This interview was done for Jon McCaslin’s excellent blog “Four on the Floor”
I first met guitarist Mike Rud around the mid 1990s during my time at McGill University. Mike had already studied at McGill, spent some time in New York and had returned to Montreal to complete his Master’s degree. His impact and presence in the Jazz area at the school was significant and his influence as a musician and as a person has long been a huge influence on me. I have always found a great deal of inspiration from his high level of musicianship and deep sense of swing. A memorable highlight for me was playing a steady, five night a week trio gig for several months with Mike and bassist Carlo Petrovitch at the Hotel Saskatchewan during the summer of 1997. I really learned a lot that summer (including how to really play the brushes!)
Mike recently released an album of original music inspired by classic Canadian literature that reflects the city of Montreal. Mike’s admiration for the city of Montreal is profound and it’s very impressive how he’s been able to translate that love affair into lyrics and song. I was very excited to see this project come to life and it’s been on steady rotation in my house since it arrived in my mailbox.
Mike was kind enough to take some time to answer some of my questions and share some very thoughtful answers about his own journey and his latest release.
1) What can you tell us about your musical background? How did you learn to play Jazz guitar?
I did a lot of school. Grant MacEwan (no University but back then Community College) gave me an exacting, demanding curriculum for guitar and musicianship (late 80s). Then McGill University was a great way to focus on jazz and also the classical roots of harmony and structure. I studied privately as well at Banff in 94 with Jim Hall, and took more lessons with him in NewYork as well as with Jack Wilkins. Back to McGill for a Masters after that. But most of all I learned from hearing performances and recordings. And of course from friends.
2) Who are your musical influences and why? Who are your favorite guitarists?
As a jazz guitar player I’m influenced by George Benson, Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, Jim Hall, and a small army of others. With Benson, Wes and Grant, it’s because of something gritty and bluesy in their sound. Earthy but still sophisticated. I love Eric Gale for that reason too. It’s gutsy but not anti-intellectual.
On a pianoless trio gig, I feel especially inspired by Ed Bickert and Jim Hall. With Jim Hall and EdBickert (and they are quite different fro m one-another), it’s something about how they bring the arranging concerns of a piano onto the guitar without invoking straigh-up piano envy. They work with what really IS there in the guitar and preserve it, while introducing an intimate, economical miniature of what pianists typically articulate more grandly.
As a songwriter, I idolize the storytelling guys who invoke characters and situations, like Randy Newman, Jim Croce, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello…but one common thread with this and the jazz side of things is that there’s still a strong emphasis on tonal harmony, close to how it appears in the Tin Pan Alley music. I was born in the late 60s and spent my first few years playing only Beatles tunes, so a pop and 70’s television-theme sensibility informs what I do as a writer, but it’s definitely not rock and roll writing.
3) Name your top 10 favorite albums and how they have influenced you.
In no order, here are ten that come immediately to mind. Mixed bag…
1) Charlie Christian. It’s almost only one record. Seriously there are like, 7 lps of him in existence. Maybe the most burning thing is “Swing To Bop” from the Minton’s sessions. The version of (I think) “Breakfast Feud” from the Goodman sides is an absolute MARVEL of time, feel, ideas and my God, SOUND. Silky yet authoritative. Died at around 23? What a loss. Might be the best guitar player ever.
While I continue writing I’m just going to put it on my headset here.
Ahhhh. That’s better.
2) Willie Nelson: Stardust. All understated, harmonically very simple versions of standards. Not being done overly cleverly or hiply. Great respect for the music. Great place to learn the lyrics too.
3) Chet Baker Sings It Could Happen to You. Similar resource for learning tunes. Memorable. Sweet.
4) Queen: A Night at the Opera. Can you imagine creating something like that? Unbelievably musical. Staggering.
5) George Benson “It’s Uptown” and “The George Benson Cookbook”. For sheer burn. I lifted a lot from these 25 years ago. They form an archetype of bebop (more really bluesy-post-bop) guitar playing.
6) Jim Hall “Live” …particularly the new stuff released from the same nights. This has Don Thompson and Terry Clarke. There is too much to say about this record. It has an emotional resonance and an artistic resourcefulness and uniqueness that put it for me on a par with just about any other piece of art. I could have named a few other recordings of his that do this to me. But this one everyone does agree unequivocally. All the extra takes recently made available are every bit as inspired and meaningful as the tracks that were on the original LP. The magic in his tone. The interplay. The rhythmic presence and depth from his left hand legato. It touches me to my core.
7) The best of Jim Croce. Such economic and powerful interplay between musical devices, characterization and delivery. I don’t think songwriters come a lot more solid
8) Randy Newman Creates Something New Under The Sun. The arranging, the lyrics, the originality.
10) Anything by the Beatles. Seriously. Imagine creating “Help” Imagine recording that live off the floor. I certainly can’t.
4) What sort of things are you practicing on the guitar and developing as a composer these days?
