Jazz Transcription - "Autumn Leaves"

One of the most critical aspects to our development as total musicians is listening.
If one wants to be a virtuoso violinist, he or she must not only practice for eight or more hours a day, but must be constantly listening to violin concertos and orchestral masterpieces. In this same way, singers must listen to as much vocal music as they can. To become comfortable with the often-mysterious concept and feel of “swing” in the jazz idiom, it is crucial to be listening to and transcribing melodies and improvised solos as often as possible.
This blog post will examine two main aspects of approaching and performing jazz melodies and solos: Interpretation (how one uses the lead sheet’s written melody as a guide, and then composes his or her own melody with embellishments and changes to the written rhythms), and improvisation (how to use “guide” or chords tones from one chord to another to create an improvised solo).
To best demonstrate these studies, we will dive into Miles Davis’ 1958 arrangement and studio recording of the classic Johnny Mercer composition, “Autumn Leaves.”

First, let’s take a look at the melody as originally written by Mercer.
You may take a moment to label the notes of the melody, and sing through the chart using the syllable “la.”
You may also complete a Roman numeral analysis of the chart, for a better understanding of the movement and relationships between chords. This will be useful once we discuss guide tones later in the chapter.
Ex. 1
 Notice how the original melody is comprised of whole, half and quarter notes. This melody was designed to be interpreted by each individual artist in his or her own unique way.

Jazz musicians seldom perform swung melodies with solely whole, half and quarter notes. We know that the “swing” feel comes from the underlying triplet subdivision above a pair of eighth notes; with an emphasis on the second eighth note of the beat. Thus, you will often hear these on-the-beat melodies performed with several unique subdivisions, including swung eighths, eighth note triplets, and sixteenth notes. 

Let’s take a look at Miles Davis’ interpretation of this classic melody, and ask ourselves: how do Davis’ rhythms and melodies differ from the original composition?
You may take a moment to label the numbers of each note, and sing through the chart.
Note: In your practice, listen to the recording multiple times and take in the attitude of each swung line. Use DSS as a rule of thumb: Don’t Stop Swinging!
Ex. 2
Once you feel comfortable singing through Miles’ unique interpretation of the melody, you may begin to think about your own unique interpretation. Use the original melody as your guide. 

Spontaneous composition of a jazz standard’s melody is the first step towards improvised soloing over the form. Let’s take a look at the concept of guide tones.
Guide tones are the closely related tones from one chord to another that can be targeted and used as anchor notes during improvisation. These tones usually consist of the third and seventh scale degrees, along with any altered notes that the chord contains.
Many jazz standards are largely comprised of a “circle of fourths” movement. This is true of the signature ii-V7-I progression that many standards contain.
“Autumn Leaves” is a prime example of this “circle of fourths” harmonic movement.
Take a look at example 3 to assess how these guide tones move and progress. You will notice that the voice leading patterns consist of staying on the same note and/or half step motion.
Sing through these chord progressions with a partner using the guide tones, in two and three-part harmonies. You may take turns switching voice parts, and may also label the numbers of each note, if needed.
Ex. 3
Now, let’s take a look at the first chorus of Miles Davis’ solo from his recording of “Autumn Leaves” off of the album “Dr. Jekyll.” 

While studying this masterful solo, pay attention to the guide tones he uses from chord to chord. Pay attention to the intricate syncopated rhythms, as well as the simple melodic phrases he uses.
Take a moment to circle the guide tones, as well as fill out the numbers of each note.
Ex. 4

Remember: Learning how to improvise doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of listening and practicing to become confident creating spontaneous compositions above a series of chord changes. Transcribe as many melodies and solos as you can. Doing so will bring you closer to the point where you are able to express your own unique voice with creativity and confidence.

1 comment

  • Don

    Don NYC

    thank you so much for this wonderful lesson , to give credit do music was written by a French Hungarian composer Joseph Kosma English lyrics by Johnny Mercer.

    thank you so much for this wonderful lesson , to give credit do music was written by a French Hungarian composer Joseph Kosma English lyrics by Johnny Mercer.

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