Matteo Mancuso hails from Palermo, Sicily, and with 142k subscribers to his YouTube channel, he’s something of an online sensation. Too often we become blasé about whizz-kid guitarists, shredding away on some piece Eddie Van Halen didn’t create until he was in his 20s’. Online videos, tabs and teachers make it easy today, we scream; it’s not like when we had to lift the needle endlessly because listening back to vinyl was the only option.
Fair enough, but Mancuso appears to have come up via the traditionally schooled route, and was playing jazz festivals at 12 years old. Classical music, including opera, aren’t just for the elite in that part of the Mediterranean, partly explaining why so many 70s progressive rock bands gained early reputations the Italian provinces. Influenced by his father, and with an admiration for Django Reinhart, Mancuso appears to have taken a left turn and discovered jazz rock and fusion, and that’s led to this, his debut instrumental guitar album.
Instrumental rock can wind itself up its own backside with too much technique and not enough melody. Ironically, such musicians follow the route fusion had gone before, where once bands like Weather Report played arenas, individual players came to corner only niche markets.
Listening to Matteo Mancuso across The Journey, alongside some of those Youtube performances, the impression I get is he’s in it for the love of music, and wants to share that rather than just bedazzle us. Yes, there are those speedy legato phrases we now come to expect, but the overall sound effected is one of tone, melody, discovery and progression… Quite a few are hummable.
Playing both acoustic and electric guitar, but favouring the latter, his right-hand fingering rather than plucking, he guides us through nine numbers that range from jazz rock with progressive changes, some more specific electric jazz, a few blues key changes and some semi-rock in places. He is ably assisted by Stefano India and Riccardo Oliva who play bass, Guiseppe Bruno and Gianluca Pellerito on drums, Guiseppe Vasapolli keyboards, and his father, Vincenzo Mancuso, joins him on ‘Polifemo’ and ‘Blues For John’, co-written by the pair.
While the pieces vary in length, style and structure, and it’s always hard to gauge the emotional intent behind an instrumental whereby the title could be arbitrarily random. However, based on titles alone, both opening and final track appear to bridge the album’s overall intent.
‘Silkroad’ starts its trek, beating down that well-worn Eastern path Led Zeppelin traversed in ancient times, and just as I’m about to scream “Not another pretentious take on ‘Kashmir!’, the sternly driven rhythm takes a sudden detour. Slowly, somewhat tired if not cursory, guitar notes bend sideways intrigued, but dissipating into breaking arpeggios and scales as if the desert heat beating down were too much. Three quarters through there’s a touch of the blues, then a flicker of jazz, but ultimately a propulsive progress undertow ensues before dissipating like an aural mirage.
It’s followed by a decidedly mellow skipping jazz beat on ‘Polifemo’, over which lyrical guitar and more than elegant piano lead the way. Half-way through the tempo sharpens, the guitar more jazz fusion like in its attack, with certain key changes, if not phrases, reminiscent of early Jan Akkerman. The title is shared with an opera by Nicola Porpora, its libretto by Paolo Rolli relating the story of the Cyclops blinded by Odysseus – Or at least that’s what the internet informs me, since being a co-write by the Mancusos it’s not a rearrangement of the classical work.
Rhythmically solid, between drum rolls and more incessant beats, while the bass changes gear sitting behnd the driver’s seat, guitars and keyboards soar where they please on ‘Falcon Flight’ where it is slightly reminiscent of Al Di Meola, or a less heaven-bound John McLaughlin. ‘Open Fields’ then evokes warm summer walks as chords unfold then the notes within curl back. There are clear jazz tones here, with precise playing taking its sweet time before jazz rocking, with emphasis on the latter, joyfully as notes shred out before fading away.
‘Drop D’ has melodies that leap here and there while power chords crash away, between choice chugging. Generally upbeat, there’s a touch of acoustic mystery over which he bass takes lead on the melody, before return to its main theme with choice rockier statements, then all but going for the prog metal root amidst toned shredding and controlled feedback. Apparently, his teenage years were spent listening to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Yes, ELP and Dream Theater, and this, the first number written for the album tips its hat to them. By contrast, ‘Blues For John’, features rather classic jazz runs and soling over a general blues theme, then it’s back in for ‘Time To Leave’, where notes imply a tumbling, stumbling, shy, individua waiting their turn to politely say goodbye, only to be caught in unexpected conversations, asides, and becoming ever more involved as if that act is never actually going to happen.
‘Samba Party’ isn’t exactly what it says on the tin, but a bright and shiny jazz rocker, particularly when the tempo shifts into gear where the guitar itself heads into Satriani territory.
Framing the album’s closure is The Journey. Here acoustics play their part, the overall impression is of being a little weary as the last few miles are in sight, but with much to contemplate and still to discuss before reaching that goal.
A young, talented guitarist. While his spiritual but his heart lies in the 70’s pioneers of jazz fusion, his playing has the voicings and melodic sense of more modern instrumental rock guitarists; His choice of notes, and the phrases plucked are not derivative.
Overall, this is happy sounding music, ideal for intimate outdoor events; albeit his career trajectory has already taken him much further.
- Review by Paul H Birch.
- The Journey is released via The Players Club/Mascot Label Group on 21st July 2023.
- Official Website
- Falcon Flight
- Open Fields
- Drop D
- Blues For John
- Time To Leave
- Samba Party
- The Journey