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Analysis of “Autumn Leaves”

We use our scale theory to analyse the chord sequence of "Autumn Leaves".
If I were marooned on a desert island and came across a piano or keyboard and the deal was I was allowed to play it, but only if I played one tune on it - the tune I would probably choose is “Autumn Leaves”, because it has so much potential for interpretation, for development, for improvising on. In certain ways “Autumn Leaves” is a paradigm for many other jazz standards, which is why we’ve put a lot of effort in this session into tooling up to play it. Let me first of all play it. Don’t worry about the way I play it because I’m going to give you a transcription of the way I might play it - a two-fisted version.
Let’s just get familiar with the tune.
First question: what key is it in? Well if you want to know the key of a jazz standard the best place to look is in the penultimate bar - the last bar but one - not the last bar because very often you’ve got chords in there that are to do with turning the piece around - the turnaround. Very often, though, the penultimate bar tells you the tonal centre - the key in which the piece is. In this case if you look at the last bar but one you get G minor. So it’s in G minor. But what flavour of G minor?
The way I played it just then, I played a G minor triad and I added a colour note which was the ninth - or the second if you choose to call it that. There are 3 distinct ways in which this lead sheet can be found in jazz resources. The first gives the final chord as G minor, which I’ve just played. The second set of lead sheets gives it as G minor7 … and yet a third gives it as G minor with a natural seven - G major minor7 … Of those 3 possibilities, I have to say my own particular favourite is the last of those 3, but all 3 exist.
It just underlines the point I have been trying to make throughout that there’s no such thing as a definitive lead sheet. The tune is interpreted by the instrumentalist who’s playing it and the chords have a certain kind of looseness really associated with them, where different people will play different things on different occasions. One of the wonderful things about being a pianist is, of course, that you can alter those chords to your own predilection.
Typically: fifths can be flattened or sharped, ninths can be flattened or sharped, minor chords - you can have sevenths - minor sevenths and major sevenths. So there’s a lot more flexibility. Of course, if you’re making those alterations then it’s much easier for you to play the scales that fit those particular chords. If you do it behind a soloist then it may or may not work depending on how quickly they pick up the sound that you’re playing behind them. OK, so it’s in G minor. What about the structure? The structure is somewhat weird. It’s a 32 bar sequence but it’s not AABA. It’s a little bit difficult to analyse exactly what it is.
It’s best if you break it down into a line of music on a lead sheet - 4 bars at a time - forgetting the pickup for the moment.
Then it goes like this (harmonically): first 4 bars A1, second 4 bars A2, third 4 bars A1 again, fourth 4 bars A2 again.
Then we come to the second half: next 4 bars A2 again, next 4 bars A1 again, next 4 bars A2 again (essentially), next 4 bars A2 again (essentially). So you see you have this strange use of just really 2 sets of 4 chords, but not played in the obvious order. Let’s look at the first 4 bars then. You’ve got C minor7, F7, B flat major7. We know that’s a II-V-I to B flat major. When we improvise we just improvise over B flat major. The next bar is E flat major7. We know that major sevenths are very strong, so what we have to do there is to improvise over E flat major7. Let’s leave that for a second.
Let’s look at the next line, because the next line is what we’ve been working on. It’s II-V-I to G minor - G minor. So the II - A minor7 - has a flat 5 in it, it may also have a flat 9 in it, as we’ve seen. The next bar, the V chord, has a flat 9 in it, the same note E flat and then we come home to G minor. - one of the flavours of G minor anyway. So what’s the function of the chord in the fourth bar? Essentially, I interpret it - there’s different ways of interpreting it - I interpret it as an A minor7, where you use the flat 5 substitute.
So if you take a chord rooted on A and take the flat 5 substitute you get a chord rooted on E flat.
So really what’s happening to my ear is the chords go: C minor, F7, B flat major7 and then 2 chords of A minor, but the first one of those … is the flat 5 substitute of A minor … We’ve discussed at some length how you improvise over a II-V-I in a minor setting. That’s more or less it, because then the third line is the same as the first line. The fourth line is the same as the second line. The fifth line is the same as the second line. The sixth line is the same as the first line. The seventh line is essentially the second line and the last line’s essentially the second line.
There is this difference, though, in bars 27, 28. Let’s, first of all, look at the chords in parentheses as I think they’re a bit easier, because it’s just cycle of fifths. It goes G minor7 to C7, F minor7 to B flat7,
then E flat major7 … So it’s cycles of fifths: G, C, F, B flat, E flat, but that’s not the way most people play it. Most people use the flat 5 substitute for the second and fourth chords. Instead of having a chord that’s C7, we use its flat 5 substitute which is a chord rooted on F sharp - and we use F sharp7, and then instead of B flat7 we have a chord rooted on its flat 5 - which is E - so we get the chord I’ve written there. It’s actually an E7, but I’ve given it some colouration. I’ve given it a sharp 9.
We’ve discussed that before; if I consider that the root, then this is the octave, this is the 9th, this is the sharp 9th. Then if I include the ordinary third, the major third - you see the sharp 9 is a minor third - and that’s the seventh. We get this chord with that mixed tonality major and minor simultaneously.
This is all a big fuss about the fact that it’s going down chromatically, but it’s cycles of fifths that enables us to interpret it. If you wanted to you could ignore all that and just play over G minor and let the chords unfold. Then the last line is essentially, as I say, the same as the second line. You’ve just got E flat major, A minor 7 which, as I say, is the underlying chord there to the E flat major and then home again to G minor. I think I have discussed everything apart from the last bar - the eighth bar where I’ve got a couple of chords in parentheses. What’s the status of these chords?
Well they’re quite interesting because they were given to me by the late British jazz pianist Bob Cornford. Bob Cornford is not as well known as he deserves to be in this country. He was a very close colleague of the saxophonist and clarinettist Tony Coe and a good friend of John McLaughlin as well - the British guitarist who worked with Miles Davis and now is based in the States. I happened one day to be playing the piano in Bob’s flat in London where I played “Autumn Leaves” and when I got to the end he said “Well how do you get back to the top again?” Anyway I played 2 bars of G minor - probably with a natural seventh.
I said “I don’t know. Maybe you could play a G7 to get you back to the C minor. Or maybe you could play a C sharp minor to get you back to the C minor.” He said “Well the G7 I think is stronger. Why not use the II-V to get you back to the I because II-V is so strong?” The answer is that that is the best solution to go II-V-I. You’re going to C minor, so you have the chord rooted on the II, which is D, and then the V which is G. When I play this with other musicians, if the bass player knows this and plays it with me, it’s a really strong turnaround.
It’s surprising how few people seem to use it explicitly - maybe they use it implicitly - but it works really well. Now the more astute of you may say but this is a II-V taking us to a I which is C minor, then shouldn’t the II have a flat 5 and the V a flat 9, to which the answer is “Yes”. You could have that if you wanted to. We’re back to this wonderful flexibility of the music that you could have that and you don’t have to if you don’t want to. It’s at your discretion as to what the colour is of the chord that you want to use.
I think I’ve discussed the general structure of this piece and what I’d like to do now is to look at a two-fisted version I’ve written out for you.

We use our scale theory to analyse the chord sequence of “Autumn Leaves”.

You can download the “Autumn Leaves (Tune)” chart in PDF format at the bottom of this step.

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