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Course Studied: BA Jazz

Year of Graduation: 2012

Top Career Highlights:

  • Creating and releasing the Big Bad Wolf album ‘Pond Life'
  • Playing and performing with Terence Blanchard (2016)
  • Doing my first international festival gig, with Big Bad Wolf in Graz, Austria (2017)

And hopefully much more to come...

A versatile guitarist, Mike De Souza has experience of performing with groups including Big Bad Wolf, the Phil Meadows Project and his own self-titled trio. With a strong work ethic and a high level of discipline, Mike is able to combine a successful career which combines some teaching, composition and performance activity.

We caught up with Mike to find out about the rehearsal environment and learn more about his general approach to composition.

When did your love of jazz, improvisation and composition begin?

I started composing riffs soon after first picking up the guitar, aged 12, and eventually began to write songs, and some instrumental music. I was also getting into blues and rock improvisation in my mid-teens, and discovered jazz around the time I turned 18. However, I’d say my true love of jazz only really started after I arrived at Leeds to study, a year later.

Who are your greatest musical influences?

At the moment, my main influences are Bill Frisell, Kit Downes, and Radiohead. It’s always changing though, as I grow as a musician, and check out new things.

How did studying at Leeds Conservatoire prepare you for your career as a professional musician?

It gave me time to practise, and a motivating environment in which to do it - plus inspiring classes to attend. I was constantly being pushed by my peers and teachers, and having my horizons broadened by new concepts all the time.

What projects, releases or tours do you have planned for the near future?

I’m planning on recording an album with my Trio this summer, as well as doing some performances before that. Another Big Bad Wolf album is in the pipeline, and we’ve been writing lots of new material for that. We will also be on the road, touring again with the Phil Meadows Project and recording a new album with that group very soon. 

Tell us about the various ensembles you’re involved in (e.g. Big Bad Wolf and Snooze Trio) - what’s the musical concept behind each of these groups?

Big Bad Wolf is a collaborative project, where we write the music together, by recording improvisations, and then listen back - building compositions out of what we had recorded, keeping and workshopping materials we like, and discarding the rest. The process has evolved and changed as the band’s sound has developed but that’s essentially how the music is written. The sound incorporates lots of electronics, and vocals, and is more like a rock band than a jazz quartet, with the emphasis on composition and sound, rather than improvisation. 

The ‘Mike De Souza Trio’ is all my own writing, which at the moment is exploring lots of composing specifically for the guitar, as opposed to a lead sheet type approach to jazz composition. It also incorporates lots of free improv. sections, often sandwiched between some relatively extensive and intricately composed sections. 

Big Bad Wolf consists of a slightly unconventional line up (trombone, guitar, bass and drums). What was the thinking behind that choice of instrumentation? What sound does it enable you to create as a group?

In this band I play an instrument called a bass VI, which is essentially an electric guitar tuned down an octave, so it covers the frequency range of a bass guitar, but there’s also room for lots of tenor range melody and chordal playing. Added to that, the guitar, trombone and bass VI are going through a lot of different effects pedals, plus the new addition of synth, and vocals, provided mostly by Owen Dawson. You can imagine there is a wide range of sonic possibilities, and textures to be found in that combination. It’s about really trying to explore and utilise the full range of musical possibilities that 4 creative musicians in a room can deliver.

Lots of your musical projects involve working with other Leeds Conservatoire or RAM graduates (e.g. Big Bad Wolf/the Phil Meadows Project). How important are the connections you made with other musicians during your studies?

The connections I’ve made through studying have been essential to getting me where I am today, and being on the type of musical path I am on. It’s much harder, though not impossible, to get involved in these kinds of musical projects without having attended a good jazz course, as these institutions can help connect like-minded young musicians, and instantly become part of a creative network, for life potentially. It pays to make sure you’re giving it your all - as soon as you get to your chosen place of study.

How do you prepare for rehearsals with different ensembles? What’s the practice environment like and how does it differ between each ensemble?

It’s important to know how much time you have, and what needs to be achieved by the end of the rehearsal. With Big Bad Wolf, we either set time aside for rehearsals or writing sessions. For a rehearsal, the purpose is usually to jog the memory and get a feel for a set (since none of the music is notated and is recorded on a phone instead). 

When I am the bandleader, I have to plan the rehearsal, and have realistic goals for what can be achieved in the given time, and prioritise what we need to cover in order to make the upcoming gig as comfortable as possible.

Often, as a sideman or dep, you are dealing with minimal (if any) rehearsal time, because the reality is when you’re working with in-demand musicians, it can be very hard to find the time to get everyone in the same room. Therefore, the main thing to remember is, be focused in a rehearsal, and make sure you are clear on the bigger picture, and you can iron out the details in your own time between the rehearsal and the gig.

What’s your approach to composition? How do you find the time to teach, compose and perform?

I don’t have a singular approach to composition - I think it’s natural and healthy to always be exploring new approaches, and sinking your teeth into unfamiliar sounds when composing. There’s definitely a balance to be found between pushing yourself out of your musical comfort zone, and following the instinctual pull of your inner ear in the creative process. I’d say the exact same thing applies to improvisation, and the type of balance you strike is a very subjective and personal thing, but will become part of what defines you as an artist. At the moment I am trying to explore different ways of incorporating improvisation into through-composed forms, and trying to find new ways to develop thematic materials through the tools and devices I have at my disposal in a Trio setting.

In terms of the balancing of teaching, performing and composing, it all comes down to prioritisation. The nature of teaching is that it happens at the same time most weeks, and I teach two days a week, so I need to fit rehearsals around that. The performing is mostly an evening thing so fortunately it rarely gets in the way of teaching. And composition, along with my daily instrumental practise, is something I do the rest of the time. 

What was it like working with Terrence Blanchard - one of the most well-known trumpeters and composers on the US jazz scene?

It was a real honour to get the opportunity to work with such an amazing musician, I learnt a lot, had a great time, and got roasted by him for sure! He’s got that very American approach of throwing you in at the deep end and making you swim, which was great!

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Follow this link to find out more about Big Bad Wolf via their website. Alternatively, click here to follow Mike on Twitter. 

Learn more about our BA (Hons) Music (Jazz) – here.

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