Do you remember what it was? Do you remember the tune, the song, the album, the artist that started you on the path to becoming a jazz fan? What was it about that particular item that made it all make sense? In this post, the first in a series of posts dedicated to the songs and albums that provided the soundtrack to my childhood, I revisit the song that was my gateway drug into the wonderful world of jazz. Not to be cheesy or predictable, but, the tune truly was – and is – somethin’ else. With that, to the music!
The Tune: “Autumn Leaves”
Recorded: March 9, 1958 in Hackensack, New Jersey
- Cannonball Adderley – Alto Sax
- Miles Davis – Trumpet
- Hank Jones – Piano
- Sam Jones – Bass
- Art Blakey – Drums
Up until 4th grade, I had no true musical predilections. I simply liked whatever was playing on Radio Disney, an AM radio station that played the teeny bopper hits of the day as well as a healthy mix of random classics (like Ray Charles). Then, one day, my dad burned me a CD with a variety of songs across multiple genres, an attempt by him to “broaden my horizons”. That resulting CD certainly covered in incredible amount of ground. Disco, rock, rap, reggae, funk… and jazz. Nestled amongst tunes from Gary’s Gang, Brass Construction, and the Human League was a beguiling piece of music with no words at all: “Autumn Leaves”.
This album in general is a true gem. Even if it hadn’t been recorded for Blue Note, this record would be something special. Made as a unique one-off project for Blue Note, this album finds alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley as the leader (technically) of an all-star band that included, among other notable musicians, Miles Davis (the unspoken leader). Adderley was in Miles’ employ at the time and, after making an initial splash on the New York scene in the mid-50’s, was at the cusp of truly coming into his own as an artist.
Miles, of course, was Miles.
The tasty piano of Hank Jones adds more than a touch of sophistication to the proceedings, and Art Blakey, known for his bombastic drumming, lends restrained yet firm percussion support. Sam Jones (a future bandmate of Adderley) provides his sturdy bass to round out the group. The music they create is spectacular.
Despite being billed as Cannonball’s album, Miles’ fingerprints are all over the record, beginning with the first track. “Autumn Leaves” would become a staple in Miles’ band, and it all began here. This particular arrangement of the tune was inspired by Ahmad Jamal’s version of the song. Miles simplified the bass line, slowed the tempo down, and decluttered the rhythm, creating an entirely different vibe from Jamal’s arrangement. The result is a haunting, floating intro that slinks rather than grooves. The mood is briefly shattered by stark statements from the horns before it quiets down again.
The track unfolds in a mystifyingly beautiful manner, each soloist adding their own voice and character to the music yet maintaining the reverential air. Cannonball with his soulful, joyful alto attempts to inject the almost melancholy atmosphere with ebullience, but instead creates darkly romantic music. Miles picks it up with his sparse, muted horn, the essence of less-is-more. The rhythm section’s accompaniment is superb; Blakey’s use of brushes coupled with the two Jones’ tasty work in turn elevates Miles’ own solo statements. All in all, this track, the longest on the album, is incredible. Little wonder that it was able to cause me to stare transfixed at the speakers of my stereo system.
Considering the near-spiritual experience I had with the song, it wasn’t until many years later that I heard the rest of the album. “Love For Sale” came on the radio while I was working at Cold Stone in high school, and that was the catalyst to finally check out the rest of the record. I’m glad I did, because after “Autumn Leaves”, some of the album’s best moments happen on the flip-side. “One For Daddy-O” has one of the struttingest, catchiest melodies that a blues has ever produced, while the album’s title tune “Somethin’ Else” has some fun call and response moments from Miles and Cannonball. This album marked Cannonball’s first and only appearance on Blue Note Records, as well as Miles’ last appearance on the label and one of his last projects as a sideman. As it stands, this album is, like I said at the top, a gem, pure and simple. Not only is it a gem in Blue Note’s discography, or even in the pantheons of jazz history, but a gem in my life. I may have heard jazz before, but this was the gateway drug into jazz’s artistry. What was yours?
Raggy Waltz Rating: B
Considering how phenomenal photographs of Miles in the studio exist, and considering how talented a photographer Francis Wolff was, it’s almost criminal that this was the cover art that Blue Note decided to go with. Not that this is a terrible cover. On the contrary, it’s quite effective marketing, starkly stating the pertinent information in varying colors and sizes against a jet-black background. But, I mean… just think of what could’ve been!
At least we’re treated to one shot of the guys in the studio, courtesy of Francis Wolff. The liner notes are by Leonard Feather, the notes themselves are full of interesting tidbits and insights (like the bit about Miles modifying Ahmad Jamal’s arrangement). Unfortunately, the liners are also spoiled by a stain of some sort. Considering how old these records are and what they’ve seen during their 60-plus years of life, it’s probably more incredible that more records don’t have this kind of thing on them.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Blue Note has some delicious labels. Blue and white. That’s all they used, and yet. Mercy. The deep groove on both sides and the address point to this being a first pressing, which is neat.
The sound is snappy and crisp as well, as Rudy Van Gelder’s recordings should be. My copy is in glorious mono and full of body and presence…and groove wear. The groove wear isn’t too bad on this track, but it’s there and gets worse on the rest of the record. Normally, I’d be disappointed, but I can’t blame the previous owner. This is a great record, worthy of repeated playing.
The Place of Acquisition
Back in the B.C. years (Before Covid), a record collecting friend of mine from Instagram came upon a huge vinyl jazz collection. He slowly sold items from the collection, and when I learned this record was among the many titles in the collection, I leapt for it. At the time, it was the most expensive record I had yet bought, surpassing $200. As an original Blue Note album in the coveted 1500 series, the price made sense. As the record that started me on my jazz journey, the price was inconsequential.
Coming up next, I revisit another jazz album from my childhood that received heavy rotation on my CD player. Warning: it’s probably not what you’re thinking. Any guesses?