Composed by Joseph Kosma
Many people know the song, “Autumn Leaves”. In fact, this is often one of the first jazz standards students learn in school. It was composed by Joseph Kosma in 1946 for the movie, Les Portes de la Nuit. The original title was Les Feuilles Mortes (in French, please!) and the lyrics and title were later added by Johnny Mercer in 1949.
The Nuts and Bolts
Typically, jazzers will want to play this tune in G minor. We often default to the popular “fake book key” of E minor, so guitarists, beware!
If you want to avoid a little surprise or a bad experience at a jam session, make sure you learn it in both keys like the grown-ups do!
It’s also advisable to learn the classic introduction to Autumn Leaves. It’s simply a bass riff that goes 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 are ready.
The whole song stays pretty much in the same key throughout. There’s not really any “funny business” going on anywhere, except for that little “III-VI-II-V” turnaround going to Eb in the few last bars. That’s something you might have to shed a little.
I find that this piece allows for a lot of freedom in improvisation. It also lends itself to many styles. I personally play the tune all over the place, from a ballad tempo all the way to some up-swing in 5/4 time!
Unfortunately, this song is often perceived as a beginner tune by intermediate players. Some students taking lessons with me often dismiss it and are even 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!
Autumn Leaves: Introduction
As mentioned previously, we have got Cannonball’s famous introduction for this tune as well as a few variations you can use for it on guitar.
In the two additional versions, we had some subtle harmonic content just to give you a bit of something extra to listen to! It’s also more “guitaristic” this way.
Autumn Leaves: Comping Ideas
For comping behind the melody in Autumn Leaves, it’s a good idea to make use of the space it provides for you. Pay attention to where there are whole notes or big rests in the melody. This is a great place for you to insert some content.
Make use of the areas in the melody where there is space. This is akin to the approach arrangers use with horn sections.
Autumn Leaves: Chord Melody
For the most part, we are simply making use of shell voicings and drop 2 voicings. There are a few exceptions but these are the main tools here. These voicings are typically the first voicings a jazz guitar player learns, so we are putting them to work right away here.
Autumn Leaves is a great tune to try in chord melody form because the harmony moves in 4ths and it also presents some basic challenges in the melody.
Autumn Leaves: Single-Note Solo
In this solo, we are taking you through some basic thematic development while also providing you with some very basic but classic ii V I lines.
You can take information from here and apply them to other tunes right away!
*Hint – This is one of the biggest benefits of transcribing! 😉
Also pay attention to the use of space in certain moments. This is all part of building a great jazz guitar solo.
Autumn Leaves: Chord Reference Sheet
In addition to all of this great content, we have also provided you with a reference sheet full of some basic chord shapes you can use over this tune!
-Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s Somethin’ Else album recorded in 1958. The introduction is haunting and memorable. It features Miles Davis playing the theme and then a classic solo. This is a definite “must have” album.
-Ahmad Jamal’s The Ahmad Jamal Trio album recorded in 1955 and released in 1956. They go crazy with a straight groove on the Eb chord (bVI in analysis) and they really stretch it. Check this one out, too!
-McCoy Tyner’s Today and Tomorrow album released in 1964. This one is swingin’ with McCoy’s usual brilliant playing on full display.
-Barney Kessel’s Autumn Leaves album recorded in the late 60’s. On Kessel’s take here, he offers up some interesting harmonization techniques and really gives us a beautiful version of this classic tune.
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.