To describe Autumn Leaves as a jazz standard, would probably be an understatement. Sure, it is a standard part of the musical repertoire of jazz musicians, and is widely known by jazz listeners. But this 1945 composition by Joseph Kosma with lyrics written in French by Jacques Prévert and later in English by Johnny Mercer, has found a much wider appeal and coverage, including covers by popular artists like Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Seal. At its core, Autumn Leaves is a song of nostalgia, of fond and yearning memories of a time of romance. But with legions of artists covering it year after year, for over seven decades, the expressive power of the song occupies a much wider canvas. To give you an idea, here are ten different takes on Autumn Leaves.
The charismatic Frank Sinatra, one of America’s greatest singers of all time, was held in high esteem by fellow musicians. The great jazz icon, trumpeter Miles Davis has even acknowledged that he “learned to get inside the ballads from Frank Sinatra.” Sinatra sings one of the most canonical, true to the core, renditions of Autumn Leaves. Full of feeling and yet not overly sentimental, musically on point but without excessive ornamentation, Sinatra’s version from his album Where are you? recorded in 1957, lays down the reference.
Miles Davis himself used to perform Autumn Leaves regularly during his live performances in the early 60s. Here is a studio version recorded in 1958, with Davis on sideman duty in saxophone great Cannonball Adderley’s band in the album Somethin’ else. Beginning with a catchy vamp, the band rhythmically builds up a feeling of anticipation about the song until, after a second’s pause, Davis steps in to quote the familiar tune! Adderley takes the first solo, followed by Davis and Hank Jones on piano, all the while ably supported by the rhythm secion of Sam Jones on bass and Art Blakey on drums.
While on sideman duty with Adderley, Davis was recruiting him to record Kind of Blue, one of the greatest jazz albums of all time. Another key musician who featured in Kind of Blue, was the genius pianist Bill Evans. Soon after recording Kind of Blue, Evans recruited bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian to form his trio. Here is Autumn Leaves from their album Portrait in Jazz recorded in 1959. After Evans quotes the tune, it seems that LaFaro is taking the first solo. But it is actually Evans, LaFaro and Motian trading musical statements with one another, with no explicit “rhythm section”. Then the band snaps into groove with Evans’ solo before reprising the tune at the end.
Barbra Streisand, a multi-talented genius, a singer, actor and filmmaker, equally acclaimed in each field of artistic endeavour, began her career singing in nightclubs in the 60s. Sometime in 1964, Max Gordon of the Village Vanguard asked Miles Davis to play behind Streisand. Davis recalls humourously in his autobiography, how he sent his rhythm section in, since he didn’t want to play behind a girl singer, but later on realising how good she was, he used to “say, ‘Goddamn’, and just shake my head.” Here she is, soulfully, singing Autumn Leaves in French and English, in a recording from her 1966 album Je m’appelle Barbra.
An unassuming man in person, the almost not famous Jim Hall is considered so influential to jazz guitar that Jason Shadrick wrote for Premier Guitar that “It could be argued that the jazz guitar tree is rooted in four names: Django, Charlie, Wes, and Jim.” Ron Carter, a Miles Davis alumnus, is a legendary and prolific jazz bassist - a veritable Atlas having carried the rhythmic weight of over two thousand jazz recordings. Here they perform Autumn Leaves as a duet in their 1972 album Alone Together.
Chet Baker, an accomplished jazz trumpeter, nearly destroyed his musical career in the late 60s and early 70s, owing to his drug addiction. He mounted a comeback after five years of musical inactivity through his 1974 album She Was Too Good to Me. With illustrious guest musicians, Paul Desmond on alto saxophone and Milt Jackson on vibes, and band members Hubert Laws on flute, Bob James on keyboards and the profilic rhythm section of Ron Carter on bass and Steve Gadd on drums, Baker shows that there was much music still left in him!
