Autumn Leaves is a very well known jazz standard song. It was composed by Joseph Kosma in 1946 for the movie Les Portes de la Nuit. The original title was Les Feuilles Mortes. English lyrics and title by Johnny Mercer in 1949.
Jazzmen will usually want to play this one in G minor. Guitarists, you have be warned! So many of us tend to play it in the "Fakebook key", which is E minor / G Major. If you want to avoid a little surprise at a jam session (or a bad experience) just be prepared to play Autumn Leaves in G minor / Bb major, like the grownups. (-:
It's also advisable to learn the "classic" intro. It's just a bass riff that does 1-b3-5-6 (and back down), defining a Gm6 chord. You can hear it on the Cannonball recording. When I play gigs as a leader, I often simply start this riff and the other musicians come in whenever they like. (See below for PDF and mp3 clip of intro suggestions for jazz guitarists...)
The whole song stays pretty much in the same key (and it's related major) throughout. There's not reallly any "funny business" going anywhere, except for that little "III-VI-II-V" going to Eb in the few last bars. You'll have to shed it a little.
I find this piece allows for a lot of freedom in improvisation. It also lends itself to many styles. I personally play that tune from ballad to up-swing in 5/4!
Unfortunately this song is often perceived as a beginner tune by intermediate players. Some students taking lessons with me often dismiss it like this : "Ahhhrg, you know, it's just ..." and are sometimes ashamed of playing the tune! I don't subscribe to this way of thinking; most professional jazz musicians love to play Autumn Leaves! (no kidding)
*NEW* Finally, a comprehensive guide on the intro to Autumn Leaves + suggestions on how to approach this on the guitar! (-:
Please download the PDF of the intro here and listen to this mp3 for an audio explanation:
Now, a chord melody on this tune is available both for beginners and intermediate players...
Both PDF contains :
-the leadsheet (chord symbols + melody),
-the chord melody arrangement (played in the video here)
-a basic chord chart (basic guitar shapes for you to use.)
Autumn Leaves jazz guitar chord melody (intermediate level) demonstrated, with some improvisation. See the intermediate pdf (with TABS) for the complete arrangement.
My "other favorite" Autumn Leaves track is played by the Ahmad Jamal trio. They go crazy (with a straigh-ish groove) on the Eb chord (it's a bVI in analysis) and they really stretch. You should seek this one too!