May 28, 2024

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A song in all leaves: Autumn Leaves is the ultimate nostalgic jazz song: Videos, Photos

Like a warm coat: “Autumn Leaves” is the ultimate nostalgic jazz song. However, the question of which of his many interpretations is the best is not so easy to answer.

Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole? Edith Piaf or Juliette Greco? Miles Davis or Dave Brubeck? Bob Dylan or Hannes Wader? In the end even Wolf Biermann? The question of which interpretation of “Autumn Leaves” is the best is not so easy to answer. Especially since Keith Jarrett alone recorded five of them on CD. And which should you prefer, the bluesy one from 2002 or the one with the highly dramatic introduction from 1994? The straightforward, unsentimental one from 1996 or the one created ten years earlier with the wonderfully floating ostinato at the end?

“Autumn Leaves” is a pretty resilient track, you’d have to be a really bad musician to screw up this autumnal ballad. This may be due to the very straightforward opening figure descending the G minor scale, or because the piece’s melancholic, end-of-season mood sounds so familiar to everyone. A song that you can put on like a warm coat.

Unlike most jazz standards, “Autumn Leaves” is based on a French text, the poem “Les feuilles mortes” by Jacques Prévert, and is composed by French (originally Hungarian) musician Joseph Kosma. Whereby Kosma took over the melody almost one to one, namely – it seems weird, but it is like that – from a marching song of the Red Army: “White Army, Black Baron”.

Music video: “Les feuilles mortes” by Edith PiafVideo: Youtube, Image: picture alliance / Mary Evans Picture Library
Four years later, the English version was written by Johnny Mercer, a successful songwriter who penned, among other things, the lyrics to Henry Mancini’s “Moon River”. Does Prévert’s poem speak of how time separates lovers and how the sea erases the common trace (“Mais la vie sépare ceux qui s’aiment/ Tout doucement, sans faire de bruit / Et la mer efface sur le sable / Les pas des amants désunis”), so Mercer, in whom not time but human will is to blame for the separation of the lovers, concentrates in three short stanzas entirely on the seasonal motif: “Since you went away / The days grow long / And soon I’ll hear / Old winter’s song”.

Autumn Leaves E minor version - Play along - C version - YouTube

But of course French singers like Edith Piaf sang the English version and American singers like Iggy Pop, wonderfully absurd, the French version. There wasn’t a singer of any repute who didn’t have the piece in their program in the 1950s and 1960s, and there was hardly a jam session that didn’t use the catchy chord progression.

Some standard recordings of this standard were also made in those years. In particular, the version recorded in 1958 by Miles Davis together with Cannonball Adderley, with its modal introduction already pointing to the legendary “Kind of Blue” album from 1959, seems carved in stone today. What trumpet tone could be a better match for “Autumn Leaves” than the master’s apparently chilled and yet subliminally glowing hot one? Chet Baker’s, some will now say – but that touches on questions of faith.

With “Autumn Leaves” you run a little risk of drifting towards bar jazz. Especially with singers like Nina Simone or Dee Dee Bridgewater, wonderful as they are, you can see the clichéd cigarette smoke curling over the cocktails.

With “Autumn Leaves” you run a little risk of drifting towards bar jazz. Especially with singers like Nina Simone or Dee Dee Bridgewater, wonderful as they are, you can see the clichéd cigarette smoke curling over the cocktails.

Just as the piece anticipates its own fate: if it is about nostalgic feelings, about the transience of love, one listens to it today with nostalgia and thinks of musical times that seem long gone. It’s like a photo album in which the pictures are slowly fading, but you still look at them again and again. Unfortunately, no more new pictures will be added.

Apparently “Autumn Leaves” is not suitable for giving expression to the present, finding a contemporary expression, as if the melody could not be translated into a contemporary sound language. None of those who shape contemporary jazz who would have taken on the piece up to now, no Ingrid Laubrock, no Kris Davis, no Makaya McCraven, no Mary Halvorson, no Kaja Draksler. Only drummer Tyshawn Sorey recorded a small piano trio homage with pianist Aaron Diehl. But it doesn’t go beyond Bill Evans’ classic recording or Keith Jarrett’s versions. So there’s nothing left but to sentimentally surrender to the red-gold-shining beauty of this autumn song, and that’s perhaps best done with Jacky Terrasson’s very French piano solo version, happily whirling up the leaves.

Edith Piaf sang „Les feuilles mortes“, Yves Montand auch - hier sieht man die beiden in dem Film „Etoile sans lumiere“ (dt: „Chanson der Liebe“, 1946)

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