Discover more from Listening Sessions
Sounds Like Autumn
A soundtrack to the fall of 2021
With the possible exception of December, my favourite month of the year is October. The promises of crisp air, sweater weather, the pastel hues of autumn leaves, apple picking and apple cider, pumpkin-spice-everything and other pleasures are, for me, immensely restorative after the often-oppressive and exhausting summer. In short, I become a new man.
This year though, with persnickety persistence, temperatures remained in the 20s well into October but thankfully, the odd early-autumn mugginess finally cleared out (for good?) last weekend, and the leaves have at last begun to turn. It’s been a perfect few days to indulge in the music that calls forth this season for me. Indeed, similar to Christmas, music is an integral—no, make that, necessary and essential—component of enjoying this time of year. There are certain genres or sub-genres or even sub sub-genres that evoke the autumn, and accelerate and heighten its joys.
As I have done for the past few years on Spotify, I have kept a running playlist of Autumn Sounds. Here is this year’s edition.
So, what does autumn sound like to me?
As a starting principle, a certain lushness or quietness is called for. It brings to mind the richness of gazing down a street lined with trees where the leaves are in full change and the gradual retreat is underway of being outdoors to squiring oneself indoors. In its own way, it’s a deeply romantic time, not unlike the countless albums recorded in the fifties and sixties featuring standards sung by singers like Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole, Sarah Vaughan and Johnny Mathis against a string background.
These records, a deeply enriching legacy of a golden era of music making and record production, are indispensable to autumn’s pleasures. Take, for example, Sinatra’s Moonlight Sinatra which was recorded as the singer turned the big 5-0 (the sessions are immortalized, among other events around the time of his 50th birthday, in Gay Talese’s essential Esquire profile ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold’). Utilizing a nominal concept of a program of songs with “moon” in their titles, the album is a rewarding listen come October-time. I have always found Sinatra’s voice at this point in his career engrossing and full-bodied, a tad weathered by age but full of wisdom, feeling and power. In my opinion, this is the summit of his vocal prowess. Set against Nelson Riddle’s arrangements, he offers peerless recordings of ‘I Wished on the Moon’ (hear how he stretches the two final syllables at the end of the line, “and would not dance away.”), ‘Moonlight Serenade,’ and, with a mixture of swagger and resignation, ‘Oh, You Crazy Moon.’
Recorded in the same year as Moonlight Sinatra is The September of My Years, in which the autumnal feel is literal as well as profound. Among its litany of pleasures is Sinatra’s luxurious reading of the verse of ‘September Song,’ backed by the even-more-so strings of arranger Gordon Jenkins.
The two saloon albums Sinatra recorded with Jenkins in the late fifties on Capitol: Where Are You? and No One Cares, are both testaments of autumnal regret and heartbreak. His recording of ‘Lonely Town’ on the former and ‘A Cottage for Sale’ on the latter are career milestones. The stark version of ‘Where Do You Go?,’ is the sonic equivalent of bundling up against a biting November wind.
Jenkins is also the arranger on Nat Cole’s collection Love is the Thing which features almost chamber-like arrangements to cushion the warmth of Cole’s voice. Beyond the famous opener, ‘When I Fall I Love,’ there are tender performances of ‘Stay As Sweet As You Are,’ ‘When Sunny Gets Blue,’ ‘It’s All in the Game’ and ‘I Thought About Marie’ to savour—music to listen to while stoking a fire and nursing a hot cider.
Nancy Wilson’s Gentle is My Love in which Sid Feller’s bright and ebullient settings for strings bring to mind the warmth of the family Thanksgiving table and has her deliver knockout performances of ‘Funnier Than Funny,’ ‘There Will Never Be Another You’ and ‘More.’ Her 1963 album Hello, Young Lovers is of a similar mood—George Shearing arranges here—and it’s arguably even better. The album closer, ‘Back in Your Own Back Yard,’ has Wilson, with tender command, caress the verse with just guitar accompaniment and as the proceedings perk up for the chorus, she uses the subtlest of blues phrasing. Pure genius.
Autumn feelings also pervade these supreme recitals of popular song: John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Sarah Vaughan’s Vaughan With Voices (read my essay on that album here), Mel Torme’s Torme, Johnny Mathis’ Warm and for a more contemporary example, Gregory Porter’s supreme Nat “King” Cole & Me.
It’s not surprising then, that come October, the proportion of jazz played in the record room increases exponentially. Miles Davis’ Nefertiti, not least because of the presence of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Fall,’ has a deeply woolly sound as does much of vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s sixties output for Blue Note—Oblique perhaps most of all—as well as pianist Bill Evans’ landmark recordings for Riverside in the late fifties and early sixties—Everybody Digs Bill Evans takes the pumpkin pie, so to speak.
