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!


Monday, March 27, 2006

[Jazz] Barney Kessel - (2003) Plays For Lovers

Okay, you've had a short break since our encounter with Chris Rea - time enough to get mentally prepared with some authentic Jazz. We'll start slowly with this recently-released compilation of classic, 'from-the-book' Jazz guitar.

Barney Kessel - Plays for Lovers
Jazz - 2003
1 CD - 16 tracks
Total running time: 1:07:33

A collection of easy-listening, romantic Jazz favourites smoothly and cleanly played by B. Kessel. Melodic and laid-back electric guitar to accompany your long Winter evenings.

Why start with Barney Kessel?

Barney Kessel was the first Jazz guitarist I heard. In fact, the first Jazz CD I got was this particular one. Given my current attitude towards Jazz, I figured I couldn't go far wrong by making you follow my footsteps.

I won't bore you with Barney's biography or stuff you full of historical facts - you can always google those up if you like - I'll give you my personal impression of his artistic characteristics. For me, he's the 'good boy' of Jazz guitarists: a very smooth and clean style, staying very melodic and accessible. From what I've heard of him, and this is one of his best qualities, he tends to stay quite conventional and concentrate on the music, not wander off into crazy virtuoso feats like many others. He's also equally capable in the two major Jazz guitar styles: playing single note solos and stringing together successions of those fascinating and monstruously complex Jazz chords. You'll be able to apreciate both on this compilation.

For these reasons, I think Barney will give you a nice smooth start in Jazz and Jazz guitar in particular. Later, we'll discover some more exotic and wilder artists.

Before with start - basic Jazz background

As indicated, this compilation was released in 2003 but you'll soon get to know that the vast majority of good Jazz guitar music, all artists considered, was recorded between 1960 and 1965 (give or take a few years). Yes, it really was that short but there were so many brilliant artists around that, even today, we keep on listening to them and rediscovering them.

Another thing that's important to know about in Jazz is the term "Standard". A Standard is usually a popular, often romantic and simple song that is used again and again as a basis for a Jazz piece. You'll see the same old Standards cropping up all the time. However, contrary to what you might be thinking, there is still lots of variety to be found. Jazz being what it is, the same Standard played by two different artists sounds completely different, so much so that the original song is often unrecognizable by the untrained ear.

This CD contains a number of Standards you'll definitely be seing again. You might even know some of them in there original form: I'm Glad There Is You, My Funny Valentine, You Stepped out of a Dream, etc.

How to enjoy this CD

This time, I won't be going over individual songs but just talk about the general athmophere created by this collection of pieces. All the tracks are of similar style: easy-listening, romantic Jazz songs. All are instrumental with the electric Jazz guitar being the central point. The band is mostly composed of the classic, well-proven Jazz trio: Guitar + Bass + Drums, but there is the occasional appearance of a piano or a xylophone.

Given these characteristics - soft, similar-style tracks, simple and intimate band - I could bet most of you are thinking, "hey, this could make great background music for my work/reading etc." I suppose it would but I have to tell you, it's shameful waste of the complexity and profoundness of this music. This music contains lots of hidden subtleties which is the wonderful thing about Jazz: you can own a CD for 10 years and still discover new things about it everytime you listen to it. The downside is that apreciating it requires a fair amount of work and concentration. Jazz is a great way of learning how to listen. Listening to music is not a background thing while you do something else, it's an activity in itself. Just put that little bit of effort and concentration into it when you put a CD on, you'll be amazed at how rewarding it is in the long run.

Here's a suggestion that works a treat with this particular CD: you're home from work, you're alone, it's cold a dark outside. Find yourself a comfy armchair, dim the lights and put this CD on. The music will fill the emptiness and silence in a flash and replace it with the unique and fascinating athmophere of Jazz. Keep on sitting there, and concentrate on the music. Try and feel each note, feel its texture, let it vibrate inside you and move you. Keep this up for a while and the world outside, along with your preocupations, worries, needs will disappear and you'll find yourself transported to a world of pure well-being where you are alone, being gently stroked by the softness and harmony of the music. I'm sure this sounds all very corny but just give it a try. You'll be amazed how well it works.

I must warn you though, this kind of thing is adictive. You'll soon be desperately hunting for more Jazz CDs and cursing every little noise from your neighboors that upsets the athmosphere and harmony of your living room.

This particular CD is also quite addictive in that it seems to get better and better towards the end. You'll find some wonderful interaction, or 'interplay' as they say in the Jazz scene, between guitar and bass in the final tracks such as You Go to my Head and I'm Through with Love. The Bass has this hypnotizing character the guitar has. Having enjoyed the last few tracks so much, you'll be compelled to play the CD again from the beginning and pay even more attention on the first few tracks, thinking you might have missed something.

And, Jazz being what is it, you will find something you missed. And again the time after that...


