Feuilles mortes’ – the Dead Leaves – has become one of the most widespread jazz standards in history. It has inspired over a thousand translations, renditions and reinterpretations by jazz legends to the likes of Eric Clapton, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan and Doris Day – although my favourite is still the eerie muted trumpet of Miles Davis playing the head before Cannonball Adderly’s full-bodied melodic solo breathes through.
This is an incredibly simple song to help learn your scales, chords and to practise improvising. An ascending melody is repeated over a descending sequence – this is also over a descending chord progression that ultimately resolves in a circular fashion – not unlike the falling leaves of an otherwise recurring season.
This circular sequence is thanks to the jazz staple ii–V–I pattern. It will help here if you are familiar with the circle of fifths, but it’s not necessary – basically, you start with any chord in its root position, and build the next chord one fifth down. i.e., if you start on D, the next chord is G, and then C, and so on until you reach D again 7 chords later. ‘Autumn Leaves’ in particular, builds a 7th chord on each descending fifth, and what you end up with is a chord starting on each note of a single major scale:
These are the eight chords of the entire song, for simplicity, in the D dorian mode – effectively a C major scale that starts on D. There are only white notes in this scale, so the pattern becomes obvious and easy to transpose to different keys. The only anomaly is the dominant third chord – E7 – that has a G#, I’ll deal with this in a moment.
Notice how the chords form a perfect wave, up and down – this is effectively the circular sequence you hear drawn out on a line, and is why the progression sounds so satisfying to listen to. The down side here is playing. The chords jump all over the place, which means your hand will be doing a lot of work to keep up. Also, it doesn’t quite flow as well as it could.
Have a look at the 7th chord inversions of Dm7 below:
Each inversion comes from moving the lowest note up one octave until you reach the root position once again. The 2nd inversion is built up from the note A – or the fifth of D. This pattern of fifths helps us once again because when we now re-write the progression taking the 2nd inversion of every second chord it begins to follow another sequence:
Each new chord contains two of the same notes as the previous one and the other two notes are simply shifted down one note in the major scale. This is in an alternating pattern too, first the 5th and 7th of the chord are brought down, next the 1st and 3rd are brought down.
Chord changes no longer jump about over the staves, instead sitting in a much closer space – this arrangement will be much closer to what you hear in recordings of the song. It also makes playing it on the piano incredibly easy. You’re simply following the pattern of moving your top two fingers down one note in the major scale, followed by your bottom two fingers down.
The only difference is when you get to the E7 chord as I mentioned. This will always be the dominant third of your major scale and the note you are adding is always the corresponding tritone – here it’s the G# over C. Play the progression a few times and your hand will remember the pattern of moving your top two fingers down one semitone instead of one note in the major scale.
You’ll begin to not need to look at the music and you should be able to just watch the way your hand moves down the keys and figure it out from there. The beauty of this is that you can use that same pattern to play the progression in any key, all you need to know is the major scale. You’re also set up to start improvising over the seven chords by using the common major scale they’re all built from. Again, this is only scratching the surface of jazz harmonies and the circle of fifths. However, it doesn’t really matter in what order you play these chords – they all simply fit together.
Revisit our last piano lesson here.