Reading, writing, and Mike Rud converge in Montreal
Not many jazz CDs come with a reading list, but Mike Rud’s 2014 Juno-winning Notes on Montreal is no ordinary undertaking. To begin with, it’s a jazz-vocal album, featuring singer Sienna Dahlen, that’s full of high-quality original compositions rather than offcuts from the Great American Songbook. On top of that, Rud has found a creative way to use a string quartet in addition to an all-star cast of Quebec jazz musicians. Most intriguing, though, is that every song references the rich body of literature that has grown up around the great city on the St. Lawrence.
“I tend to think that the topsoil here is deep because it’s older,” the guitarist and composer explains by phone, from his flat in Montreal’s trendy Mile End neighbourhood. “There’s a very large walkable downtown core with older buildings than you find in much of the rest of Canada, and they tend not to tear them down as fast. It feels like there’s more ghosts here. That’s the feeling that inspired this record. I’ve lived in Vancouver and Edmonton and Victoria and Ottawa, and I’ve always felt just a tiny bit more haunted around this place, and I think the literature that I went to for inspiration kind of reflects that.”
Local listeners who remember the peripatetic musician might be among those most surprised by Notes on Montreal. Here, Rud was considered an accomplished but not especially innovative player—”more or less a bebop guitarist”, as he puts it. The whole time he was on the West Coast, though, he was cultivating a hidden passion for song, penning tunes that were “stabs at trying to sound like Randy Newman or Elvis Costello or something like that”.
“I never quite decided to go public with them,” he admits. “And then around the time I moved to Vancouver I got religion about reading—not necessarily fiction, but reading in general. That led to this fun-filled foray into almost becoming a psychologist: after Vancouver I moved to Ottawa and took a couple of years of psychology, and then came back to Montreal to work in a cognitive-neuroscience lab, studying music cognition. I was just about to begin graduate school at McGill, and realized I was just not a research scientist—which kind of led me to go, like, ‘Whoa, I seem to have picked up the habit of being able to read and think. How can I mix that together with everything else I love, like Montreal and jazz music?’ ”
Writing Notes on Montreal was the answer, and one of the record’s strengths is that it explores several different approaches to the city, its authors, and its ghosts. Kickoff track “Smoked Meat and the Main”, for instance, finds Rud listening in on a boozy Mordecai Richler; “As the Cross Looks On” jazzes up indie rock to offer “a kind of cynical look” at the student crowd; “Florentine” is a sketch of the central character from Gabrielle Roy’s novel The Tin Flute.
Rud credits his outsider status—and frequent long walks around the city—with informing his varied perspective. “I very much feel at home in this place, but in the role of the permanent neutral onlooker,” he says. “So that’s one reason why I went through the prism of people’s books: I wanted to see how people who had impeccable credentials as Montrealers, whether they were from the Jewish community here or the francophone community here or what have you, viewed this place. I saw what they had written that resonated for me, and then used that to get inspired.
“A good trick I committed to early on,” he adds, “was just engaging the literature in whatever way would lead to a song that made me happy.”
And if Rud sounds happy today, which he does, there’s good reason for that.
Mike Rud, his band, and the Babayaga String Quartet present Notes on Montreal at Pyatt Hall on Friday (November 14).