Thursday, March 29, 2007

[Blues] Katie Melua - (2005) Piece by Piece

Every now and then, not often, you get a genuine surprise. This is exactly what happened to me when I googled up Nine Million Bicycles, after hearing that cute, amusing song on the plane on my way back from Singapore. It turned out it was sung by a young artist by the name of Katie Melua, whom, I have to admit, I had never heard of before. I got hold of her latest CD and, expecting nothing more than a few amusing Pop songs, was utterly blown away when I heard one genuinely great Jazz/Blues song after another.

Katie Melua - Piece by Piece
Blues - 2005
1 CD - 12 tracks
Total running time: 44:38

What I was hearing was actually the work of a truely amazing singer, with a voice and style as sensuous and beautiful as the classic great female voices of Jazz and Blues.

Katie who?

After listening to the opening songs, I was eagerly going through the liner notes of the CD to try and figure out why I hadn't heard of this artist earlier as I found out that Piece by Piece was actually her second CD.

The net provided me with more information: Katie is apparently of mixed origins, born and raised in Georgia, then living in Belfast. Not surprisingly, Katie was first known in the UK, in fact, her first album Call off the Search was very successful there but went almost completely unnoticed throughout the rest of the world.

Despite the thick Irish accent Katie displays in interviews, she is actually quite eloquant, has interesting views on world matters, and doesn't subscribe to the standardized "European way of thinking", which is always refreshing to hear. Her origins probably have something to do with that, as they probably do with the rather literary and profound lyrics that surprise you in her songs.

Speaking of songs, it might be time to mention that Katie is a primarily a singer although she does play a little bit of guitar - basically strums a few chords on her nylon stringed electro-acoustic. Many of you (myself included) would already be running for the hills after that description. Luckily, and that's one of the many surprises this artist has in store for us, she is in no way "goofy" like a lot of the so-called professional singers. Her voice is soft yet without being week. From what I could tell in this CD, she creates intensity and expressiveness, not by screeming loudly and going into impossibly high tones, but by subtlely texturing her voice to fit the mood she wants to create and playing with dynamics, sometimes lowering her voice to a mere whisper.

The spark of interest

As I mentionned in the introduction, I first discovered this music on the plane. Air France, on that trip, had apparently forgotten to remove this song from their usual selection of appaulling old French hits. I whole-heartedly encourage them to make similar mistakes in future...

Anyhow, Nine Million Bicycles was the title of the song - nothing more than a catchy and cute love song at first listen. However, as the title maybe indicates, the song bares one question: How do you associate nine million bicycles and love? Well, there lies exactly what makes this little song special.

"Nine million bicycles" refers to how many of those transportation devices are being used everyday in Beijing which, appart from being an interesting and amusing fact, has a nice ring to it. I won't explain how the link to love is made - you'll have to listen to the song to find out - I'll just say that, associated with the lovely melody, the line "there are nine million bicycles in Beijing" is the perfect example of how lyrics, music and meaning can work together to create a really great song.

A genuine discovery

It's high time we had a look at the rest of the album which quite simply beats the hell out of Nine Million Bicycle - which was no slouch in the first place.


A voice as engaging live as in the studio

Here's a little video to illustrate Katie's skills out of the studio and on stage with just a guitar and a microphone. This a an unofficial live recording from an appearance on French TV.

Absolutely mind-blowing in my opinion. Powerful voice yet full of subtleties, sometimes down to just an intimate, spine-tingling whisper, accompanied by just a softly picked guitar, adding to the personal, and surprinsingly intense, quality of this song.


Shy Boy
Nine Million Bicycles
Piece by Piece
Halfway up the Hindu Kush
Blues in the Night
Spider's Web
Blue Shoes
On the Road Again
Thank You Stars
Just Like Heaven
I Cried for You
I Do Believe in Love


Friday, March 02, 2007

Legal note on videos

In the near future, I will be adding more video content to this guide. For some of the twisted minds and consciences out there, this might raise a few legal issues, especially considering we're talking Music here.

Therefore, I'll do some preventive self-criticism, and make my case before the questions are even asked.


The first thing to be said is that I'm not in the slightest way interested in starting a debate over intellectual property and God knows what. That's all capitalistic delerium as far as I'm concerned. I just listen to music, enjoy it and try as best I can to make others enjoy it too.

