Ottawa jazz fans should recall that guitarist Mike Rud used to live here a decade ago, doing low-key gigs at Café Paradiso and elsewhere when he wasn’t busy raising his daughters.
Rud’s move to Montreal in 2007 helped vault him to another musical level. Last year, his album Notes On Montreal, a crowd-funded, independently released, labour of love, won the Juno award for best jazz vocal album.
That underdog victory was several years in the making, requiring Rud to read Montreal-centric books by Mordecai Richler, Leonard Cohen and others, before he crafted music, lyrics and arrangements that featured jazz group plus a small string section, all to showcase Toronto singer Dahlen’s pure voice.
This Saturday night, Rud, 47, and Dahlen present an intimate duo take on Notes On Montreal in the NAC Fourth Stage as part of the NAC Presents series. Below, Rud elaborates on the exertions of making his breakout recording and what it’s meant for him.
Were you surprised when Notes on Montreal won a Juno?
We were pretty surprised. You’ve got great competition. So when they announced it, it was kind of otherworldly.
I grew up Canadian. A Juno award was something you could go a whole, very productive career with the expectation of never receiving. Still floating from that. Grateful to my team.
What has the Juno win meant for you?
Emotionally, it’s meant that after going through that whole process, I felt less alone in the validity of my artistic imagination.
Once a student asked me, around 2010, why I hadn’t published in so long. I explained the premise of Notes On Montreal to him, and he began to laugh! I don’t blame him. “I’m reading novels set in Montreal, writing singer-songwriter-style jazz around those themes, and scoring it for string quartet, rhythm section, and voice. Then I’ll blow on top of it.” It doesn’t sound all that plausible. I somewhat feared his response would be the norm. It wasn’t. The award set the seal on that certainty for me. Like “Do what you do, Mike. That’s your job with this stuff.”
Career-wise, it took what could have been a very obscure project and made it much, much easier to book. We toured the West, we played an amazing concert at Montreal’s Lion D’Or, we played with the Orchestre National de Jazz de Montreal, and we’ll be playing with the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra in March. Of course the NAC gig is a major plus as well. I’m generally kind of a jobbing jam-session-ish straight ahead Grant Green lover, but it’s awfully nice to be able to do something so much my own for so many listeners. There were other shows too, well attended, probably because of that win.
Give me a rundown of the process that led to the creation of Notes On Montreal. What was the initial spark that fired and said to you, “Hey! This could be a project?” What was involved in the researching, the writing of the music, the writing of the lyrics, and the writing of the string arrangements?
I wrote this as a passion in Montreal in 1997, and Sienna sang it:
And for years I meant to return to the format of Sienna plus strings, as a way to really say something from the heart.
In 2009, having read a fair bit of Montreal-based fiction, I found myself thinking about Leonard Cohen’s first novel (The Favorite Game), how it paints the city, and how much I love when a story is set here in Montreal. They were shooting the film adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version down the block from my apartment on Parc Avenue at the time, when it hit me — I’ve finally found an album-length premise.
I started reading Michel Tremblay, Dany Laferrière, Richler, et al, and taking a series of mammoth walks around the city, meditating about the work. A good deal of the tunes were written in my head while I walked.
I spent most of 2009 and 2010 reading and trying to come up with core concepts for songs and 2011 and 2012 were about writing the string arrangements, and 2012 was also about teaching the material to the rhythm section by ear, and fundraising. Also pre-production.
For years I meant to return to the format of Sienna Dahlen plus strings, as a way to really say something from the heart. Sienna was in Toronto. I sent her lead sheets (melody, harmony, lyrics) but I also recorded myself doing the material and sent it to her so she could adjust the keys. Paul Johnston, the producer, was on board by this point, helping design the logistics of how you do a Lucas-film-scaled thing on a jazz musician’s budget.
[Rud omits to mention that his project was crowd-funded. Here is the pitch video that helped launch the project — PH]
Why did you choose Sienna Dahlen to be the voice of your project?
I tend to go with my gut and choose people I just love. The hang has to be good. She’s really got something special in her personality.
On top of that, I can’t think of anyone who puts a lyric across like she can. She knows how to make a song sound, paradoxically, totally simple and clear, and yet she’s also always doing it differently. More than anyone else I know, she has a way of singing where you hear her and say, “Oh yeah, that’s clearly how that song should go.” Then you hear her do it differently and again you say, “Oh yeah, that’s how that song should go.” I think she has an enormous expertise at bringing the song out, partially because she writes so much herself.
Also, she can sing a standard and improvise on it with the very best of them.
What happens to the music of Notes On Montreal when it’s rendered by the duo of you and Sienna?
We tend to change things up, I notice. The relationship between us has always been quite special that way. We played a lot of duo together in restaurants 15 years back, and it was then that I learned what a flexible, spontaneous singer she is. When we play duo now, that continues.
For example, several months back, we played at Cafe Resonance, and Sienna suggested we do Streetcar 55, a train-beat country tune, as a jazz waltz. Man, does that ever work. So we’ll see. We’ll rehearse, but the heart of the thing is the spontaneity. I’ll probably be doing a few of my solo tunes where I sing as well. Tosses things up.
You’re on a double bill with David Braid and the Penderecki String Quartet. What do you think of David as a musician and person?
I met David at a composers’ workshop a few years back. It was clear that this was someone with a transcendent understanding of music. His solo playing, particularly, was jaw-dropping.
When I was a kid, I would confuse the word “musician” with the word “magician.” He re-blurred that line for me. He strikes me as a super nice guy as well.
Thanks to his interest in it, we’ve been able to play together a bit since then at the Rex in Toronto, and will again on April 11 with Kelly Jefferson. I feel so privileged for that chance.