by Ian Mann
December 28, 2023
An album that is rich in terms of colour and texture, but which is also powerful and dynamic when required.
Mike De Souza
(Fresh Sound New Talent – FSNT 658)
Mike De Souza – guitar, Rupert Cox – piano, Fender Rhodes, synths, Alec Harper – tenor sax, Huw V Williams – double bass, Jay Davis – drums
Guitarist and composer Mike De Souza is the latest British jazz musician to release an album on the prestigious Barcelona based record label Fresh Sound New Talent.
First founded by Jordi Pujol in 1983 Fresh Sound Records initially specialised in re-releasing historic and out of print jazz recordings.
In 1992 Pujol started the New Talent arm of the operation and began by documenting the music of the then young musicians who were performing regularly at Small’s Jazz Club in New York City. Some of these have gone on to become major stars of the international jazz firmament, among them pianists Brad Mehldau, Robert Glasper and Kris Davis, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, but they all got their first break with FSNT.
The label has also released music by European musicians and in recent years Pujol’s attention has increasingly been drawn to the fertile London jazz scene. Young British musicians to have released albums on FSNT include saxophonists Alex Merritt, Sam Braysher and Alex Hitchcock, trumpeter Steve Fishwick and guitarist Tom Ollendorff. Indeed the 30th anniversary of FSNT was marked by the release of “Common Threads”, an album credited to The Fresh Sound Ensemble, an aggregation comprised entirely of young London based musicians.
Mike De Souza studied at Leeds College of Music and at London’s Royal Academy of Music. His guitar tutors have included such leading exponents of the instrument as John Parricelli, Mike Outram, Mike Walker, Phil Robson and Gilad Hekselman. Other musicians with whom he has studied include saxophonists Iain Ballamy and Will Vinson, pianist Nikki Iles and vibraphonist Matt Moran.
As a sideman he has worked with US trumpeter Terence Blanchard as part of the Inner City Ensemble. Other regular engagements have included work with groups led by three different saxophonists; Phil Meadows’ Beware of the Bear, Martin Speake’s Charukesi and Ronan Perrett’s Twospeak. He has also recorded with an ensemble led by trombonist and composer Alex Paxton.
De Souza first came to my attention as a member of the quartet Big Bad Wolf, appearing on that group’s critically acclaimed début album “Pond Life” (2017).
Review here; http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/big-bad-wolf-pond-life/
Big Bad Wolf also features guitarist (and occasional vocalist) Rob Luft, trombonist Owen Dawson and drummer Jay Davis. On “Pond Life” De Souza played a Fender Bass VI electric bass, but he primarily regards himself as a guitarist.
It’s in his capacity as a guitarist and composer that De Souza has established his solo career, beginning with the EP “Road Fork” (2018). This saw De Souza leading a trio featuring Huw V Williams on bass and Jay Davis on drums and this line up also featured on the full length album “Slow Burn” (2019), which also included a brief cameo from Sam Rapley on bass clarinet. “Slow Burn” represented an impressive leadership debut and my review of the album, which serves as the source for much of the above biographical material, can be found here;
For his second album and his FSNT debut De Souza has expanded his group to a quintet with himself, Williams and Davis joined by Rupert Cox on piano, electric piano and synthesiser and Rupert Cox on tenor sax. Much of the material was written during the 2020 Covid lockdowns, a period that De Souza describes as “a difficult time for us all”, but one that offered him the “artistic silver linings” of being able to “explore new guitar techniques and concepts” and to “immerse myself deeply in my compositional process for hours each day, without distraction”.
During this period De Souza began to experiment with long form compositions in which solo passages connect with more fully composed written sections. Much of the music was written before the band was put together, with Williams and Davis the natural choice for the rhythm section.
Cox, who De Souza had known at the Royal Academy, was chosen due to his abilities as “an improvising pianist who also had experience in crafting synthesised sounds”.
The final piece in the jigsaw was Harper, a musician whose playing De Souza had “admired for many years due to his sound, melodic personality and his breadth of experience as an improviser within the jazz tradition and beyond”.
The album was recorded over the course of a single day at London’s Fish Factory Studios in August 2021 with Benedic Lamdin engineering. The album was then mastered by Frank Merritt at The Carvery Studio with De Souza himself credited as the producer.
