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  • Writer's pictureJay EuDaly

iReal Pro - or Con?

Several years ago I started playing some pick-up jazz gigs with younger players. This was a conscious strategy on my part that I've written about elsewhere.

I treated these gigs the same as always; if I didn't know the tune, I listened to the bass player first to get the root ("The bass is the base!") and the piano player second to get the chord type. I can usually get the form of the tune the first time through. I wrote about this process in detail in, How I Play Songs I Don't Know.

Most of the time, I know the tune, but even then there are divergences among players about chord changes. These are usually minor issues and I don't subscribe to a "right" way of playing anything. I listen to what the other guys are doing (especially the band leader!) and adjust accordingly.

On my own gigs I'll alter all kinds of things - it's my prerogative. If something I do is outside the norm I'll try to give whoever else might be playing with me a heads up. Unusual keys, alternate changes - whatever.

The vast majority of standards that I know I learned on the gig that way. If any fake books were in play it was always the Real Book.

One thing I noticed about all these younger players was that they were constantly looking at their phones while playing.

At first I was amused. I felt like kind of an odd duck; was I the only sideman here who knew the songs? - Or could "hear" my way through them if I didn't?

Then I started noticing some odd chord changes here and there; things that diverged from the usual changes given in the Real Book or from my experience of the common practice.

So I asked, "What app are you using for charts?"

The answer was always, "iReal Pro."

So I decided to purchase the app for myself and check it out. It wouldn't hurt to look at what they were looking at so we'd all be on the same page!

I've discovered that there's a vitriolic, minority subset of players (usually older jazz guys) that really dis the thing. That doesn't make a lot of sense to me 'cause these are the same guys that use Real Books - what's the dif?

Furthermore, the Real Book is not inerrant. I've heard these same guys complain about "wrong" changes in the Real Book. I change/correct Real Book charts all the time when teaching personal students.

Having said that, I have a sense of unease about the app that you might say is due to the fact that I'm just a cranky, out-of-touch old bastard. Valid point - but hear me out.

First, the pros:

The whole purpose of a fakebook is so that everybody onstage is playing the same set of changes, be they "right" or "wrong." iReal Pro is functioning in that way. I got no problem with that. It avoids potential train wrecks and heads off onstage arguments over changes. iReal Pro is a very functional tool for dealing with a short-term problem; how a pick-up band is going to play the songs on THIS gig.

I once had a singer who I'd never worked with before, as we were standing onstage right before starting the gig, airdrop me an iReal Pro folder of her specific songlist. That means the charts were in her keys; all she had to do was call the tune. That was handy and definitely helped the flow and pace of the performance. I was glad to have it and was impressed with her savvy.

Another thing I like about iReal Pro is that it adheres to 4 bars per line. Most fake books don't stick to that consistently. Breaking up a tune into 4-bar sections makes it way easier to perceive the form at a glance. The schemes of the tonal centers, the II-V-I's and other diatonic progressions are all more obvious from a visual perspective.

It can do this because there are no melodies given. The lack of melodies is an issue that cuts both ways however, and I'll address the negative aspect below.

But notice I said, "iReal Pro is a very functional tool for dealing with a short-term problem...". My sense of unease has to do with unintended long-term consequences of one's dependency on it. The same could be said about using fake books all the time, but this app is worse than that. Let me explain:

In general, it's good to get away from charts altogether, whether it be iReal Pro, the Real Book or some other fake book. Keep in mind I'm talking about pickup gigs that're mostly standards. There's no substitute for actually knowing the song! When I learn a song, my first goal is to be able to play it with no aids in any and every key.

Old man voice: Back in my day we didn't learn tunes by looking at music and lyric sheets, we scratched out our own on soggy bar napkins at 2AM by listening to the jukebox! And we liked it! Damn kids with their tattoos and piercings and phone apps!

We listened to records and learned the music by ear, which is to say, by trial-and-error. Granted, not a speedy or efficient way to learn, but it happened to have several positive organic side-effects, not the least of which was ear training.

I can't tell you how many songs I learned, chord changes, melody lines and in some cases lyrics, just by hunting and pecking it out from my records. We didn't have tabs, we didn't have YouTube and we didn't have We spent countless hours with records, studied privately with guru-teachers and jammed with each other, and when we started working gigs we got thrown in the deep end by older players and mentors. Sink or swim.

So...back to iReal Pro. Let's take a tune like "Misty." The standard key is Eb. I've also done it in C quite a bit.

I suppose there was a time when I didn't know Misty, but I don't remember it. Nevertheless, let's say I was on a gig and didn't know that song. I'd open my Real Book and see it in Eb. But say the singer called it in F. I'd have to look at my Eb chart and - in my head - transpose it up a whole-step to F on the fly.

With iReal Pro I can hit a button, the app transposes it and presents me with a chart in the key of F. Yeah, it saves my ass on this gig, but short-circuits the learning process of being able to transpose from my head on the fly. One mistake onstage is worth 3 dozen in rehearsal or practicing in your bedroom. Humiliation is a great motivator for learning.

One time I was onstage with Marilyn Maye. She called "Misty" in the key of G. Now I knew Misty backwards and forwards but I had never played it in G. As I said, I was most familiar with it in Eb or C.

I'm not going to go into a technical explanation of why transposing from Eb to G is a real mindf--k on the guitar, but it is...especially so if you can't transpose in your head and you'd look like an idiot fumbling around on your phone - behind Marilyn Maye for chrissakes! - to get the transposed chart pulled up in iReal Pro.

But guess what? I did it with no problem - because I don't need iReal Pro to transpose for me. Lucky for me, because iReal Pro didn't exist back then.

On another occasion I was backing her and she called "Take 5" in G minor. Standard key is Eb minor. See: Jam Tales: Marilyn Maye.

I fear the young guys that habitually use iReal Pro are sabotaging an essential skill; being able to transpose on the fly.

Another thing that makes me uneasy about iReal Pro is that there are no melodies; it's chord changes only. I get it; that means no licensing fees are being paid, which keeps the cost of the app down.

But melodies are important, man! Even if you're not playing them.

As an accompanist, the melody is going to suggest what chord voicings, alterations and substitutions will work. Knowing the melody helps me to support the singer. And as a soloist, I don't want to just blow through changes, as important as that is. I want to reference the melody here and there in my solo. That's because it's the melody that distinguishes one II-V-I from another II-V-I.

If I'm using iReal Pro for a song, that means I don't know the song, including the melody. The app gives me nothing to go on, melody-wise. I'm back to using my ears, listening to what the singer or the soloist is doing.

Which I can do because we didn't have iReal Pro (or YouTube or tab) when I was coming up.

I fear the young guys that habitually use iReal Pro are sabotaging an essential skill; incorporating the melody of the song into their comping/soloing.

Now, in spite of my reservations, I'm using iReal Pro because the young guys I want to play with use it. I even bought and downloaded a 2nd copy to my laptop because the charts on the phone are too small for my old-man eyes!

For me, it solves a short-term problem on a gig, but doesn't sabotage the other stuff because I've already got my shit together on all that.

But I worry about the young guys.


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