For nearly 50 years, The Real Book has sat proudly on music stands across the world, from clubs and society gigs to practice rooms and jam sessions. It’s—unofficially—the best-selling “fake book” of all time. Generations of jazz musicians have learned to play standards and classics from the Great American Songbook via its venerable pages. So why in the name of Irving Berlin would someone set out to reharmonize its contents?
“Music is in a whole different place now,” says guitarist Jack Grassel, 71, a professional jazz musician and educator of more than 50 years. “People don’t use ii-V-I progressions now, and if they do, it makes the music sound very old.”
The Reharmonized Real Book (Hal Leonard) contains 393 songs from The Real Book (6th Edition), featuring all-new harmonizations of its time-honored melodies, arranged by Grassel over an eight-week period last year. The book was originally conceived by Hal Leonard’s executive vice president Jeff Schroedl as a resource that would give players some built-in options for adding color to the harmony and provide a new way of approaching songs that they might have been playing the same way for years.
A man obsessed with musical growth and improvement, Grassel saw the project as an opportunity to modernize these cherished songs using chord progressions more indicative of today’s music. “I saw Chick Corea recently,” he recalls, “and on one of his tunes he played 10 choruses, and every one had a different set of chord changes. This, I feel, is where jazz is going, where, in addition to improvising the melody, players will be improvising the chord changes as well. My work in this book is an instruction manual for other people to do the same thing—harmonizing in a more modern way.”
Grassel says he worked within a set of criteria that he established to ensure the resulting reharmonizations were still musical. These included such considerations as whether the reharmonization of each melody note sounded good on its own as well as against both the preceding and succeeding chords; density or sparsity of chord changes within each section of the tune as well as in relation to the melody; and whether the song still retained its original character and stood up to repeated listening, among others.
One of the methods employed frequently in the reharmonized edition is the transformation of AABA song form to an AABC variation, which Grassel uses to great effect on songs like “Body and Soul,” “Oleo,” “Anthropology,” and “The Girl from Ipanema.”
“When a song is in AABA form, you might play the A section three times in a row, exactly the same way,” Grassel says. “And if you have a bunch of people taking solos, you might hear that A section 50 or 60 times. That needs to change. So what I tried to do was make a new song form, where each of the three A sections could be different, which makes it a lot easier for the player and the listener. I think that makes for a more modern, through-composed reading of the song, like what Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock did with some of their more modern songs.”
Another thematic approach that Grassel used to produce a more modern sound was to drastically reduce the occurrence of the ii–V–I progression—a bold move considering it’s foundational to the jazz sound as we know it, but one that he was eager to make. “When I look at a song like ‘Autumn Leaves’ and see that opening Am7–D7–Gmaj7 progression, I think, ‘Oh man, here’s another ii–V–I,’ and I’ve become really repelled by that,” he says. “So I changed that opening three bars to a chromatic movement of E♭13–E9♯5–F9–F♯7–Gmaj7♭5–Gmaj7, and it sounds like a whole new song now. It’s still ‘Autumn Leaves’ when the melody is played, of course, but when the solos appear, you’re presented with all-new harmonic scenery you get to navigate while playing this song that everybody loves.”
Even a sacred cow like John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” wasn’t immune to Grassel’s modernization crusade, as he streamlined the famously dense changes and achieved one of his more radical reharmonizations along the way. “Well, it’s about time! We’ve been playing it the same way for 60 years,” Grassel quips. “When Coltrane wrote ‘Giant Steps,’ he was trying to push ii–V–I progressions as far as he could take them. And if you look at the melody of the first two measures, it’s just a Gmaj7 chord, so I removed four of Coltrane’s chords in those two measures and replaced it with just one chord. Furthermore, you’ve now got this chromatic root movement of G–A♭–A–B♭–B over the first seven bars, but the underlying chord qualities create some counterpoint. I feel this makes the song more contemporary, because that’s the way jazz has been going for quite a while.”
What impact does Grassel think the new volume will have? “I hope it makes people better players and boosts their enjoyment of making music,” he says. “It’s on my music stand right now, and I’m playing through it page by page, being confronted with new things every practice session, and that’s making me a better player.”
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