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A 'Stella' For Springtime, Snowstorms Or Starlight

"The song a robin sings through years of endless springs..."
David Hume Kennerly
Getty Images
"The song a robin sings through years of endless springs..."

For tens of millions in the Northeast, the name of the hour is "Stella" — as in Winter Storm Stella, the Weather Channel-branded nor'easter poised to bring heavy snowfall to a number of cities along the I-95 corridor. I'm among those who will soon be hunkering down (and later, shoveling out), but my first involuntary response is to start humming a familiar melody.

As any actual Stella can surely attest with a weary sigh, the name has a special purchase in popular culture, thanks to a scrap of dialogue by Tennessee Williams — and more to the point, its indelible delivery by Marlon Brando, in the movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

We're not here to talk about that. What's stuck in my head is the melody to "Stella By Starlight," a song composed by Victor Young for another film, a 1944 Paramount supernatural horror picture called The Uninvited.I've never seen this movie, which stars Gail Russell as the Stella in question, but I've heard the song at least a few thousand times, and probably more.

As a vocal number, with lyrics tacked on by Ned Washington, it enjoyed some popular success in versions by (among others) Frank Sinatra (1947), Tony Bennett (1961) and Ella Fitzgerald, who included it on her Verve album Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!in '61.

The lyrics open with a couplet suitable for mid-March, though not for our current conditions: "The song a robin sings / Through years of endless springs." As always, Fitzgerald is clear as a bell, and manages to make the song's melody feel easygoing in its unconventionally winding form.

In his recent book The Jazz Standards, Ted Gioia brings a special warmth to his analysis of "Stella By Starlight," making the case that it's "a masterpiece of through-composed misdirection." Among the particulars are a delayed deployment of the root chord; a surprise modulation after the second eight bars; and a mere, fleeting tease of the core motif in the final eight. "This bold framework, which violates our ingrained expectations, was precisely what made me embrace 'Stella By Starlight' as an essentially modernistic composition," Gioia writes, and in that he is far from alone.

Jazz instrumentalists, more than singers, have been responsible for keeping "Stella" in active circulation over the last 70 years. You'll have no problem finding dozens of recorded versions, by some of the music's most familiar names, including alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and pianist Bill Evans. But no one did more to standardize the song than Miles Davis and Lee Konitz.

Davis, the trumpeter and bandleader, recorded "Stella By Starlight" a handful of times from the late 1950s on: It was among the small handful of standards he always seemed to keep in a side pocket. One early version, with Evans on piano, was released almost 20 years after it was recorded, and subsequently included in The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis with John Coltrane, on Legacy.

For many fans, Davis immortalized "Stella" as a vehicle for lyrical elaboration in his set lists of the mid-'60s. Here is a semi-abstracted treatment of the song from the Plugged Nickel in Chicago in 1965, with too many stray details to enumerate. But notice how Herbie Hancock sneaks in an Evans-esque chordal fillip from "So What" at the piano, just after 1:20. Note, too, the double time that seems almost to materialize out of a mist, spurred by bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. (And lest it seem like a slight of omission, Wayne Shorter's solo on tenor saxophone blazes like a searchlight.)

Because of the slipstream innovations of Davis's young rhythm team, successive generations of jazz musicians have internalized "Stella By Starlight" as a point of departure. But Konitz, an alto saxophonist of equally intrepid ideals, has also framed the song this way.

There are no hard numbers on this point, but it seems reasonable to suggest that no one on earth has played "Stella" more times than Konitz, who is now 89, and still very much on the scene. He even included a new version on his Frescalalto, a quartet album featuring Kenny Barron on piano, released on Impulse! in digital formats last month.

Any longtime Konitz admirer will recognize this performance as fully characteristic: a melodic improvisation with the unknowing ease of someone feeling around for the light switch in his own room. When Barron enters at the piano, just before the one-minute mark, it's as if that light has been flipped on. But what Konitz does in the lead-up isn't fumbling or unsure, and neither are his later statements over an ambulatory swing beat. He's finding, not just seeking.

One more example before you grab that snow shovel: A couple of years ago, Robert Glasper refocused attention on his acoustic piano trio, after garnering a lot of attention for the Robert Glasper Experiment, his R&B crossover band. Coveredwas the album he made with the trio, which features bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid.

For the most part Covered features acts of stylistic translation: deft trio arrangements of tunes by Radiohead, Jhene Aiko and Kendrick Lamar. But Glasper does include one jazz standard, as if to assert that he's still bonded to that repertoire. And his "Stella" does have a fair amount of piano fireworks, without knocking the band out of its groove.

"In all honesty," Gioia observes, "I still have trouble understanding the appeal of such a hook-free art song among the general public." Glasper's arrangement offers one solution: Provide the hooks yourself.

But the enduring hold of "Stella By Starlight," over these many decades, suggests that even a so-called art song can stick around in the popular consciousness, if enough sterling interpreters keep finding reasons to play it.

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