This fall, Montreal guitarist Mike Bruzzese will be launching on the Bent River label his first opus, Skyhook, an album made of mostly original tunes, recorded with some of the town’s most talented musicians from many generations. This is what he had to say about his background, and his musical approach in anticipation for D Day.
The least we could say about Montreal guitarist Mike Bruzzese is that the young McGill graduate grew up in a musical environment. At home, his father had a formidable stereo system and a massive collection of records to play on it. So very early in his life, Mike heard a lot of music, all kinds of music actually: jazz, obviously, as well as a wide variety of styles Mike would probably not have been exposed to otherwise. Also, his uncle Vince Bruzzese being the founder of Totem Acoustic, Mike learned very early on about audiophile gear, high fidelity speakers and all such things.
Mike Bruzzese got his first guitar at twelve, all wrapped up under the Christmas tree. I had asked for it because my best friend at the time had a guitar and I wanted to play as well. One wonders why Mike, having heard every musical style from classical to pop, decided to opt for jazz. Actually, when I was in high school, I was into rock music, even though some of my friends were more interested in jazz. Then, at sixteen, I got reinvested in that and, I don’t know, I kinda felt really connected to it, because I used to hear it a lot as a kid.
In terms of guitarists or other instrumentalists, Mike Bruzzese readily recognizes he’s had many role models as he was searching for his own voice as a musician. My main guitar influences are Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessell, all the greats. Yet, I think John Coltrane also had a great impact on me. One could guess Saxophone Supreme must have left his mark on Bruzzese, considering the medley of Coltrane’s After the Rain and Transition that he and his band recorded on Skyhook.
Bruzzese acknowledges what he got from each one of those early mentors. I just love Grant Green melodic approach. On my album, I tried to sound almost like a singer or a horn player, just like Green. I wanted the piano to take care of all the harmony, so I could be able to sing with my guitar. Wes Montgomery for me is like the full package, in terms of chords, melody, soloing; in a sense, he is the perfect guitar player. Barney Kessel’s playing had a very raw quality that I really dig, as much as his mastery of chords, I would say.” As for Coltrane, every jazz enthusiast knows how his shadow still looms over the music history. It is so hard to channel as much energy on the guitar as he blew into his horn. A few guitarists have managed to do so, Sonny Greenwich for instance had that Coltrane energy. It’s a big challenge, something from me to strive for. I certainly tried to tap into this and maybe someday I’ll get there.
Skyhook, Mike Bruzzese’s debut album, was recorded in February 2022 but the guitarist had been composing for a few months prior to the sessions. It was really a dream come true to get all these musicians together for two days at Planet Studios, to play my music with them. Clearly, Bruzzese is a gigantic fan of each of his collaborators, whether it’s pianist Gentiane MG (former Révélation Radio-Canada Jazz and a rising star herself on the contemporary Canadian jazz scene), legendary bassist Ira Coleman and drummer extraordinaire Michel Lambert.
Gentiane, I’ve known for a few years and I’ve always appreciated her playing. When I was writing the music for the album, there was a lot of rubato sections that I thought she would be perfect for. Ira Coleman was one of my heroes on bass, such an incredible player; I met him at McGill, he was one of the best teachers I had there, and it felt just surreal to have him on my record. It was an honor and a humbling experience, just to see how he works in the studio.
Speaking from a strictly rhythmic point of view, Bruzzese concedes there’s a lot of different grooves on Skyhook and credits drummer Lambert’s virtuosity for pulling it off. I also studied with him at McGill; and ever since the first time I heard him play, he has been one of my favorite drummers. His time his so great. To be able to record with such a musician, gifted with such a unique approach, meant a lot to me.
Featured on just one tune, Even When I’m Dreaming, is singer Caity Gyorgy, a good friend of Bruzzese’s, who’s on the upswing, having recently collaborated with trumpeter Joe Sullivan, double bassist Marshal Herridge and pianist and arranger Scott Bradley‘s famous Postmodern Jukebox and having won the Juno for jazz vocal album of the year last Spring. I met Caity while finishing my master’s degree. She’s an incredible source of inspiration, one of my favorite singers. Asked about his words for the song, the guitarist admits he’d never written any lyrics before, but that was something I wanted to try. For that, I was inspired by André White who wrote lyrics on one of his albums; and I remember thinking they were so beautiful. Naturally, the aspiring songwriter is very satisfied with his friend’s work on that track, which was issued as a single before the album’s release. She really made it come to life.
Most of the material on Skyhook bear Mike Bruzzese’s signature, except for one standard from the Great American Songbook and the medley of Coltrane’s themes. Regarding Rodgers and Hart’s I Could Write A Book, I was always fond of that melody. I wanted to make my own arrangement of it; obviously, I’m still very much inspired by Coltrane and his use of modes, so between every chorus of the tune a modal section on which we could really build upon and stretch out. I think we managed a nice mix between the chords of the song and the modal passages I added. As for After the Rain / Transition, having already stated his infinite admiration for Coltrane’s oeuvre, Bruzzese reminisces about playing the first theme relentlessly, then realizing he could seamlessly move into the second one. So, I brought it in the studio and the musicians and I worked on it for a while, did a number of takes before it ended up becoming something else.
While he chose to record his own original compositions, the guitarist will always have a special spot in his heart for the standard repertoire. I just love playing standards; they’re an integral part of being a jazz musician. I try to find my own stuff when I’m playing them, use them in a way to explore your language.
When it comes to discussing his inspiration, Mike Bruzzese isn’t shy about revealing the main source from which his compositions came. Two tracks of the album (titled Roots of the Poet and Roots of the Seeker) are related in a sense; they are both an exploration of my background. The first one I wrote for my paternal grandfather who was a poet and a truly creative guy, who alas never got to publish his writings. I guess I inherited my creative side from him, so that’s why I dedicated this tune to him. And Roots of the Seeker is for my maternal grandmother, an incredibly special woman, one of the proudest, of the most peaceful people I’ve ever met. From her I got something in terms of my emotions. I needed to write those two pieces to pay tribute to them.
As for his impression of the contemporary Montreal jazz scene, it is mostly enthusiastic. Well, I think there are tons talented musicians here, tons of players that have their own voice. I think it’s a great scene and it’s only getting better and better.
No doubt the advent of Mike Bruzzese on the said scene will contribute to this constant improvement. Skyhook, his upcoming first album, will be officially released in October, during the OFF Festival de jazz de Montréal on the Bent River label.