Nov 5, 2012

Review: Hal Leonard Real Book Vol. 4

A couple of months ago I purchased a copy of the Vol. 4 Hal Leonard Real Book, and I’ve been checking it out. To evaluate this book, let’s start with a brief review of what came before:

The original, “old” Real Book was produced in 1975 by a couple of Berklee students, and succeeded wildly in the jazz world. The music calligraphy is quite good, and the harmonies are mostly (not completely) accurate. The tune selection (400 or so) is well-considered, including many of the greatest “Great American Songbook” tunes, as well as some by jazz composers that were cutting-edge in 1975 (e.g., Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson), with only a few less useful tunes. The old RB reflected the basic repertoire of its time and place, and in turn became a strong influence in defining (some might say “ossifying”) the basic repertoire of the present.

Old RB Vol. 2 followed, around 1985. Another bootleg, from different anonymous compilers. The format is similar, the production/accuracy not quite as good. It presents another 400+ tunes, most of them useful to jazz players.

Old RB Vol. 3 came out in (I think) the early 1990s. Another bootleg, from anonymous compilers. It swept up still more standards, most of them useful. Each successive volume of the old pirate RB strove for usefulness (and hence saleability), but to come up with yet another 400 or so tunes, the compilers had to dig deeper towards the bottom of the barrel.

Meanwhile, starting in 1984, Sher Music put out a series of "New Real Books" Vols. 1-3, as well as a "Standards Real Book," a "Latin Real Book," and more. These were nicely researched and produced, with a high level of respect for the jazz musicians that would be using the book, and for the music itself. The tune choices, however, are what one might call eclectic - genres in each of Sher RB Vols. 1-3 range from standards, to fusion, to soul.

There have been a number of other useful collections of tunes over those years: Aebersold volumes, the two Dick Hyman books, and so forth. But the old RB remained the standard of the industry, until...

Beginning in 2005, the Hal Leonard Corporation (the “world’s largest print music publisher”) came out with its own series of “Real Books,” basically replicating the old bootlegs, with mostly the same tune selections, and with a format that mimics the the bootlegs. The name “Real Book,” of course, had never been copyrighted, so was up for grabs.

HL’s Vol. 1, the so-called “Sixth Edition,” was a bit disappointing to me (see this earlier post). HL’s obvious intent was to take control of the “Real Book” franchise, an effort that has mostly succeeded. I felt that this product could have been better in both repertoire and accuracy, given Hal Leonard’s resources. A number of important tunes from old RB1 were omitted, a number of mistakes in old RB1 were corrected, and some new mistakes were introduced. Copyright was respected - that was an improvement.

HL Real Book Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 followed, attempting to replicate the old bootleg RB Vols. 2 and 3. Like the first HL book, these were useful enough, better in some ways than the bootlegs.

Against this background, let’s consider HL RB Vol. 4.

There never was an “old” Vol. 4, so this one is entirely a Hal Leonard creation.

First, let’s look at the tune choice. I’m imagining a meeting of the production team. The team leader says, “I want each of you to come back in a week with 100 tunes that didn’t make it into the first 3 volumes.” A week later, they have a collection that includes a sampling of virtually every style that has been called "jazz" in the last 100 years:

  • some “trad” dixieland tunes (e.g., "Cakewalking Babies from Home," "Aunt Hagar's Blues"), 
  • some 20s and 30s pop that could arguably perhaps be called "jazz" (e.g., "Across the Alley From the Alamo," "When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin' Along"),
  • some third-tier standards,
  • a handful of important standards that were for some reason left out of the HL Vol. 1 “Sixth Edition” (e.g., "Days of Wine and Roses," "Just Friends," "Night and Day"),
  • some interesting but often obscure bebop ("Goin' to Minton's," "Bags' New Groove"),
  • some Beatles, Ray Charles, and James Brown,
  • some fusion and smooth jazz (Bob James, David Sanborn, Marcus Miller),
  • various good tunes that may have been chosen because Chuck Sher had included them in his fakebooks ("A House is Not a Home," "After the Rain," "Mr. Lucky"),
  • some more recent jazz originals (e.g., Chick, Wayne, Bill Evans), and
  • Some Christmas jazz tunes (Mel Torme, Vince Guaraldi).

