the six major triad.
And this is another minor-major seven
chord, and I'm hanging in
a B flat triad on top of it.
And there is our classic
altered seventh voicing,
a D flat triad over F7.
What I'm doing there is thinking in terms
of walking my D flat down to a B triad,
which is another great triad,
the flat five major triad.
And we're gonna close it out with
just this little gospel cadence.
And then for the very end,
if you look at what this is,
it's a C major triad for
the Lydian sound over the B flat.
But I've spread it out
really wide like this, and
I am once again buzzing the E with a note,
a major seventh below.
Often when I'm orchestrating things,
I do a lot of orchestral arrangement,
I like to do that to voice a melody.
things down and
harmonize it
in sevens.
Check this out on a B flat chord.
There it is, harmonized in sevenths
on the top, just diatonic sevenths.
You're walking down
the degrees of the chord, but
I'm throwing the fourth,
the diatonic fourth under there as well.
Kind of weird.
Some notes are suspending
while others are resolving,
gives you a very interesting sound.
Take a look at this Stella
by Starlight arrangement.
Work it up.
If you think to do it,
maybe film one and take a look,
especially at all the different ways there
are to use these upper structured triads.
Incredibly powerful tool,
especially for playing solo.
But this is a lot of the Bill Evans
vocabulary from the 1950s.
Now if we could all just get
a touch like Bill Evans.
I'll see you for the next lesson.