How To Capitalize On The “RealBook.”



 If you have been playing jazz music for a significant amount of time you will be familiar with any number of “fake books”; collections of jazz songs most commonly played, studied, or requested at performances. Two particularly famous ones are the RealBook and the Charlie Parker OmniBook, the latter being Parker’s songs and solo transcriptions.

Now, if you are like me (or as old as I am!), you have spent many years memorizing chords, solos, and melodies in all keys. But it is impossible to keep so much material fresh, as it is unlikely you will actually be performing in all the keys regularly. But there is one thing you can do to keep your knowledge active, and capitalize on the knowledge gained from each of the aforementioned books: using them simultaneously and self referentially. Since I have absorbed a lot of information from the OmniBook yet do not regularly play bebop, it would seem a waste to let all that work go to waste. But I do still end up playing the occasional standard song. So I use the OmniBook as a rhythm compendium. Personally, I do not prefer to use melodic quotations in my improvising, even though Charlie Parker’s music is very lyrical and certainly fun to quote. But I do utilize the rhythmic frameworks of his more famous tunes, which leaves open the possibility of both my own original improvisation and a type of rhythmic quotation/elaboration at the same time.

For example, let’s say I am playing a blues and I want to utilize my Charlie Parker knowledge. I won’t play one of his licks or quote one of his blues melodies. Rather, I will take a rhythm from one of his other song types and see how many different ways I can recombine the various quarter, eighth, or sixteenth notes as I move through the blues chord changes. That way, I am not just blandly quoting a line from the OmniBook and moving on, but stretching and pulling the rhythmic frame to help me expand on the song type I am playing at the moment. What this does is help me rethink both the song and any number of other songs I have stored in my head. I also don’t fall into the trap of thinking “OK, I am playing the blues, I will now play my blues licks.” Exploring ways to fit the various rhythms from Parker’s song Diverse for example over the standard song Pent Up House provides an interesting challenge, as well as an opportunity to discover new possibilities for both songs.

Another method of using this concept is taking a rhythm from a Parker melody and seeing how far you can expand it over another form. For example, take the first four bars of the song YardBird Suite and expand the rhythmic values so that each eighth note is now a quarter note, each quarter note a half note, and so on. Can those four bars be stretched out over 8 bars of a blues? How about 12 bars? Another method would be taking the first phrase of Parker’s Cheryl and exploring all the different ways it can be rhythmically applied over the first 16 bars of I Got Rhythm, including backwards, switching values between the beats, adding rests, expansion, contraction, etc.

Another interesting approach is taking a Parker song in 4/4 time and overlaying its rhythmic patterns over a standard song in 3/4, 6/8, or 6/4 time, i.e. Confirmation over Wayne Shorter’s Footprints. In this case you can both apply the former over the later as a polyrhythm or refit the rhythms to the new time signature while also exploring various ways to recombine the rhythmic values.

If you have read my articles in Canadian Musician magazine for the last few years, you will also have picked up enough information on Turkish and South Indian Karnatak rhythmic forms, “X-raying” standards, and so on to utilize any number of time and rhythm concepts not found in jazz music. These ideas will be especially creative in the context of the RealBook, which contains songs from more than one composer in many different styles of jazz. What are the possibilities of rhythm from Thelonious Monk’s Epistrophy when blended with both Rupaka Tala and Duke Ellington’s CottonTail? Can you find an interesting way to inform your improvising over Chick Corea’s Spain with rhythms from Joe Henderson’s Isotope converted into the time signature 11/8?

Similarly, the OmniBook provides a melodic and rhythmic palette with which you can contextualize Parker’s other works. What are the possibilities of using Thriving from a Riff as a basis for your improvisations on Scrapple from the Apple? How does Blues for Alice fit with Bloomdido? One fun exercise is seeing how many ways you can combine the well known rhythmic structures from songs such as YardBird Suite, Moose the Mooch, and Now’s the Time together within an improvisation on one of the lesser known songs such as Kim, An Oscar for Treadwell, or Cosmic Rays (even more so if you can do it within the framework of Khanda Chapu Tala…with subdivisions!).

Using these techniques I have thus been able to work with knowledge I have acquired without falling into the trap of mere compulsive technique acquisition in order to advance; which is disadvantageous if we haven’t deeply grasped what we have studied. The method is simple, intellectually challenging, and a lot of fun…just as jazz should be!




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