1Embraceable You3:24
I'm Glad There Is You
What Is There to Say
Satin Doll
My Funny Valentine
This Guy's in Love with You
Angel Eyes
Just in Time
My Reverie
Love Is Here to Stay
It Could Happen to You
My Old Flame
You Go to my Head
I'm through with Love


Sunday, January 29, 2006

[Guitar] Chris Rea - (2004) The Blue Jukebox

On the twisty, slippery road to appreciating Jazz, I think Chris Rea will be a big help to us. His career took a radical turn a few years ago when he decidedly moved away from popular music. This album, to my mind one of the best he recorded in his transitional phase, is the perfect link for us between smokey voiced 'bad guy' Blues like Calvin Russell and Jazz.

Chris Rea - The Blue Jukebox
Guitar - 2004
1 CD - 13 tracks
Total running time: 1:06:56

Chris adds a taste of Jazz to The Blues in this CD where he growls in a deep, smokey voice with his usual strong bass line and slide guitar licks but in a more laid back, reflective mood.

Chris Rea's career

Most people probably know Chris Rea as the guy you hear on the radio every year around Christmas time with his Driving Home for Christmas. People who were alive and in contact with the world in the 80s will know him as the artist behing big popular hits like The Road to Hell, Auberge, Josephine, Looking for the Summer... After his initial huge success, he disappeared completely in the 90s and produced some truely AWFUL albums.

His great comeback came in 2002 when he released Dancing down the Stony Road, recorded "live in the studio", i.e. one take tracks. Chris created his own record company called Jazzy Blue and released an extended version of that album with his new company. He has released a whole flurry of albums since, now having the freedom of release what and when he wants. The result is, in my opinion, a dramatic improvement in his music. He has now turned to a genre you could call "Dark Blues" and The Blue Jukebox is a great example of it.

Overall character of the album

Chris is faithful to his usual sound instrument-wise in this album: his voice, slide guitar, bass and a slow blues shuffle on the drums. The novelty is the appearance of a saxophone which occasionnally softly fills in between the guitar and the voice, adding a destinct Jazzy tone.

Athmosphere-wise, The Blue Jukebox is Dark Blues at its best. Technically, the music is simple, very rootsy, no ornaments, no excessive multiple tracking. Every sound you hear has its function and would be noticeably missed were it to be left out. The mood produced is slow, weary, dreamy. The album musically describes to perfection the feeling of "being blue". The difference to traditional Blues is that it's not the groans of someone trying to free himself of this unfortunate state of mind but simply a description of it and a much more expressive and moving description than words. The Blue Jukebox is a very accurate title for this CD: it is the sound of "blue".

Highlights of this CD

The most easily likeable track is certainly Long Is the Time and Hard Is the Road. Lyrically the song is quite similar to Chris's old hit The Road to Hell. He criticises the way society works, showing how fake and meaningless our way of living is, leading us to self negation. However, unlike the old hit, he doesn't express his anger and his wish to change this, he simply describes the sadness he feels towards the situation. Musically this is expressed by a strong, warm and slow bass line. The anger which used to be his screaming, screeching guitar, is replaced by a gently weaping slide guitar. I must say you have to give credit to Chris for his performance on guitar on this album. It takes a great deal of subtely to express deep sadness and yet keep the sound gentle and soft.

Steel River Blues is another of my favourites on this release. Musically it's quite similar to Long Is the Time... but underlines a certain fascination in the feeling of sadness. He speaks of "The only thing we never got to do
Kick away
Those Steel River Blues"
as if he was trapped in his sadness. As if he couldn't bear being happy, that he prefered staying in his familiar and gentle world of sadness.

The only song that expresses desire to escape the world of the Blues is Restless Soul. Contrary to all the other tracks, the rythm is punchy: the bass angrily beats a very restless rythm. You get the impression the person's soul is damned, condemned to be imprisonned in sadness: "Oh you gotta give somethin'
'Cos it screams and it cries
This restless soul"
The song ends with a really impressively well executed duo of saxophone and slide guitar.

Last words

I think this album is a great introduction to the bluesy/jazzy mood. In his lyrics, Chris often speaks of a "blue world" or "a little piece of blues" as if the blues could be sensed in every situation. Even in a happy event, you can catch a glimpse of sadness which you can be fascinated by, attracted by because of its familiarity giving you a sense of security.

The song Paint My Jukebox Blue offers a fatalistic but also humourous point of view on this. Confronted with a serious problem a person goes and even gratefully escapes to familiarity of the "blue world". In the song, the person decides to paint his jukebox blue which is a stupid thing to do really but, symbollically, very interesting: "Since you been gone
I've been wondering
What to do
I guess I'll paint
My Jukebox


1The Beat Goes on4:34
Long Is the Time Hard Is the Road
Let's Do It
Let It Roll
Steel River Blues
Somebody Say Amen
Blue Street
Monday Morning
Restless Soul
What Kind of Love Is This
Paint my Jukebox Blue
Baby Don't Cry