Sarah Vaughan, an iconic jazz singer, popularly known as “Sassy”, was so wonderfully gifted that it once made Sinatra comment “Sassy is so good” that it made him want to “cut my wrists!” Here she is scatting her way with genius and abandon through Autumn Leaves in her Grammy nominated 1982 album Crazy and Mixed Up. Also check out the great guitar solo by Joe Pass and the tight backing of Vaughan’s rhythm section of Roland Hanna on piano, Andy Simpkins on bass and Harold Jones on drums.
The great jazz trumpeter and an earnest advocate for the promotion of jazz and classical music, Wynton Marsalis recorded Marsalis Standard Time, Vol. 1 in 1986, along with Marcus Roberts on piano, Robert Hurst on bass and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums. Marsalis and his band revisit jazz standards and twist them from a rhythm or time perspective. This is apparent in their rendition of Autumn Leaves where you can feel the song speed up and slow down, although technically the metre stays the same!
The grandfather of jazz violinists, Stéphane Grappelli collaborated with Yehudi Menuhin, one of the greatest classical violinists of all time, to interpret and play jazz standards. Grappelli had first seen a 15 year old Menuhin perform in Paris in the 30s, and Menuhin had been astounded by Grappelli’s virtuosity when he first heard his records, sent over by a friend, in the 60s. Once they met, they became great friends and worked on musical projects together from time to time. Here they combine superbly to perform Autumn Leaves backed by composer Max Harris and his orchestra. If you have good headphones, Menuhin’s on the left and Grappelli’s on the right.
Powerhouse drummer, arranger and music educator, Craig Pilo released his debut album Just Play in 2007. Pilo performs a mixture of original compositions, and jazz standards arranged in his own style, aided by guest artists including Mitchel Forman, Tom Kennedy and others. In an interview to AllAboutJazz, Pilo says that he wanted to take the standards “in a different direction” and managed to “ruffle some feathers” among his jazz purist friends. Here he is, performing a funky, rocking arrangement of Autumn Leaves!
Do you believe every song has a mood which is part of its identity? Or do you think a song is just a structure, which the musicians have to navigate, in order to express whatever they are feeling like? And so, which version(s) do you like better than others?
- Autumn Leaves, Where are You?, Frank Sinatra, 1957.
- Autumn Leaves, Somethin’ Else, Cannonball Adderley featuring Miles Davis, 1958. Band members: Cannonball Adderley (alto saxophone), Miles Davis (trumpet), Hank Jones (piano), Sam Jones (bass) and Art Blakey (drums).
- Autumn Leaves, Portrait in Jazz, Bill Evans Trio, 1960. Band members: Bill Evans (piano), Scott LaFaro (bass) and Paul Motian (drums).
- Autumn Leaves, Je M’appelle Barbra, Barbra Streisand, 1966.
- Autumn Leaves, Alone Together, Jim Hall & Ron Carter, 1972. Band members: Jim Hall (guitar) and Ron Carter (bass).
- Autumn Leaves, She Was Too Good to Me, Chet Baker, 1974. Band members: Chet Baker (trumpet), Hubert Laws (flute), Bob James (keyboards), Ron Carter (bass), Steve Gadd (drums) and Milt Jackson (vibes).
- Autumn Leaves, Crazy and Mixed Up, Sarah Vaughan, 1982. Band members: Sarah Vaughan (vocals), Joe Pass (guitar), Roland Hanna (piano), Andy Simpkins (bass) and Harold Jones (drums).
- Autumn Leaves, Marsalis Standard Time, Wynton Marsalis, 1986. Band members: Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Marcus Roberts (piano), Robert Hurst (bass) and Jeff “Tain” Watts (drums).
- Autumn Leaves, Grappelli & Menuhin - Their Best, Stéphane Grappelli, Yehudi Menuhin, Max Harris & Instrumental Ensemble, 1988.
- Autumn Leaves, Just Play, Craig Pilo, 2007. Band members: Mitchel Forman (Fender Rhodes piano), Ed Czach (keyboards), Tom Kennedy, Bart Samolis, Keith Hubacher, Jim King, David Enos, Jonathan Pintoff (bass on various tracks), Roman Dudok and Doug Webb (saxophone) and Bryan Brock (bongos).