Manfred Eicher’s ECM label, favouring, and largely popularizing, a pastoral approach to jazz that emphasizes lyricism, sparseness, tranquility and texture, provides another essential autumn sound. Guitarist John Abercrombie’s ECM debut, Timeless, is a prime example, particularly the title track, which starts shrouded in fog and then dissipates as Abercrombie unfurls chorus after chorus of variations on the tune’s striking chill theme backed by keyboardist Jan Hammer and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
If there is one artist synonymous with ECM that most calls to mind autumn for me, it’s trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. His warm, frothy tone is one with the season. Gnu High, which he recorded with DeJohnette as well as pianist Keith Jarrett and bassist Dave Holland, is equally sumptuous and challenging, especially the suite-like opener, ‘Heyoke’ and ‘Smatter.’ A sample of ECM releases provides an opportunity to crisscross the globe to experience autumn in its various guides, whether it be Nordic (bassist Eberhard Weber’s deeply impressionistic The Colours of Chloe), mid-Western (guitarist Pat Metheny’s remarkable debut Bright Size Life) or the heart of New York (trumpeter Enrico Rava’s absorbing New York Days).
When it comes to the Great American Songbook, the two go-to seasonal standards are undoubtedly ‘Autumn Leaves’ and ‘Autumn in New York’ and there is a rich legacy of recordings to sample for both. Of ‘Autumn Leaves,’ altoist Cannonball Adderley’s recording of it with Miles in 1958 is a gold standard but pianist Ahmad Jamal’s rendition from the same year, complete with repeating figures and grandiose vamps, is not to be missed as is Chet Baker’s reading from 1974’s She Was Too Good for Me. Concerning ‘Autumn in New York,’ two versions stand out: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s sublime duet on their second album of duets and Frank Sinatra’s deeply romantic portrait from Come Fly With Me cushioned by a lavish Billy May arrangement—his scoring at the beginning of the second bridge is proof positive that he could write far more than just the snappiest of snappy brass riffs.
When my ears aren’t perking up to the sounds of jazz and popular song this time of year, I am deep into singer-songwriters, especially those who hail from above the 49th parallel. Foremost is Gordon Lightfoot, especially his earlier recordings on United Artists from the sixties and in particular, Did She Mention My Name? (more about that album in next Substack essay. Stay tuned!) in which his core group of guitarist Red Shea and bassist John Stockfish are often augmented by haunting and eerie soundscapes by producer John Simon, in the midst of helming an incredible series of albums, include Leonard Cohen’s first, another album shrouded in autumnal feeling. ‘Does Your Mother Know,’ one of Lightfoot’s best lesser-known songs, concludes with a coda for strings that rapturously accentuates the melancholic ode to a girl who has left (ran away from?) home to go West (San Francisco?) and has not found whatever it was she was hoping to find. Hear especially how the cello, full of vibrato, swells in sound at the song’s conclusion.
Joni Mitchell is another essential fall sound. Her debut, Song to a Seagull, is definitive acid-folk stillness calling to mind the promise of the stark landscape that will loom until spring comes around again once the trees have been shorn of the last of their leaves. The original album mix, awash in reverb, is the best way to experience its wonders, too numerous to mention. Her amazing run of LPs on Asylum Records in the mid-seventies—Court and Spark all the way to Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter—are also very autumnal in feel; for one example, consider how Jaco Pastorius’ bass cuts through like a biting fall gale on ‘Talk to Me.’
Other singer-songwriter albums that go down easy in fall are (speaking of Joni Mitchell), Tom Rush’s The Circle Game (includes the definite version of Mitchell’s first major composition, ‘Urge for Going’), Laura Nyro’s New York Tendaberry (an album-length Autumn in New York), Simon & Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme (autumn, bohemian-style) and David Crosby’s Here If You Listen with Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis and Michael League (good news: Crosby and gang have a follow-up album in the works) among many others.
And let us not forget soul. Isaac Hayes’ mammoth Black Moses from 1971, a sorrowful double album of heartbreak and regret which features Hayes’ typically tight, sharp and slowed-down reworkings of the big soul hits of the day full of auburn and burnt orange sounds. It memorably ends with him soaring in a falsetto against the Bar-Kays and a chorus of sensuous female back-up singers on ‘Going in Circles.’
Slightly spooky but undeniably powerful, as is Porter Wagoner’s classic The Cold Hard Facts of Life on the country side of things. I first heard it in the fall and forever associate it with it. Who needs Halloween when you have Wagoner’s creepy-as-all-get-out monologue on ‘The First Mrs. Jones,’ written by “Whispering” Bill Anderson of all people, as genial a country-music writer as there is. And how about the album closer, ‘Julie,’ in which the cheery gloss of the Nashville sound production, complete with a bright and sunny female chorus clashing eerily with the violence of the song. It ends with the protagonist brandishing a gun and dispensing, with chilling efficiency, the three bullets loaded in it.
Some classical is required also. As mentioned earlier, the sound of strings is one I crave during autumn and it's not only through the classic pop albums of yore but also through the symphonic music of even-further-back yore. Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony or Sibelius’ 2nd all capture the season but Mahler captures it best.
While I am currently working through several sets of Mahler’s symphonies, my first exposure to these works, Leonard Bernstein’s sixties cycle with (mostly) the New York Philharmonic is the one to reach for. The 1st, 4th and especially the 7th are rich and rewarding listens right now—settle back, put the phone and your troubles away, and let Lenny take you on a journey.
What are your go-to favourites for autumn? What music hits you deepest right now? Drop a line by clicking below!
Whatever you are listening to, I wish you a happy autumn.