Now that you mention it, I realize I’ve been practising a lot lately. Trying to play in seven without getting lost or tight-feeling. Mostly Cherokee and Moment’s Notice. Slow. Looking a lot at restructuring the whole approach to improv, to make groove, ease, and swing the first priority. This leads me to looking at the left hand. A lot seems to come from there, and from body position. These seem to have counterintuitively high impacts downstream on time-feel and idea flow. Jim H and Wes M are really interesting contrasting examples to me. They hold the instruments totally differently, execute very differently, and the whole fabric of their sound, texture and feeling is very different. Yet they both get where they want to, in ways that present compelling, transfixing, music.
But also I’m working on a brand new solo guitar and voice act, which means overhauling my playing to some extent. Since this means a LOT of practicing, I recently acquired a Telecaster with low action so I can play way more every day. I won’t say too much about the new music, other than that I want it to be VERY rehearsed and quite entertaining. Tired of jazz being thought of as an arrogant musical taste, only for initiates and elites. I’m also tired of populism meaning brainlessness. So I’m working on the singing, the writing, and some kind of original take on solo guitar. It’s not Charlie Hunter, Joe Pass, or Tuck Andress, dearly though I might love to be able to play that way. I’ll be rolling this out over the next couple of years as an economical and creative counterweight to this large ensemble work, Notes on Montreal, that’s taken the last several years.
5) In addition to being a great guitarist, you are also very well read and have a curious mind that extends to various subjects. How has this influenced your guitar playing? How have these influences inspired your compositions?
Thank you Jon! It’s hard to pin down the relationship between these things. They’re all things that bring me joy. Jazz music brought me into observing my mental processes while improvising, and that got me curious about mind/brain. So I spent 3 years trying to become a cognitive scientist. And many years before that reading a lot of philosophy, looking for ways to think about these topics.
How do we think of melodies and rhythms? What’s the best way to manage your mental and emotional resources while you improvise? I’m aware of course, that many jazz musicians are drawn to the grand Eastern contemplative traditions of mindfulness to come up with practical solutions to these problems. But I can’t help but be drawn to the scientific question of how three pounds of meat in your skull is capable of this astonishing feat. It’s really almost more that improvising jazz was the front door to these questions; jazz influenced me to get into science and philosophy more than the other way around, I would say.
But yes, studying the biological bases of music has lead me to approach practicing and playing and teaching differently. Overall it’s made me more sensitive to the fact that music is a part of our genetic heritage as humans, and is a kind of birthright, possibly a precondition for mental health. The writer and player in me can be quite doctrinaire and moralistic about what is good and bad in music. But the default perspective of neuroscience is not that way. It’s descriptive, not prescriptive –that is, there can be no wrong music. So it’s made me more tolerant, I think, of variability in how students come to the music. If someone picks completely differently from me, but they can get the music out, and it’s not hurting them, I’m less likely to try changing them.
6) Years ago you had the opportunity to spend some concentrated time in New York City, studying with Jim Hall. What did you learn from this whole experience?
Two things loom large: one is to communicate a melody simply and directly. This is not easy. It might be the hardest thing. The next was the impression of genuine respect he has for individual students. He is willing to work with what is there; not make you into a clone of him.
Musically I can think of a few really big things. One is that his over all dynamic level is qieter than most–closer to a conversation level. This has a few important effects. One is that it makes a wider variety of sound colours come out of his and others’ instruments. Another is that when he goes up to a F or FF, it suddenly feels like more of an event.
Another thing I can think of is that, where many musicians seem to make the up-tempo tune the highlight of the set, he seems to use it to set up the ballad. And lookout for that ballad! I think of him as a ballad player who is up there with any ballad player on any instrument in the history of that music, that I’ve heard. Like a Coleman Hawkins or something. So distinctive, so much substance.
I will always feel very grateful for those lessons.
7) What musical and career advice would you give to a young person who is considering a career as a Jazz artist in this day and age?
New York isn’t everything. You live in a local scene. It has real value.
8) Your most recent recording project “Notes on Montreal” brings together some different influences and sounds.
Please tell us all about this exciting project, the music and your compositions.
Notes is 13 tunes with lyrics that I wrote to be sung by the Toronto vocalist Sienna Dahlen, and an 8-piece Montreal ensemble, which includes a string quartet. The drummer is the great Montreal drummer Dave Laing (AKA ‘Scooter’).
It took me years to create, and occurred in phases. In 2009 I started reading a lot of literature set in Montreal (Richler, Cohen, Roy, Trembay and quite a few others). Towards the end of a year looking at that literature, and specifically how it paints out the city, I started writing what I wanted to be a series of sturdy, singer-songwriter style tunes, focused on different aspects of the city and the books. This next phase took place roughly across 2010-11. Then roughly in 2012 I wrote the string arrangements and mounted an indiegogo campaign to fund it.
We recorded and produced it in 2013. I’ve never been this happy with any work. Sienna Dahlen sings like an absolute angel all over this thing. The sense of groove and space from the rhythm section has a delightful quality of breath in it. The way everyone played is filled with light and life, cradling and presenting the tunes; getting out of the songs’ way, and then giving a lift, a kick, at just the right times. The strings provide exactly the stamp that I hoped they would. These aspects also have much to do with Paul Johnston, who produced and engineered the whole shebang. That fellow is an inspiration.