Sunday, 26 January 2014

Are piano solo skills relevant in jazz?

I used to love playing long solo improvisations on piano. Sometimes as an intro, but mostly as a standalone, independent piece that would evaporate as it was played.
The fantasy is that people like it, are interested by it, and get swept away. Luckily for me, I was pretty good at it by the time I started studying at the conservatory and received praise from fellow students and peers, but there was always a hint of 'meh' in the air. And I'm positive it's not because they were giving false praise. It was more like a "cool story bro" kind of meh.

The trigger for this was probably a masterclass I had in my second or third year from Tamir Hendelman. On records and live, he's an excellent pianist but plays it relatively safe. But at the masterclass we had a splendid 'lab' session where various crazy things were experimented with. It's been a few years since then so I don't remember it well but I recall he did some weird thing with an ostinato.
Everything that went on during that lab was a great learning experience, but most of it, in hind sight, actually feels irrelevant. It probably has some sort of influence on a sub-consciousness level, but it's very rarely immediately noticeable. The main teacher at the Conservatory I go to is one of the very rare cases where you hear this lab stuff actually get implemented, be it solo or in a band.

And so I come back to my initial thing. Solo improvisations on piano can be some of the most powerful music ever - Keith Jarrett's Kohln Concert is the best sold piano solo music in the world - but it's also the least called for.
As such, I haven't been arsed to play that stuff in the past year or three. When you get to a point where you mostly need to busy yourself with studying material you actually (are going to) use, it's hard to justify setting time aside for what crumbles down to the hobby side of the profession.

It's almost unavoidable though that I will restart it again, as my teacher will insist that I play off the wall things should I go for my master's next year. But then I will likely be learning to play them in a more directed way, so the experience can be used as an intro for a tune with a singer.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Getting back in to an MMO

I've recently picked up SWTOR again to play with my brother. I always wanted to finish the Empire story with at least one character but I had burned out on the game by the time we arrived on Balmorra. This happened a month or two after the game launched so that's quite a long time. On top of that, it's been a long time since I played an MMO that wasn't WoW for quite a long time so it took some getting used to.

After having been in to action games like Muramasa Rebirth on Vita, Metal Gear Rising and DMC the slow pace of an MMO caught me off guard. I know some are faster paced than others or at least have a different picture of their dynamics, I'm convinced that these games are generally slow(er) paced.
This time around it was even worse than usual as story is a pretty big thing in SWTOR. I had to figure out where I was, what I needed to do, how to play my character, set up my UI (which had changed a bit) and figure out what to do with all those lovely cartel coins I had apparently accumulated from merely having an authenticator hooked up to my account. I still paid for a month of subscription time though as I want to make sure I can play whatever character I want and not have to deal with the nickel and diming you have to put up with at times with this game.

It also makes me appreciate certain steps Blizzard has taken over the years to make it easier for players to jump back in to WoW after months or even years of having not played. Tutorials are often too spammy and cover many things that are obvious (how to move, control your camera, use or  learn skills) and skip or don't properly cover more hidden features and mechanics of the game. Luckily it is for the most part a WoW clone and as I play with my brother everything except the class quests for which we always split up so as to not spoil anything is fairly easy to zap through.

I must say though, the game has gotten me interested again. The conversation system, voice acting and setting (Star Wars!) for the most part still suffices to hide even the most redundant of kil ten rats quests, though when you're out actually doing these it's not so great. The goal quickly becomes: "Quickly get this over with so we can talk to people again!".

It's also fun to play good-guy Sith. I never got around to playing enough of the bad guy on my Republic characters, but it feels like I'm sabotaging the Empire by being a boy scout. It's also nice because it's something you never saw in the movies or games - that I can remember anyway. The bad guys are always bad, and some good guys go bad and that's it. Quite refreshing!

I hope I get through to the end this time. Cheers!