That being said, I will set some limits as to what kind of material we'll include here at Pifflez's comprehensive guide to musical literacy, mainly to stay out of trouble, but also not to tranform this blog into another one of those "Video of the day" type things. After all, and as I said before, we are talking Music here; so technically, video has no sense here.

Video content philosophy

Generally speaking, we will add a video when it allows us to express something that a simple album review cannot.

For instance, we'll use a video to introduce you to a new artist by showing you an example of his art in the shape of a video recording of one of his pieces. It will, of course, be a recording of the artist actually playing (be it live or in a radio studio etc.). To actually see an artist play a piece, and play it differently than on the official album, is always a fascinating experience.

We'll also use videos as multimedia support for analysing specific pieces. We will present our views on the piece and the particular interpretation of it. Having a common interpretation of the piece to base our comments on can result in a very interesting discussion. Very probable to produce our so-called "wako talk"...

A final example of the advantage of video footage is an effective way to present a new Music genre. For instance, Classical Guitar is best introduced by showing you a video of an amateur guitarist playing a well-known classical composition in his living room.


As you could expect, my sources will mostly be YouTube, Google Video and Daily Motion and other video sites. These sites offer direct links for you to embed the video content in your own webpages, therefore I assume they are encouraging people to do so.

The legitimicy of these sites is debatable, I suppose, but as long as they are still running, I consider them a valid source.

I will however limit my videos to
  • Professional live recordings such as concerts, jam sessions, TV shows etc. (amateur or professional footage)
  • Amateur live recordings such as amateur interpretations of famous pieces, personal compositions, improvisations etc.
I will not include any material present on any artist's official discography. ...Not because of the legal debate, but because the video would have no use here. I might as well do a review of the CD where the material can be found.


Sunday, January 14, 2007

[Jazz] Jimmy Raney - (1976) Live in Tokyo

Finally, our second real Jazz review has arrived. Our maestro for this class will be Jimmy Raney, a personal favourite of mine. This concert recording, featuring a more extensive intrument line-up than Barney Kessel's Plays for Lovers, will hopefully give you a more lively impression of the unique atmophere that Jazz creates.

Jimmy Raney - Live in Tokyo
Jazz - 1976
1CD - 11 tracks
Total running time: 57:21

This great live performance offers a nice mix of melodic, romantic songs and more lively, up-tempo tracks masterfully interpreted by Jimmy Raney and his band.


Jazz used to be a festive type of music, an aspect which this CD illustrates perfectly. After the pleasant, yet somewhat academic playing on Barney Kessel's compilation, this live recording brings you the 'real thing'.

Technically, the recording does a great job of making you feel part of the audience. The band line up includes more instruments, such as a piano, more adventurous drums and a saxophone. Additionally, Jimmy Raney displays his talents both as a reflective, slow and complex chord player and as an up-tempo beepop style player. The two make this concert a great combination of feel-good and moody, laid-back atmosphere.

A walk through this performance

The show starts off, as do a lot of shows in general, with some up-tempo favourites such as How about You and Watch what Happens to get the public going. Always refreshing to hear those few openers. Just goes to show you that you can also use Jazz to get yourself kicking again after an exhausting or depressing day. In Anthropology, Jimmy displays his speed skills.

Later on, things slow down and Jimmy gets right into it with a really wonderful version of Autumn Leaves or Les Feuilles mortes as the original title is. You'll also find yet another version of Here's that Rainy Day. Jimmy's interpretation is livelier and grittier; I'm pretty sure most of you wouldn't recognize it without some insider hints. Another notable interpretation on this record is the one of Charlie Parker's classic, Just Friends.

Towards the end of the show, the saxophone makes its entry and the band play some more cheerful, croud-pleasing songs.

To sum it all up

These performances don't require any deep analysis. Just put the CD on, one lazy Sunday afternoon and I'll bet ya, it'll have you tapping your feet or even doing a little dance in no time.

They're simply a great example of the uniqueness of Jazz. Jimmy and his band manage to create this jolly, energetic atmosphere, yet maintaining the characteristic laid-back sound of Jazz. It just shows you: you can have lots of fun without even breaking into a sweat.

