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Practicing jazz should be fun. That's why we created a series of jazz play-alongs — to help you enjoy building your improvisational chops, no matter what level you are or what instrument you play. For more info about jazz play alongs and access to all of our tracks please visit

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Harmonic Analysis: Autumn Leaves

This month I'm going to take you through a quick harmonic analysis of the beloved jazz standard Autumn Leaves. This is a tune that has been and continues to be played by jazz musicians the world over. It's one that you should have in your repertoire. Autumn Leaves is great to work on if you're fairly new to improvising because the form and chord structures are relatively easy to hear and internalize.

[You can download a FREE chord chart and a FREE play-along track mixed specifically for your instrument by clicking the links at the end of this article. In addition, there are links to a couple of videos by guitarist Dave Onderdonk playing a few choruses and then talking about soloing on these chord changes.]

Let's take a look at Autumn Leaves in the key of G/Em*. A lot of people also play it in Bb/Gm but we'll stick to G for this analysis. When you first look at the chart you might get confused - is this song in G or in G's relative minor Em? In a sense, it doesn't really matter, because the 4 bar phrases bounce back and forth between the two tonics. As long as you know which key you're in for each phrase you'll be on the right track.

The first 4 bars are clearly in G. Am7 D7 GM7 CM7 translates to ii V I IV. So if you improvise using the G major scale for those measures you will be in the right harmonic area. The next 4 bars are ii V i in E minor - F#-7(b5) B7 Em. It seems as though you ought to be able to play E natural minor during these 4 measures, since that is the relative minor scale to G major. But the B7 chord presents a bit of a dilemma because it's all-important 3rd is a D#. There is no D# in the key of G. So many players like to use the E harmonic minor scale in this spot, because it contains all of the notes of G major, except that the D becomes a D#. Play the two scales and you'll hear what I mean.

The next 8 bars are harmonically exactly the same as the first 4, so all the same ideas apply.

The following 8 bars reverse the pattern: The first 4 are in E minor (again ii V i) and the next 4 are in G major (again ii V I IV).

Things get a little more interesting in the last 8 bars of the song. There's a ii V i in E minor, then a couple of bars where the chords descend chromatically from Em down to B7, finally coming to rest on Em for the last two measures. What's really happening in those complicated looking measures? It's really just a sequence of chromatic ii Vs, where Em7 is ii and Eb7 is V, then Dm7 is ii and Db7 is V. Finally the C13 is a chromatic dominant of B7, which is V of Em.

Chromatic dominants, eh? If you're not familiar with tritone substitution we'll cover the larger concept in a future lesson. Suffice it to say that the Eb7 is substituting for A7 and the Db7 is standing in for a G7. In fact, you could play those "circle of fifth" changes instead and the harmony would work just as well. We chose to play the chromatic changes when we recorded the track in order to demonstrate the concept and because many if not most jazz players do use the chromatic variant.

*This analysis is for C instruments. If you play a Bb instrument (like trumpet or tenor sax) you will have to transpose everything up to the key of A/F#m. Players of Eb instruments (like alto sax) will need to transpose this explanation to the key of E/C#m. It's not hard - you can do it!


Play-along track TRIO
Play-along track PIANO/DRUMS
Play-along track BASS/DRUMS

Here's a video of a sample solo on Autumn Leaves:

Here's a lesson on this tune (NOT just for guitarists):

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Jazz Listening 102: Trio of Oz Opens My Ears (and Eyes)

A few months ago my drummer pal Nick Coconato handed me a CD to check out. On it he’d written the words Trio of Oz, and that’s all I knew about it. I had no clue that this disk was going to lead to a couple of significant realizations about how I listen to and evaluate music.

I could tell right away that this is a drummer-led band. The drums are quite hot in the mix for a trio with piano and upright bass, and this player has a great feel for the nice variety of grooves and lots of room to stretch. The pianist is strong too – someone who’s obviously absorbed the jazz language of Herbie and Chick, and who has a great touch and lots of chops. The trio has a very good bass player as well, with a well-balanced sound and excellent groove.

I didn’t recognize any of the music. The Trio of Oz doesn’t play any jazz standards or tunes that use standard chord progressions on this CD. I had a vague feeling that I’d heard some of the melodies before, but it wasn’t until I heard the last track that I actually knew the song – King of Pain by The Police, which is not exactly normal fare for an acoustic jazz trio album.

Somewhere along the line I found out that the drummer for this project is Omar Hakim, who I’d heard with Sting, but had never thought of as a “jazz” musician. I was spinning this CD in my car all the time and really enjoying the freshness of the tunes and the playing. I thought to myself that, whoever these other guys are, they sure sound great.

I finally Googled Trio of Oz and wasn’t too surprised to learn that the tunes are all arrangements of pop/rock tracks, since King of Pain is in the mix. It turned out that I was somewhat familiar with the songs by Coldplay, Death Cab for Cutie and Stone Temple Pilots. There’s also music by Alice in Chains, The Killers, Depeche Mode, New Order and a couple of other bands whose music I’m not familiar with.

But I was shocked to find out who the other musicians are. The pianist is Rachel Z and the bassist is Maeve Royce. Not only had I never heard of either one of them, but they are both women! It just never entered my mind that the other two members of this band are not “guys” at all. I like to think of myself as a highly evolved, egalitarian kind of guy – and it didn’t even occur to me that the other players in Omar’s trio could be women. Your Trackmeister hangs his head in shame.

Listening to The Trio of Oz has got me challenging a lot of assumptions I make when I choose what to listen to and how I respond to what I hear.

When I decide whether or not to attend a live gig or buy a particular recording, I usually do so based on my previously formed opinion of the artist(s). I’m much more likely to spend money on a “product” or experience that I can safely predict I will enjoy, according to how I’ve reacted to the particular artist or style of music in the past. But following this strategy severely limits the range of musical experiences I will have, because it’s fairly certain that a performance by an artist I know will bear many similarities to their previous work. I’m more comfortable spending money on a relatively sure thing; I don’t necessarily want to take the risk of “wasting” my precious resources on something I may not enjoy.

It’s very unlikely, for example, that I would have purchased The Trio of Oz CD based solely on the song titles or personnel.  And that would have been a real shame, because the music this trio makes is very satisfying.

So perhaps my criteria for choosing what music to investigate should change. Even though I have eclectic taste, I’ve gotten out of the habit of taking chances on new artists and genres that are outside my comfort zone. With the advent of internet radio, Pandora, Spotify, Lastfm and the many other online sources of streaming music, the risk factor is very low. All I need to do is open my ears.

If you’re experiencing a similar malaise, here’s a short list of contemporary jazz artists I can wholeheartedly recommend to you. I've tried to be gender neutral and ethnicity inclusive while leaving out some artists you have probably already heard. Let me know who you think I should be listening to as well.

Bass: Ben Allison, Avishai Cohen, Esperanza Spalding

Guitar: Bill Frisell, Mary Halvorsen, Julian Lage, Adam Rogers, Jeff Parker

Saxophone/Flute: Anat Cohen, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Nicole Mitchell, Greg Osby, Joshua Redman

Piano: Robert Glasper, Vijay Iyer, Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran, Danilo Perez

Trumpet: Brian Lynch, Dave Douglas, Roy Hargrove

Trombone: Robin Eubanks, Steve Turre

Drums/Percussion: Brian Blade, Antonio Sanchez, Matt Wilson, Steve Nelson

Vocal: Sheila Jordan, Mark Murphy, Cassandra Wilson

Ensemble: The Bad Plus, Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, Trio of Oz