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Musical Space

Musical Space: Autumn Leaves


Fall has just begun, so this is a good time to talk about a certain song - a pop tune from a forgotten French movie that became one of the most-played jazz songs. The many recordings of the 1945 song “Autumn Leaves” show how obscure tunes can become jazz standards.

(Music: YVES MONTAND - Les Feuilles Mortes 2001: Inédits, rares & indispensables (Mercury, 4-CD boxset) (first release 1950)


“Autumn Leaves” was written by Hungarian composer Joseph Kosma and used in the movie Gates of The Night starring Yves Montand. The show’s 1949 American release didn’t have success at the box office, but some sentimental versions of the tune made it to the charts, including the absolutely maudlin Roger Williams arrangement that hit number one in 1955.

Things got interesting, though, when jazz musicians figured out it’s a fun tune to improvise over.

(Music: Cannonball Adderley, “Autumn Leaves,” Something Else! (1958),

Sometimes the beauty of jazz comes from a clash of styles, cultures, and generations. We’re listening to Miles Davis playing “Autumn Leaves” on Cannonball Adderley’s 1958 version. Here are the hippest of hipsters, wearing berets and dark glasses, using a ubiquitous pop song as a platform for personal expression in a completely different style and context. They must be trying to cultivate a sense of irony - “Check out how cool we can play this sappy tune.” Part of the fun of being in a jazz club is hearing a completely original impromptu version of a song that you could have heard earlier on a Broadway stage or in a movie theater. The great players are larcenous and subversive, using serious songs as a source for infinite jest, and when they play they are letting you in on the joke.


Listening List:

Roger Williams “Autumn Leaves,”

Bill Evans, “Autumn Leaves,” Portraits in Jazz (1959)

Wynton Kelly Trio (w/ Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb), “Autumn Leaves,” Wynton Kelly! (1961)
Interesting reharmonization

Kenny Barron, “Autumn Leaves,” Beautiful Love (2013)
Amazing solo piano version

Keith Jarrett Standards Trio, “Autumn Leaves,” Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note (1995)
This version is over 26 minutes long.

Julian Lage, “Autumn Leaves,” Gladwell (2011)