As New York temperatures slipped into the upper 50s yesterday and the wind picked up, I decided to put on Autumn in New York—about 20 versions of the song. The more interpretations I listened to, the more I realized that an artist has to deliver on both beauty and sincerity for a rendition to ring true. Like Moonlight in Vermont, another favorite, Autumn in New York's appeal lies somewhere between its postcard imagery and moody sincerity.
Interestingly, tempo has little to do with it: There are great ballad versions and mid-tempo foxtrots. What matters more than pace is the arrangement and the improvisational lines, since the song contains broad gaps that require artful fills. A superb version will stick with the song's melody but play with the nuances and expression. Melancholy and nostalgia have to be conveyed but also upbeat possibility and hope. The most memorable executions are pretty and lush, not wooden or far out.
The song also has a funny way of exposing fakers. Jazz artists and vocalists either get New York's glittering clouds and promise of new love because they've been here and done that, or they miss by a city mile. Throw in too much yearning or drama and you overplay your hand. Glide over "It's good to live it again," and you've missed the point. Unless an artist has experienced New York on a sunny day in October, the version will always ring a little hollow to those who know.
Written by Vernon Duke for Thumbs Up, a two-act revue that opened in December 1934 and closed in May 1935, Autumn in New York was added to the show's finale. Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart also made its debut in Thumbs Up. According to American Songwriters by David Erwin, the song was first popularized by a singer named Louella Hogan.
I couldnt find anything on Hogan or her recording, so I can't tell you much about it. What I can share with you are my top 10 versions of Autumn in New York. Here they are, in order:
1. Billie Holiday (1952). Recorded in Los Angeles, Billie's sweet-and-sour rendition is resigned and expectant. You hear the pain and the joy at once. Billie recorded the song twice on the same date, once for the 10-inch LP and again, slightly slower, for the 78-rpm single. Best of all, Oscar Peterson is dazzling behind her, capturing every blowing Central Park leaf. This one is my hands-down favorite. You'll find both versions on Solitude.
2. Charlie Parker (1952). Arranged for strings and big band by Joe Lippman, this dazzler is on Night and Day as well as Charlie Parker with Strings. The tracks includes picture-perfect solos by trombonist Bill Harris and trumpeter Al Porcino. Bird is blue and upbeat, weaving in and out of the orchestration. I've even gone so far as to walk Central Park in the fall playing this one on my iPod. It's the perfect seasonal soundtrack.
3. Frank Sinatra (1957). The Billy May arrangement here is perfectly lush, and Sinatra's vocal approach is both comfortable and restless. While I've always found Sinatra's Moonlight in Vermont a bit forced, he's right at home on this one, and you can hear his first-hand experience through and through. This track is on Come Fly With Me or any number of Sinatra Capitol compilations.
4. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (1957). Here's Oscar Peterson again, this time backing Ella and Louis. I love this one because Ella delivers the brightness while Louis handles the gruff apprehension. Listen as Ella bends the notes and plays with the melody while Louis chimes in with a measured trumpet solo. It's on Ella & Louis Again.
5. Dexter Gordon (1955). Gordon recorded two albums for Bethlehem Records in the mid-1950s, taking on Autumn in New York for Daddy Plays the Horn. What makes this version so intoxicating is Dexter's raw honesty and robust sound on the tenor saxophone. Dexter was joined by Kenny Drew on piano, Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Larance Marable on drums.
6. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey (1955). Arranged by Howard Gibeling, the big band version is taken at a skippy, foxtrot pace. You can't beat the sound of Tommy Dorsey and the trombone section running down the melody, only to be interrupted by Jimmy's clarinet-range alto saxophone. Big drama and constantly shifting moods. It's on the Fabulous Dorseys in Hi-Fi.
7. Johnny Smith (1954). Guitarist Johnny Smith adored chords and dragging them out. He makes great use of them on Autumn in New York, drawing out every drop of the song's melody. The pace is similar to his hit Moonlight in Vermont, recorded two years earlier. Smith also offers up beautiful and tasteful improvisation. Originally on In a Sentimental Mood, you'll find it now on Walk, Don't Run.
8. Buddy De Franco (1953). Buddy's clarinet is always so crystal clear and particularly welcome on a tune like this one. Buddy takes the tune at a jaunty pace, giving it a bop ballad feel. Backing up Buddy were Kenny Drew on piano, Milt Hinton on bass and Art Blakey on drums. It's on Mr. Clarinet.
9. Teddy Wilson (1968). Teddy here is at his 1960s peak, working through his stride style with flair and impeccable taste. Recorded in Copenhagen, Wilson was backed by Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen on bass and Bjarne Rostvold on drums. You'll find it on The Noble Art of Teddy Wilson.
10. Oscar Peterson (1953). Peterson recorded Autumn in New York twice fronting a trio for Norman Granz's Clef Records. This is the second one, complete with a Nat King Cole-like vocal. You'll find it on Romance: The Vocal Styling of Oscar Peterson. Joining Peterson were Barney Kessel and Ray Brown.