In this article we're going to take a look at a classic cocktail piano tune, "Autumn Leaves," and practice some cocktail piano arranging. We'll start by taking a look at the original melody and harmony. Then, in a step-by-step manner, we will sprinkle in some jazz arranging devices to bring this tune into the professional realm. Of course, we'll be analyzing these arranging devices so that you can acquire these skills and apply these same ideas to your own playing. Let's get started!
Let's take a look at the first four measures of "Autumn Leaves."
The first step is to be able to play the melody with the right hand and play the chords (in root position) in the left hand. Doing so will give us this:
Of course, we can also add some rhythmic variety in the left hand comping. Instead of simply playing whole notes on beat one of each measure of the left hand as written above, practice playing various rhythmic comping ideas in the left hand.
Shell voicings are left hand voicings that are not the complete chord (thus, the term "shell" voicing). Some common shell voicings are root-3rd-7th, root-5th-7th, or simply root-7th. So let's plug in some of those shell voicings for our left hand to play, while the right hand continues to play the melody.
Just by looking at the arrangement that we have built thus far we can notice something rather important - the left hand is very dense (playing chords) and the right hand is very sparse (single notes). Let's try to fill out the melody with a little more harmonic depth, meaning that we're going to add some notes to the melody. This will create more of a two-handed piano arrangement, a sound that gets us much closer to an advanced, professional jazz sound.
Let's examine what we did above. For the A minor chord, we added the 7th (G) and 11th (D) in the right hand. For the G major chord we added the 7th (F#) and 5th (D). Play through the four measures above and notice the sound of the melody that we have expanded.
Although we created some density to the melody in the A minor and G major measures, we've left the remaining melody pretty sparse. One very effective device that works quite well for harmonizing melodies is to harmonize in 3rds. Play through the example below, which harmonizes the melody in thirds.
Last but not least, let's add some rhythmic interest to this arrangement. Be creative. Be experimental. Practice trial and error. Listen to recordings - copy what you like and make note of what you don't like. What follows below is simply one example of some of the liberties that you can feel free to explore rhythmically.