The resulting collection is quite eclectic - or, one might say, unfocused.

Second, let’s consider usability. The chords are reasonably well done. As with the first three HL books, the look and feel mimics the old bootleg books, with a nice, readable, “handwritten” music font, and a comb binding that opens flat on a music stand. However, I don’t see the book as being particularly useful on gigs - it’s not worth hauling it around for the few tunes that one is likely to select from this book for a jazz gig, in whatever genre.

The content, as scattered as it is, would be a useful addition to an electronic collection, for those musicians who have dozens of fake books on their tablets, in pdf form.

As well, the book might be interesting to people like me, who enjoy checking out even some of the more obscure repertoire.

It wouldn't be the first fakebook to buy for your collection; it might be the sixth or seventh.

As with the previous bootleg and HL Real Books, no lyrics are included. This, I think, is unfortunate. Quite a few of the songs in this collection really only come off well as vocals ( e.g., "I Saw You," "Waters of March," "Compared to What"). In addition, horn players are - or should be - interested in the lyrics to standards; knowing the words helps us to come up with more appropriate phrasing when playing the heads, and helps us to understand the original meaning of the tunes. The Sher books are better in this regard, although even in that series, the words only appear in the concert key editions.

I suppose that you can always look up lyrics somewhere online. But you shouldn’t have to.

HL RB Vol. 4 is not really a “Real Book,” in the Real Book tradition of providing resources that address the everyday needs of jazz musicians. It’s actually more of an eclectic, fairly interesting collection of tunes that is packaged under the saleable name, “Real Book,” in a visually similar format. (HL has a number of other publications that exploit the name and use the same format.)

Far be it from me to question the financial imperatives of the business world.

Another HL "Real Book" -  Vol. 5 -  is scheduled for release in April 2013.


  1. I found your review searching on Chick Corea's "You're Everything", which appears in this volume.

    I tried to transcribe this myself, along with Inner Space, at the age of 15, when Light As a Feather came out, and Chick actually corresponded with me and was very encouraging.

    I was really groping at trying to understand this tune, as a young man, with little training in theory, but I did my best.

    Now we have this song included in Chuck Sher's New Real Book, Vol. 2 and also in Chick Corea - Chick Corea for Piano Solo, Vol. 1 (Schott).

    I would be curious to know if Hal Leonard has improved on either of these, both of which I find to have some deficiencies, though I would not say 'errors'.

    Things like, Schott writes 'F#7' (in meas. 7) instead of 'F#7b9' when the b9 is the melody, on the downbeat. Sher writes Gmaj7 (meas. 9) instead of Gmaj7#11 (which Schott gets right), when the #11 is strongly in the melody, on the downbeat.

    I probably wouldn't buy this book for this chart, since I already have made my own corrections - but I would regard it as a sort of litmus test. Especially since Chick has said that he regards it as the best example of his writing in "song/lyric" form.

    Thanks very much for your review!

  2. gk - Thanks for the comment. I'm sure you know this tune far better than I do. About the two spots in the tune that you mention - some fake books notate melody-note extensions like b9 and #11 into the chord, others do not. Sher tends to include melody-note extensions in the chord symbol, so it's a little surprising when one of his charts doesn't do this (as in your example, the Gmaj7).

    The real question would be, does the performer/composer play the chord that way when comping for a solo, or not?

    Looking at the Hal Leonard vol. 4 chart for this tune: it does not include the 8-bar intro shown in Sher; it does show F#7b9 in m4, where the melody is on the b9; it shows just Gmaj7 in bar 6, where the melody is on the #11. So, HL's approach may not be consistent. But again, you'd have to listen to the recording to decide on these fine points.

  3. I am curious whether the "Kindle" format (offered by Amazon) for RB4 allows for PDF reading or merely with the (free) Kindle App. Scanning and digitizing over 500 pages is a drag (my scanner is single page only).

    1. I have no personal experience with this, but if you Google "convert kindle to pdf," you'll find links to apps that will do it for you.