The album features six substantial, fairly lengthy, compositions and commences with “Clementine Clouds”, which sounds as atmospheric as its title might suggest. This commences with De Souza’s airy acoustic guitar melody floating above the gently underpinning sounds of a minimalist inspired ostinato. Other elements are gradually added, including brushed drums and wispy tenor sax. Cox is featured on both synthesiser and acoustic piano and contributes a beguiling solo on the latter. As the music gradually gathers momentum Harper adds a melodic tenor sax solo, underscored by increasingly busy drumming and the leader’s use of a ‘freeze pedal’ to create soundwashes of ‘ethereal and sustaining chords’. There’s a painterly quality about the writing here, which is given expression by an understated, but highly skilled, group performance.
“Looking Up” draws inspiration from folk-rock and is another highly melodic piece, introduced by the sounds of guitar and double bass, with Williams subsequently featuring as a soloist. The sounds of Fender Rhodes, tenor sax and drums are also featured with subsequent solos coming from the leader on electric guitar and Cox on synthesiser. The latter deploys an exotic mix of retro keyboard sounds that sometimes remind me of the ‘Canterbury Scene’ bands, but with more modern influences also evident.
At a little under nine minutes in duration “Gently Wake” is the lengthiest piece on the album and emerges from the sounds of plucked double bass and melodic tenor sax, with further layers gradually added, incorporating the sounds of drums, electric guitar and acoustic piano, with Cox subsequently adding synth sounds to the equation. De Souza’s skill at layering and orchestrating his music and allowing it to develop incrementally has drawn justified comparisons with Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays and there are plenty of these qualities here as the music gradually develops over the course of four minutes or so prior to the first full length solos. A sparkling acoustic piano cameo from Cox is followed by a spiralling electric guitar solo from the leader that borrows from both jazz and rock. This is an episodic piece that offers plenty of dynamic contrasts and a myriad of twists and turns. De Souza’s solo is followed by a short guitar / tenor sax duet, out of which emerges Harper’s solo, with Cox on piano operating as his foil, much as he did for De Souza’s solo. Impressive stuff.
“Paper Plane Pilot” is very much a showcase for De Souza, a riff driven piece that sees him deploying ‘hammering on techniques’ inspired by fellow guitarists Reinier Baas and Stanley Jordan. It’s the most dynamic, fusion-esque piece thus far, with the leader really tearing it up on electric guitar. Williams and Davis also feature strongly while Cox deploys a mix of acoustic and electric keyboard sounds.
De Souza’s partner, Diana, helped him to name a number of the pieces. Among these was the title track, the structure of which reminded her of the three part life cycle of a butterfly. For De Souza the title also reflects the process of bringing the album to its finished state. Based around a repeating eight bar ostinato the quintet develop the melody, taking it through a series of variations. Williams is briefly featured on melodic bass and Cox more substantially on flowingly lyrical acoustic piano. Finally the music takes joyous flight with Harper’s tenor sax and the leader’s guitar, as they swoop, soar and dovetail, before eventually gently floating back down to earth.
The album concludes with “Headbanger Blissout”, the title of which rather gives the game away. We’re back into robust, fusion style territory with De Souza again rocking out, guitar hero style. But as one might suspect there’s also a good deal of sophistication among the power chords, with the other members of the quintet also impressing. Williams is featured again, more expansively this time, before eventually handing back to the leader. Cox deploys a mix of electric and acoustic keyboard sounds, Harper combines well with De Souza’s guitar and enjoys a fluent solo of his own, while Davis is a dynamic and intelligent presence behind the kit.
“Chrysalis” sees De Souza building on the success of “Slow Burn” and utilising the expanded band line up to good effect to create an album that is rich in terms of colour and texture, but which is also powerful and dynamic when required. Although the leader’s guitar is at the heart of the music it’s not a ‘guitar’ album as such and De Souza is not overbearingly dominant. This is a hand picked band and the sound of the overall ensemble is both important and impressive throughout.
As alluded to previously the writing is intelligent and varied and De Souza impresses as a composer, arranger and orchestrator. He exhibits an impressive command of colour, texture and dynamics, and most importantly melody. The two high energy fusion tacks, “Paper Plane Pilot” and “Headbanger Blissout” are surely destined to become live favourites but the other pieces are also excellent, with plenty of twists and turns to engage and delight the listener.
“Chrysalis” appears to have received unanimous critical acclaim, and The Jazzmann can only add his voice to the chorus. It’s an album that is likely to appeal to Metheny fans and also to admirers of Rob Luft, De Souza’s colleague from Big Bad Wolf. There may be similarities between Luft and De Souza but given the fact that both were in the same band that’s really not so surprising.
Luft is one of the biggest success stories of British jazz in recent years, a musician and composer with an increasingly high profile and an international reputation. On the evidence of “Chrysalis” similar accolades beckon for Mike De Souza.
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