For many of us jazz pianists, “Autumn Leaves” is one of the first jazz tunes we learn (it was actually my very first one!). I think there are 3 reasons for this: the melody is sequential and easy to “grasp,” there are only a few main chords in the progression, and it’s near the beginning of the Real Book.
So to connect this with what I said above, we start learning jazz with “Autumn Leaves” and as we progress and grow as jazz pianists, the tune can become a kind of barometer that reflects where we are, musically. To see this for yourself, go to the piano, sit down, and play “Autumn Leaves.” Then, remember how you used to play it, when you were first starting to learn jazz. Do you see how far you’ve come? Or, if you’re just beginning to learn jazz right now, start with “Autumn Leaves,” and come back to it every once in a while. It will help you measure your musical progress.
I did this myself recently. I played “Autumn Leaves” for my Journey Through The Real Book video series, and as I played it, I reflected upon all the ways I’ve played it over the years. The fun thing for me is to see how it’s possible to become “freer” with a tune over time. At first, you learn each aspect of playing a tune one at a time: melody, chords, walking bass, various rhythmic styles, scales, and so on. Then, after a while, these become “second nature” and you can simply play what you feel as you go along, without thinking about those particular techniques. That’s an amazing feeling!
Here’s the “Autumn Leaves” video. Check out the chords I played at the beginning.
I’ve also made a short video to show you something I learned from watching the great baritone sax player Gerry Mulligan play, during the time when I was his assistant:
Enjoy these videos, and let me know if you have any questions.
Learn the 5 Essential Left Hand Techniques with my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
You'll also get my weekly jazz newsletter with practice tips and inspiration