The Playground

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A Way of Listening – Autumn Leaves

Found in: A Way of Listening

In our last discussion about the diversity of Jazz, we cast a very broad net to show how varied music can be under the jazz umbrella. This time I thought we could explore just how varied can be the interpretations of just one song. I currently have a bunch of more advanced students all working on the classic tune Autumn Leaves, so I thought I’d share some perspectives I shared with that group.

First of all, although this discussion mostly features jazz interpretations, I hope you can see it in a wider context and appreciate how this conversation might contribute to all your musical endeavours. Jazz is a river that flows through just about all the landscape of modern music, and jazz nourishes the soil from which grows nearly everything worth learning about in music, including understanding chords, arrangement and improvisation.

In turn, jazz has its own roots, and much of them are in popular music. Although they may have wanted to be taken seriously as artists, the founding fathers of jazz also wanted to have a wide audience, so they liked to play with popular tunes. Given that jazz is fundamentally about exploring the territory between the familiar and the unfamiliar, it helped the players attract their listeners onto their musical roller-coaster by starting with something familiar. So jazz players liked to use popular songs, typically from movies and theatre, as the entry point. To this day, your typical jazz player will have learned an extensive repertoire from an established collection of well-known songs, which they call Standards.

This particular song began as a composition by the Hungarian-French composer Joseph Kosma written for the ballet “Le Rendez-vous”. The poet Jacques Prévert wrote the screenplay for the film “Les Portes de la nuit” in 1946 and added lyrics to Kosma’s tune, which in the film became “Les Feuilles Mortes” – the dead leaves. The dark lyrics, and the bleak movie, were not enough to hide the appeal of the wistful melody, and when in 1947 the American songwriter Johnny Mercer wrote English lyrics, the song found a wider audience and quickly became part of the canon in both pop and jazz. It’s become one of the most recorded songs of all time.

Here’s a selection of versions that hopefully prove to illustrate that a tune is not a fixed thing. It can be reinterpreted in a million ways.

Yves Montand (probably 1946)

This is probably from the original film, although I can’t confirm for sure. It’s certainly a good starting point for our journey, being in a simple, romantic style typical of French chanson of its day, which puts the melody front and centre, with the discreet accompaniment of a small ensemble. The notable musical feature is the piano flourishes, serving to enhance the singing like a rococo picture frame.


Nat King Cole (probably 1955)

This could be considered a classic middle-of-the-road rendition of the English language version – it’s very smooth and sentimental, as you would expect from the great crooner Nat King Cole. Coming from the world of jazz, which was willing to explore darker moods, he was a natural choice to play this song – the sombre character of the original might have been a bit hard for audiences more familiar with Bing Crosby and Doris Day to handle. This version uses a bit of rubato – slowing down and speeding up of the rhythm – especially during the “since you went away” section: Nat will sometimes leave a long gap between lines, and other times come in a little early. Try tapping along to the recording and you’ll notice this, although tapping along might be difficult without an instrument like drums clearly marking the beat. The conductor would have been paying close attention to his singing, possibly listening for certain words as cues to bring the orchestra in.


Andrea Bocelli (2008)

This one is also smooth and sentimental, like Nat King Cole’s. Which would you choose, out of two of the most to-die-for male voices of all time? Although the versions are similar, how are they different? Andrea employs a lot of post-phrasing – starting his lines late, as though he’s a little hesitant to share his feelings. If you sing along with the beat, you’ll hear how Andrea usually begins after the expected start of each phrase.


Eva Cassidy (1996)

Eva’s version is interesting for the way it alternates between sweet folky and darker blues tonalities. “Blue notes” are often used to add a little edge to a predictable melody. The bent notes in “most of all my darling” at 1:50 and again at 3:40 are fabulously soulful. Students of harmony will note that she finishes on a 9th. Normally we love to hear a song resolve to the I – the happy ending where we return home. Eva ends with a I chord (Bbmin7), but sings C, a note that creates a lot of tension against the chord, leaving us hanging.


Miles Davis with Cannonball Adderley (1958)

Trumpeter Miles Davis is synonymous with the word “cool” and you’ll have to agree this version is nothing if not cool. Part of what makes this so is the restrained, breathy tone of his muted trumpet. Another important component is his phrasing. In contrast to Andrea Bocelli, Miles will often come in before the expected moment, anticipating the down beat (the first beat of the bar). You might have experienced this in Simply Music lessons in variations of blues pieces where your teacher asks you to count “&1, 2, 3, 4”, playing the LH on the “1, 2, 3, 4” and the RH on the “&”. It adds a whole lot of feel, especially when you do it with “swing”, an underlying ‘humpty dumpty’ groove. The drums from 0:53 are the best place to hear the swing. Then listen to Miles playing soft and loose over the top, drifting around the beat.

Miles also likes to mess with the melody. Jazz convention is to play the melody pretty ‘straight’ first time through, establishing the scene where all the improvisational drama will take place. This is called the “head”. After the head, the players will largely ignore the melody but stick with the chords (although they might be varied in many ways that make them hard to recognise), using them as the foundation to improvise over. Then they will return to the head to bookend their explorations. In this case, though, Miles figures we know the piece well enough for him to vary the arrangement a little. It makes a knowingly groovy setting. Cannonball Adderley takes the first solo with his alto sax, playfully exploring the chord sequence with his fluid lines, before handing back to Miles for his slower approach and eventually returning to the head, and letting us unwind slowly with a super-quiet outro.