Monday, 20 January 2014

Not this time Blizzard - Diablo 3: RoS

Looking back, I've bought every Blizzard game at launch in the past decade or so. Be it Starcraft, Warcraft or Diablo games. But for the first time I have a negative feeling about buying one on its first day, and that is Reaper of Souls.

I played a fair bit of D3, though by now the majority of active players have well eclipsed my ~500 hour mark. For all its problems and my sudden lack of interest in the game over a year ago I got my money's worth. I even got my mitts on the collector's edition as a symbol to the many hours I wasted away on D2 as a young teenager. And I'm still happy I bought it, I don't regret my time played with D3 as there was definitely some fun to it.

But there are fundamental issues with the game, mostly in its one-sided itemization. It's a completely different beast to Diablo 2 with its amazing expansion. There are many many many many threads on forums and reddit that discuss the issues so I won't bore you with them here, but it's clear that I'm far from the only one who has a negative outlook on RoS.

I'm not even sure they're going to keep to their current release date, although by now we know that Blizzard has no qualsm with releasing the game and then continue to tweak and change, sometimes some pretty big things, post launch. Patch 1.0.5 and 1.0.8 are examples of this.
I'm very curious to see the public reception. D3v sold many millions of copies in the first week or two but I'm not convinced this expansion will follow suit.
Much like Nintendo, I think they need a shake up that's actually noticeable: in their wallets. Then the message will be crystal clear.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Jazz - I finally understand Coltrane Changes

Time to do this blog's name justice. No vid (yet) but I finally have something to talk about on Jazz!

I can't believe it took me so long. But I finally 'get' the Coltrane change. I could never get a grip on what folks would mean if they told me "play coltrane changes over D." which thankfully never happened but it's still something I feel is important to know. Thankfully that switch has finally flipped.

All I did was look at two tunes: Tune Up by Miles Davis (he probably didn't write it) and Countdown by Coltrane. Then I looked at the first four bars of  both pieces and tried to keep what my teacher once said about the changes in mind. He mentions that it's a substitute for I-VI-II-V-I changes that has you going through major related keys. I actually get that, but I didn't understand in what way the major relations worked because it's not immediately clear in Giant Steps, the tune everyone thinks of and references when it comes to the Coltrane change.

But it's actually quite simple! Again, looking at Countdown, the basic idea is you jump to each major third relation in a descending manner, implementing dominants before playing each related key. Sounds harder than it is, here's an example:

Dude tells you to play these changes on Bb.
Major related thirds to Bb are Gb and D. As a side note, major third relations are always in sets of three. In this example, by learning them in Bb you also know to execute the changes in D and Gb. Just the order is different.

So the goal is to go to Gb and D major keys in that order (remember, you're descending!) before landing on Bb again. In total you get:

Bbmaj7 - Db7 - Gbmaj7 - A7 - Dmaj7 - F7 - Bbmaj7

To be clear, and this is where I always got confused, the above is what you can play if you see a regular I-VI-II-V-I progression over Bb major. The slight variation in Countdown is where you would play Cm7 instead of Bbmaj7 in the example above. There's also one in Giant Steps where you play full II-V's to go to each major key, say for example Em7 A7 Dmaj7 instead of just the A7 alone. It amounts to the same though so I wouldn't worry about it.

I expect no one to get any of this, but I'm glad I got it off my chest because this is one switch I'm thrilled to finally have flipped. Now to practice (read: grind) until I'm fluent in all 12 keys.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

My top played games of 2013!

I've never really made a top X list for myself at the end of a year so I thought I'd go through a few games that really stood out for me. Some of these may not have come out in 2013 but I did play them this year. Some games will be mentioned but due to them being rather fresh and frequent in other lists they'll just be mentioned without a dedicated part. I like them for largely the same reasons others do.
So without further ado and in no particular order, here's my list!

