A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano
History and overview:
Not many jazz musicians realize that “Autumn Leaves” was originally a French popular song. Titled “Les feuilles mortes” (literally “The Dead Leaves), it was composed in 1945 by Joseph Kosma with lyrics by Jacques Prévert. The original version in fairly unusual in that the title lyric is in the extended verse which precedes the well-known chorus (the verse is not in The Real Book because jazz musicians typically only play the chorus). In the English-language lyrics, by Johnny Mercer, the title lyric was moved to the chorus.
In 1955, American pianist Roger Williams had a #1 hit with his instrumental version of “Autumn Leaves.” Williams was a true virtuoso who had studied jazz with the Lennie Tristano. On this recording, however, he chose to play the song in a lush manner with orchestral accompaniment. His piano part features Chopinesque chromatic thirds which paint a “sound picture” of colorful leaves falling from trees.
“Autumn Leaves” is popular with jazz musicians, in part, because of the Cannonball Adderley/Miles Davis and Bill Evans recordings below. And since the early 1970s, it has remained popular because it’s featured prominently near the beginning of The Real Book. (Have you ever noticed that tunes that begin with the letter 'A' tend to get played more than many of the later tunes in the book?) Also, there’s something about the chord progression's beauty that makes it a great tune to play at whatever level you’re currently at!
Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, I’ve indicated the original album names wherever possible so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)
Yves Montand: Les Feuilles Mortes
By listening to the original French version of the song, you’ll get a good sense of exactly how you’re departing from it when you play it in a jazz style. The vocal will also give you a sense of the song’s lyrical quality.
Cannonball Adderley: Somethin’ Else
Miles Davis' famous trumpet solo begins at 4:20.
Bill Evans: Portrait In Jazz
Non-jazz version, which was a number one hit in 1955
Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Harmonically, “Autumn Leaves” is much simpler than it may look at first sight. It’s basically two sets of ii/V/I’s, one in G major and one in E minor. At some point in your practicing, work on each one separately: Am7/D7/GMaj7 and F#m7(b5)/B7/Em. Then plug them back into the whole chord progression again and you’ll see how they occur throughout the tune, with a CMaj7 chord connecting them during the A Sections.
“Autumn Leaves” is a standard 32-bar tune, but its form isn’t the “usual” AABA. After the bridge, the tune goes to a coda-like concluding section instead of repeating the initial A Section like most popular songs of the time did.
Incidentally, most jazz musicians today play “Autumn Leaves” in the key of Em, which is how it appears in The Real Book. Older generations of musicians, however, often played it in Gm (which begins on a Cm7 chord). The Miles Davis recording linked to above is an example of this. Learn it in both keys so you’ll be prepared if someone calls the tune in Gm. You may also want to learn it in the key of D minor, since a lot of vocalists sing it in that key.
Melodic sequences work especially well over the chords to “Autumn Leaves.”
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”
Further links and resources:
Autumn Leaves: “Let’s Jam Together” video playalong
Autumn Leaves: Journey Through The Real Book #25
Jazz Piano Tip #24: Autumn Leaves
How to use melodic sequences a la jazz great Gerry Mulligan
History and Analysis of “Autumn Leaves”
An insightful discussion and analysis of the song, with some surprising observations about the original sheet music and Mozart’s influence on the composer.
Transcription and analysis of Ron Carter’s bass lines from four selected recordings of Autumn Leaves
An invaluable study of bass lines
The Best Way To Use The Real Book
How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively
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