More of Jimmy

Jimmy is one of the 'old dogs' of Jazz guitar, and also one of my favourites. He has a classic, old fashionned playing style which tends to be punchier, grittier than the more modern players. He's a great example of how real Jazz used to sound.

The wonderful thing about him is that he's also excellent at playing the modern, reflective, more complex, slightly intellectual music which I also apreciate. With his background as a classic Jazz guitarist, he manages to pack loads of emotion into the sometimes 'empty' sounding modern compositions, as he does to perfection in one of his last releases, But Beautiful.

Track list

How about You
Darn that Dream
Watch what Happens
Just Friends
Autumn Leaves
Stella by Starlight
Here's that Rainy Day
Grovin' High
Blue 'n Boogie


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

[Jazz] Here's that Rainy Day

For those of you who are finding the first step into the World of Jazz a little too steep and can't quite gather up the courage to go and hunt for Barney Kessel's compilation, here is an audio-visual appetizer - your first taste of real Jazz.

A simple bloke playing a simple tune in his own home... but it sounds wonderful. That's Jazz Guitar for you!

My profound views on this video

I won't bore you with my usual, highly spiritual statements this time. This video is only intented as an appetizer. We'll have lots of opportunities to get "intellectual" with future material.

Here's that Rainy Day is another example of a standard. You'll probably get to hear hundreds of versions of this piece if you dig into Jazz a little.
The guy playing is no professional, ...although he is damn good if you ask me. That's years and years of practice.

I certainly hope it has stirred your curiosity...


Monday, January 01, 2007 upgrades - We make the switch

It's nearing that time of year again where tradition wants us to make plans for the future. That task has been made very easy for me this year since I've posted a mind-boggling total of 1 posts this year (probably a record!). So the plans are the same as last year's with a little extra determination to actually carry them through this time.

This traditional event coincides with an
upgrade made by our host,, to its service. We bravely made the switch to the new system. We will be telling you what changes and improvements you can expect from this upgrade here at Pifflez's comprehensive guide to musical literacy.

The switching process

Changing from the old Blogger system to the new one was no easy task. In fact, for quite a long while, we snobbed the new system known as "beta" because we couldn't get our page to look the way we liked with it. After a little research, we figured out how. The new editing philosophy is very different to the old one. However, in the long run, it will make updating this blog, adding new features and keeping its content and layout fresh, easier.

Anyone else with their own blog going through the transition at the moment should check out these sites - in my opinion, the most helpful:New features

Appart from a few minor esthetical changes, the switch has brought us 4 new features
  • The Blog Archive (located in the side bar) is a new tree structure menu that allows you to freely select the period you wish to see. Click on the name of a post to see the individual post page. Click on a month to see that month's archive page, listing all the posts made during that month. The MainPage will list only the 7 most recent posts. You can either use the Blog Archive or the "older posts" link at the bottom of the page to view previous posts.
  • Just below the Blog Archive, you will find a handy Search bar. Give in a keyword, click "Go!" and the 7 most recent posts containing your keyword will be displayed. Use the "older posts" and "new posts" links at the bottom of the page to display the rest of the search results.
  • The sidebar is home to a third novelty: a list of recent comments. The five most recent comments made by site visitors will be permantly shown in the side bar. This will hopefully improve interaction between posters and readers.
Categorized posts

The 4th feature is really the one that makes this switch worthwhile.

In the sidebar, you'll see a new section called "Topics". This is because all posts are now categorized by "Labels". Labels associated to a post are displayed at the end of the post. By clicking on one topic in the sidebar, all posts associated with that topic will be displayed.

So far, our music guide covers the following topics:
  • Blog developments
    Posts presenting general information, updates, changes on this music guide
  • Reviews
    Album reviews. These will be subclassified into genres according to the list presented in the post Plans for the future
  • Wako talk
    Whenever I feel the need to express my opinion on something, and feel passionate about it, be it musical or not, I will post some "Wako talk"
  • Videos
    Links to amateur music videos from Google Videos or YouTube or other such sites
  • Technology
    My technical advice on how to get the ultimate Audio experience from your laptop or PC

A glance into the future

As said previously, this new blogging system should allows to add new, exciting content and features, more often and more easily.

We're looking forward to it!