Thursday, October 20, 2016

Autumn Leaves

The college I attended was just starting to incorporate jazz into its music program, which was focused on classical music as most music programs were and presumably still are. One of the courses I took was a jazz ensemble. In it a very full band learned various standards from a fake book (actually it was a Real Book). One of them was Autumn Leaves, chosen for its ii-V-I progression, as well as its opportunities for the horn section to harmonize. I couldn't stand it. Well I could stand it, but I didn't like it very much.

I went on to play in bands that did a good bit of jazz, mainly the light stuff like Sade:

And Sting:

And Herbie Hancock:

And Grover Washington, Jr.:

And Ramsey Lewis:

And Al Jarreau:

And Maze:

You get the idea. Not that I had anything against standards, it's just the arrangement I was used to for Autumn Leaves left a lot to be desired. The danger with standards is they are subject to being used as a vehicle for instrumentalists, which tends to drain whatever life the song had. I could rant for hours about this (and believe me, I have), but the most important element of the song is not the singer, or the horn section, or even the guitarist - it's the song. The job of any musician or vocalist is to convey what the song was meant to convey - to project the emotions that the song was designed for. Any song that gets performed by many artists over time can and too often is subverted; it becomes about the "unique interpretation" or "artistry" of whoever is covering the damned thing.

In any case, some years later I heard the song in a more favorable light. It was in a hot little 4 piece I threw together to cover some dates for this bar I was friendly with. The singer was this tiny little thing - maybe 5'2". if over 100 pounds it was because she wore heavy clothes. But when she sang it didn't make no sense unless you closed your eyes & imagined Mahalia Jackson in her place. Never knew a better example of someone having a "big voice". She wanted to do the tune and when I heard her sing it I realized I'd been wrong about the song.

It was a biker bar down at the beach; the ocean breeze mingled with the smell of Harley's and jagermeister. We were a 4 piece - drums, bass, guitar and the aforementioned vocalist - and did everything from rock to light jazz to disco. They went crazy when we did Blondie or Guns'n'Roses, for example and always kept a steady stream of shots flowing towards the stage. At one point the singer quipped, "if I weren't so naive I'd think y'all were trying to get me drunk".

But when we broke out that old standard they calmed down. They listened attentively, raptly even. They stopped ordering Jager and asked for Hennessy. They took off their do-rags and sported fedoras and newsboy caps. Cigarettes were extinguished whilst briar pipes were packed then puffed upon. Poker games ceased and they started playing baccarat. They clapped politely yet with warmth after each solo. Later, when we went back to more contemporary fare they reverted back into their hard partying selves, but just for a few minutes a song transformed them into something they weren't but perhaps could be.

That was because the singer was gifted - she really had an incredible voice, but more importantly she knew it was about the song, not her voice. So she approached it with a tenderness and a bit of melancholy that the song was meant to convey. After all, the lyrics reminisce about a lost lover while the leaves fall from the trees. As jaded as musicians are (and have to be)  when she sang it, we felt it. So did the folks in that little biker bar a hundred yards from the Atlantic.

I was reminded of all this (among other things) last night when I heard a rendition of the tune as bumper music on Coast to Coast AM. With the time of year and date it seemed fitting, hence this post. While I don't have any copy of the lady I mentioned above singing it, I'll leave you with Nat King Cole's version, as well as an interesting little adaptation for voice and cello by Sarah Joy.

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