Chick Corea and Bobby McFerrin (1988)

This joyous version is an opportunity to play “spot the tune”. Don’t worry if you don’t often recognise the melody – that’s not the point. The tune is just the springboard for shared play.
It’s fun to listen out for fragments of the melody in Chick and Bobby’s improvisation. But they rarely last long. It’s more about going to surprising and unfamiliar places than enjoying familiar ones. For example, Chick loves to deliberately play chords off the beat (e.g. 4:02, 7:10). No doubt they are sometimes wondering how they will get back to familiar ground, but it’s a case of the trip being more fun than the destination.

Around 11:00 everyone’s off the wall until Bobby sings a little melody that inspires a return to a recognisable groove, then, listening carefully to each other, they fall back into the tune.

The amazing rhythm section of John Patitucci and Tom Brechtlein proves that artistic sensitivity and the mullet are not mutually exclusive. They explore how far they can push and pull the groove without losing it. Frankly, I could listen to great jazz grooves all day, just with piano, bass and drums – the soloing is like bonus material. Learning to love a jazz groove is an interesting question for another time, but until then, even just watching the faces of the players providing clues to how they are responding to each other, and just appreciating the complete delight they are taking in their expressive freedom, might be enough.


Michel Petrucciani (1994)

Michel’s back story is an amazing one, and knowing it makes this solo piano version even more inspiring. Even without it, though, this extended exploration is a wonderful showcase of how much a great pianist on his own can make of such simple source material. For more than nine minutes the invention and virtuosity don’t let up.

The long introduction explores an array of unrelated melodies (including While My Guitar Gently Weeps – was that deliberate or not?), but finally, clues to the melody begin to emerge (when does it start to appear to you?). Remember though, that for artists at this level, just playing the tune is not going to be interesting enough for long, and after just one or two phrases of the proper tune, Michel is already off on a new trip. That trip might take us through all sorts of territory, but if you listen hard you will hear the basic chord structure of the song weaving through.

Along the way Michel uses some techniques Simply Music students might be familiar with, such as stride (around 3:25) and walking bass (around 5:50). In the early part of that walking bass section, he is syncopating his right hand – while the left hand notes stay on the basic pulse, the RH is playing less-emphasised rhythmic moments, anticipating the beat, again like our blues variations. After that, he blazes off into an elaborate and super-fast RH solo that appears to be in a totally different universe to the still-walking LH. If you listen intently to the LH and try to imagine the chords from the original song, you’ll appreciate how complex the LH is, even without the blistering RH.

Just when you think this is all totally random, from around 7:30 he starts to reintroduce the tune (plus some more weeping guitar) until he drops back into the same latin-inspired groove he used at the first clear statement of the melody, returning us to our home base (with a spectacular flourish of course).


Other versions:

Edith Piaf (1950) creates a crossover rendition both in French and English.


This classically-inspired rendition by Barbra Streisand (1966) includes the intro which is only heard occasionally in English-language versions.


Eric Clapton (2010): Eric obviously isn’t immune to the affliction of old rockers to explore the standards. This one sounds like it comes straight out of a classy 1950’s nightclub but, other than his typically tasteful, bluesy electric guitar solo in the outro, doesn’t offer much we haven’t heard before.


Chet Baker and Paul Desmond (?): The Rhodes piano from Bob James adds a modern cool to this bright and breezy rendition featuring the charismatic Chet being typically groovy on the trumpet and the beautiful clean, precise tone of Paul Desmond’s alto sax. And if you thought drummers are just there to keep everybody in time, the drumming is worth focusing on here. Steve Gadd’s ultralight touch is thoroughly musical. Tapping the basic count while listening to how he plays all around the beat without ever losing the groove is enough to make this performance worthwhile.


Bill Evans (1959): This one doesn’t fully adhere to the standard practice of stating the head, improvising over repeats of the chords (sometimes referred to as the “chorus”) and returning to the head. Evans doesn’t wait till the end of the melody before playing around with it, and on the return at the end of piece he can’t help messing around a bit too. Why does he do this? Well, for one thing he was just that kind of unstoppable creative maverick, and besides, the piece is such an often-played standard, no doubt all too familiar to the bohemian beard-strokers he appealed to, that both he and the audience would probably be bored to tears hearing the whole tune.

Not content with that small disruption to the familiar, Evans and his band really mess with us when going into the improv, launching into an unpredictable interplay between piano and bass, while the drummer interjects occasionally, stopping just when you think he’s going to drop into a groove. Try singing the tune over the top of what they play (from about 0:44) and you’ll hear that this seemingly directionless to-and-fro lasts for exactly two choruses. They had the tune and the chords playing along in their heads while they played anything but the tune and chords. At the end of that they come together into a sprightly groove.


Got a favourite version of this song? Let us know what and why in the comments.