Aug 27, 2013

Review: Hal Leonard "Real Book" Vol. 5

So let's think back...why was the old Real Book so successful? I mean the original bootleg one, produced by two Berklee students in 1975. Here's why: because it was so much better than the shoddy fakebooks we had before that. We liked the old RB because:

  • It included mostly great tunes that were a core part of the standard jazz repertoire, with very few "filler" tunes; 
  • It had mostly (not entirely) correct, jazz-friendly chord changes; 
  • It had nice calligraphy that you could read in dim club light;
  • Although it was a money-making effort, the old RB was produced with respect for the musicians who would be using it. 
  • The kids who produced it pretty much knew how to produce a practical yet accurate chart.

What did we not like about the old RB? The inaccuracies, in a few cases egregious, and the fact that it was a pirate product, that did not respect copyright (at least that's how I felt, although many musicians couldn't care less about copyright).

So how does the new Hal Leonard "Real Book" Vol. 5 compare? I'm sorry to say, not very well. Why not?

  • Many of the tunes can only be described as "filler";
  • The changes are often not presented in a jazz-friendly way;
  • There is an unacceptably high percentage of errors, most of them preventable, if the company had cared enough to edit the book properly;
  • It's a money-making effort all right, but without sufficient respect for the musicians who will be using it;
  • And the "World's Largest Print Music Company" in many cases did not seem to know how to produce a practical yet accurate chart.

Positive features: A readable font that mimics the calligraphy in the old RB; and copyright is respected.

Please see my review of Hal Leonard RB Vol. 4 - critical, but polite, I think. Many of the observations about that volume hold true for this one as well.

For this review, I am feeling less generous. This big company should know better.

Except for the respect of copyright and the nice font, this book is a throwback to the bad old days of fakebooks that were full of filler, full of errors, and that required informed interpretation to be useful to the average jazz musician. I don't want to spend too much time on specific cases, but here is a representative example:

The chart for "Anything Goes," like many charts in this book, uses changes that seem to have been copied straight from the original sheet music. In most old sheet music, chord symbols were an afterthought, added to a composed piano part. Changes are often harmonically superfluous; or in the absence of the piano arrangement, need to be carefully voiced to make sense. In the old days, we developed the skill of knowing how to handle these sorts of charts - when to ignore changes, or when and how to rearrange them in a more practical way. Musicians who are accustomed to "modern" lead sheets often don't know how to do this reworking, or have no patience for it. The better, more jazz-oriented charts of the last 40 years (e.g. the old RB, or charts in Aebersold playalongs) took care of the simplification process, taking the burden off the end user. (See this post for comments on how to create a good chart.)

The "Tune-Dex" fakebook of 1949, one of the very first fakebooks, consisted of lead sheets that just copied the chord symbols from the original sheet music, as was apparently done in this Hal Leonard chart for "Anything Goes." As a matter of fact, this HL chart is almost exactly like the Tune-Dex chart of 1949 for "Anything Goes," in the details of its awkward chord placement.

In fairness, a number of the charts are better conceived.

Next, a word about the tune choice in this volume. Out of 400 tunes, I'd say about 80 might be useful. By what stretch of the imagination should a "Real Book" (i.e., a purportedly practical, jazz-oriented fakebook) include:
"Aquarius" (yes, that one)
"The Beat Goes On"
"Billie Jean"
"Smooth Operator"
"Somethin' Stupid"
"What's New Pussycat?"
As with HL RB Vol. 4, there are also some extreme retro "trad" tunes like "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," some moderately interesting second-tier bebop, and some forgettable fusion tunes.

Hal Leonard has attached the name "Real Book" to about as many products as it could (Bluegrass, Christmas, Dixieland, Rock, Blues, Worship). In this usage, "Real Book" just means "fakebook," nothing more. The term formerly referred to a product that was by and for jazz musicians, produced with a healthy respect for the people who would be using it. Now it's just a term that is being mined to confer some credibility.

BTW, "Star Eyes" is just about always played in Eb, not F. Don't use this chart.

Apparently, HL's "Real Vocal Book" has editorial problems also. Check out this Amazon page, and scroll down to read the customer review from "PianoJazzMan," including HL's reply.

I guess I won't be publishing anything through Hal Leonard any time soon. But darn it, we should be honest.

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