Mark of the Ninja

Probably the best ninja game I've ever played to date. Despite only being a side scrolling 2D game, Klei Entertainment managed to make stealth feel visceral. Sneaking past dudes feels rewarding, even without the floating texts adding to your score. The animation probably has a hand in this as it too is stellar. This game oozes style and polish in just about any and every way possible.
Story is often a thing that ninja games trip over but even that managed to be quite good with a surprising twist at the end. Ironically they did it so well that they had to figure out how to do DLC for the game as fans clamored for more! Sure enough, while very short and perhaps a bit overpriced despite its sweetness, they at least managed to tell a meaningful story that didn't feel entirely tacked on. If it's on sale though I can highly recommend the DLC if you liked the base game.

Totalbiscuit often praised this title for actually making you feel like a ninja (he really knows what that feels like?!) and while I had my doubts before trying it, I quickly understood what he meant and completely fell in love with this game. I believe I can echo something he said: "If you have any passing interest in ninja games and/or stealth games, buy this now!"

Uncharted 1-3..sort of

When I bought my PS3 about three years ago I did so partially with the wish to check out what all this hype was about with Uncharted. Sure, it looked pretty with decent voice acting. But it otherwise seemed rather generic. This is, IMO, mostly true for the first game of the series. Once the game introduced 'zombies' I was rather disappointed but wanted to know how the rest went on so I retired from playing it and looked to Youtube - which by the way there are some really good montages that really make the games work well as a movie, I can highly recommend it if you don't have a PS3 or plan on buying the games but have a passing interest!

Long story short, it was alright. Uncharted 2 I played entirely and that was a masterpiece. That is the game that convinced me "Ok, I get it. This is really something special." So many of the set pieces are amazing. And with an outstanding eye for detail to boot.

I'm currently in the middle of trying to finish Uncharted 3 but for some reason I find myself running in to the same problem I had with the first game. The hook, that unyielding gravitational pull to play the game isn't there for me. It is without a doubt a beautiful game that once again demonstrates Naughty Dog's understanding of the hardware they had to work with. The voice acting is splendid and the story keeps me glued to my chair. But the adhesive is absent for my hands to actually play it.
I wouldn't be surprised if I looked to youtube for this one again, because I definitely want to see how it ends!

Fire Embelm: Awakening

The first real buy for my 3DS and, together with the announcement of Pokemon coming later in 2013 and the next title of this list, one of the primary motivators to me for buying the system. I was really in the mood for a good RPG around February, especially a grid based one like this. So it was rather annoying that the European release date was as late as it was. But it was worth the wait. A fantastic cast of characters, beautiful art (cut scene animations!) and some good writing was to be found. It's also very approachable as someone who is generally horrible at games like Final Fantasy tactics by allowing you to disable perma death and setting an easier difficulty.

My only qualm with this game was probably the rather large amount of (paid) DLC they produced for it.

Luigi's Mansion 2

Although the first game scared the crap out of me (I'm very bad with scary or even spooky stuff) I loved the original NGC game. Luigi's Mansion 2 is a prime example of Nintendo's sense of level design and clever use of mechanics. Without spoiling anything, you're given a very limited set of tools to go ghost busting but the game manages to remain fresh, inventive and quite challenging throughout the entire campaign. It's a shame that I couldn't get multiplayer to work, it looked like a good hour or two of fun.
It is also within this game that I think Charles Martinez gets to flex his voice actor talents. One cannot help but smile and laugh when Luigi hums along with the music in a spooked manner.


A charming game that reminds me of the old days of DOS games in part due to its relatively poor production values. Text is portrayed as if it was stuck their with a text box from Paint. 
Being someone that is relatively bad at puzzle games I was quite intimidated by its complicated mechanics. To my surprise I got a hang of simple things like making guards open doors in their face, knocking themselves out. That and rigging their guns to ridiculous things never got old.
You can dumb problem solving down or make it rocket science as you wish, and it's really satisfying to figure out a cool way to get your way through missions.
Gunpoint also carries one of the most decent jazz soundtracks of recent history that totally fits the feel and setting of the game.

List of other Stellar games:

Last of Us
Bioshock Infinite
Tomb Raider
Tearaway - this game deserves a dedicated paragraph but this post is long enough