Getting Real (Book)


(Photo credit: ray.gauss)

I like to improvise, but I am not a jazz player on the horn. Nevertheless, it is a very good idea for any improviser to learn from any/every source and jazz is certainly a source that we should steal, uh, learn from at every opportunity. One basic resource for the jazz player over the years has been the so-called Real Book, which was for a long time an illegal compendium of lead sheets – basic melody and chords of jazz standards (and some not-so-standards). They were illegal because they included the (copyrighted) tunes. Fake books (real/fake? Get it?) that just gave the chords to songs without the tunes avoided this sticky bit of legality.

Real Books were hard to find for most people for a long time – you had to know a guy who knew a guy who sold them from the back of his station wagon in parking lots on odd Thursdays. Real Books were the necessary samizdat resources of learning jazz. If you know jazz, you could get together with anybody and play all night and beyond – somebody just had to call out the page in the RB and everybody could play, whether they were familiar with the tune or not.

Although you might be able to fault the usual Real Book for choices (lots of tunes you never heard of before) and mistakes in chords and melody, you can’t quibble over quantity. Lots of stuff here! RBs are thus handy but quite bulky to schlep around, which is possibly a good reason to learn the tunes by heart as quickly as possible.

Then things started to change. I’m not sure when; in recent decades is about as close as I can come since I lived abroad for the last quarter of the 20th century. Publisher Hal Leonard finally realized that – like alcohol during Prohibition – Real Books were here to stay, and got copyrights to most of the RB tunes and has published (since 2004) many versions of the RB (60! to date), mostly in the same font as the original illegal RB. Sher Music has also published 3 volumes of The New Real Book.  A modest bit of internet sleuthing will turn up RB versions in downloadable pdf form.

So now Real Books are ubiquitous. Anybody can have one any time – just order it (or them – there are many varieties). Real Books come in concert key or transposed for Bb, Eb, and bass clef instruments. Left out are F instruments, like horns or English horns.

Real jazz horn players like John Clark are experts at reading RB charts in concert key – they do the chord transpositions mentally. Ordinary mortals like yours truly is not there yet, and needs to see what the chords are transposed into F.

A partial (i.e. fake book) solution for this is the Fever Chord Chart web site, where you can view the chords (no tunes) to all the RB tunes – and – what’s great for us, it can quickly transpose the chords for us into F (or any other key!). On the right side of the page, there is an ad and link to something that makes this information even more hand: the iGig Book Sheet Music Manager – an iPad app ($15) that you can purchase at the iTunes store. From the description: “Real Books, Fake Books, Transposing Chord Charts, and Single Sheets, all of it at your fingertips, in real time, on any gig. Reviews appear to be excellent. I have not tried this out (I don’t have an iPad. Yet), and I don’t know if there are apps that do the same thing and possibly even better, or might be complementary. I hope to get to this later. But I may not be able to hold out much longer as far as getting an iPad goes. iPads appear to be on their way to being the sheet music of the future; perhaps not for orchestras, but for any flavor of pop, jazz, show, etc music that even occasionally uses sheet music.

Apple iPad

Apple iPad (Photo credits: Best Buy)

I recently did a gig that had the symphony orchestra onstage next to a rock band. We were all playing charts to accompany the soloist (piano/singer prodigy Ethan Bortnick – check out his amazing performance on YouTube). We (orchestra players) all had our regular music stands for our sheet music, but the band all used iPads on stands. I think with foot pedals to turn pages.

You can access these fake book chord charts with your computer and never use an iPad. But the iPad offers unlimited mobility/versatility.

Gotta learn more about this.

Anyone out there with experience/information on this?


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