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A show of thanks: Mike Rud honours jazz guitarist George Benson this weekend

Updated July 27 to include Thursday show in Montreal.

Montreal jazz guitarist and Juno-winning composer Mike Rud is a frequent visitor to Ottawa, most recently this month for a sold-out duo gig with Peter Bernstein. He's back this weekend for two nights at the Options Jazz Lounge at the Brookstreet Hotel in Kanata and a Sunday afternoon gig at the Record Centre, paying tribute to best-selling guitarist George Benson.

Mike Rud will pay tribute to George Benson, a jazz guitarist who profoundly affected his playing, at Brookstreet and at The Record Centre this weekend. ©Brett Delmage 2012While Benson is best known for his Grammy-winning song, “On Broadway”, he's had a long jazz career, playing with Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, and Freddie Hubbard, and winning 10 Grammys for albums spanning jazz, pop, and R&B. He performed at the Ottawa Jazz Festival in 2010.

The shows are part of drummer Michel Delage's continuing monthly tribute series at Brookstreet, and Rud will be playing with Delage and bassist Alex Bilodeau. But the choice of George Benson was all Rud's.

OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor talked with Mike Rud about the shows, and his love of George Benson's music, earlier this month. This is an edited version of the interview.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Why did you suggest doing a tribute to George Benson?

Mike Rud: Because, if I think of a particular artist whose artist I'm familiar enough with to feel like I've done a good review before going ahead – it would probably be Benson. There would only be two or three guys that I'd really feel that I'd listened to their whole catalogue, and Benson's certainly one of them.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: When did you first hear him?

Rud: I had a guitar teacher when I was in high school named Brian Hughes, who's an adult contemporary jazz guitar star. He lives in California now. And it was Brian who turned me on to George Benson. Brian used to play a couple of tunes from Benson's catalogue in his show, and he gave me the source recordings. He said, 'Well, if you like that, you should listen to this record.' I got them, and I just couldn't believe it!

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What really impressed you about them?

Rud: Thinking back, I suppose it was that ability to hear in your head exactly what it was you wanted to play on your instrument before you went to play it. Just in that moment before [he] went to play it, he knew precisely what notes he wanted to play, and exactly what he wanted it to feel like.

To me that was the essence of what an improviser should be able to do. And if he was able to sing what he was going to play that way – that scat and play thing Benson does, both at the same time – it really sold it to me, that he's really hearing it, that George Benson is really hearing this very fully in his mind before he goes to play. He's not just hanging off of fingering or something.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Did that affect how you approached the guitar, then?

Rud: Profoundly. Because after that I went to music school, and every scale, every arpeggio, every thing I ever learned on the instrument I would always make it part of my practice routine to sing it along, to sing along as I played it.

I didn't realize at the time what an exceptional singer he was! I just knew that I liked that trick. As the years went by, I started realizing, Omigod, this guy is a really gifted vocalist. He's not just able to track what he's doing on the guitar; if he never touched a guitar, he'd be an outstanding vocalist in his own right. But at the time, it was really the marriage of the two that got to me.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So did that eventually inspire you to start singing yourself?

Rud: Singing jazz, yes. I was already doing a lot of singing when I played because, like probably almost everybody who picks up a guitar, I picked up the guitar so I could accompany myself when I did Beatles songs and stuff.

And so this was a whole other dimension of being able to play and sing. This is a much deeper connection to the instrument with your voice.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What do you think George Benson's influence has been as a jazz guitarist?

Rud: Almost impossible to overstate – and that's one of the reasons I like doing this project. When I was coming up, he was such a famous pop artist, because of the disco and funky recordings that he had had this great success with, that it tended to overshadow the fact that he was maybe the greatest bebop guitar player.

Guitar players knew about that. To jazz guitar players it comes to us with our mother's milk as we're learning the literature, as we're learning about all the music that influences jazz guitar. Oh yes, one of the great voices on the instrument is George Benson. So we know about it as inside baseball, but then as soon as you get out of that subculture, he was so famous as a vocalist that it's a joy to be able to come to people and go, 'No, it's not just a trick.'

A good comparison for his importance on our instrument might be Nat Cole. Nat Cole, everybody knows him as this incredibly smooth vocalist, genial and able to charm you with his voice. But mostly only jazz aficionados or piano lovers knew that Nat Cole was a fundamental jazz piano player, that he influenced piano players enormously. He was another Erroll Garner or something like that.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So do you think that George Benson is then fully appreciated as a guitarist?

Rud: Given the fact that jazz guitar is kind of a boutique obsession to begin with, I think by the people who are ever going to find out about it, he did eventually, yes, [get appreciated].

It's just the fact that he was also known for this other thing, [which] made it so that that wasn't the only thing that was being sold about him. And so in a conversation about him, you're naturally going to start talking about his performance on “On Broadway” or one of these other tunes.

In fact, I'm really combing through all the stuff to see if maybe I can do some of those popular vocal tunes. Maybe put a little spin on them of my own, because it's not as though he doesn't think that those pop recordings of his weren't important. Anybody who could play those things – and especially have the success in the industry that he had with them, even though the musicianship on them is so high. They should be incredibly proud of that accomplishment.

Jazz has got this weird thing, that as soon as people have that kind of chart success, it tended to diminish their credibility as somebody who was suffering in obscurity for their art. He didn't go through that, right?

OttawaJazzScene.ca: But his pop songs were good...

Rud: If you asked me, yes, definitely. I totally agree. I love all that stuff. But for some people who really want their jazz to be jazz, their nose got a little out of joint when he made gazillions of dollars going and playing things with a disco beat to them.

Never bothered me, because I grew up listening to that stuff. I loved it! My teacher who turned me on to Benson, Brian Hughes, was playing the funky stuff, which is the stuff I like. In fact, if it weren't for those more pop-y influences, which engendered in me an interest in jazz, I'm not sure I ever would have gotten to the swinging stuff. I'm not sure I would have found my way to the stuff that the purists like, which of course I eventually did.

For the purists, the early Benson stuff is always what they go to – because it's jaw-dropping guitar playing. His first two records on Columbia and all the stuff he did with Herbie Hancock, and he's on one Miles Davis record. But those first two records with Lonnie Smith on organ and Ronnie Cuber and Jimmy Lovelace are just staggeringly-great jazz guitar playing records – and writing and ensemble playing, the whole package. They're as beautiful a straight-ahead jazz guitar thing as you could ever want.

But then what's funny to me, as brilliant as those records are – in the years after that as he moved into the popular stuff, his guitar-playing got even better! It's like, 'OK, I've done what I want to on the guitar, I'm going to continue down that road, but there's no reason that more people shouldn't hear me while I do it.'

And I love that. That's fantastic.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How are you picking the material for the two nights at Brookstreet?

Rud: It's a compromise between what's in my heart, just what has caught me the most, and what will I actually be able to put together and get under my fingers convincingly in the time, between now and then. Because I had a really busy summer.

There's some of it I've known before, but one thing I have been learning is that you get limited opportunities to put new material together. So sometimes you have to bite off a little more than you can chew so that you can get a start on something. So I'm going through and I'm picking … I haven't even decided how many – probably about 10 tunes – that I feel get around to different glimpses of the way he played.

I put [that] in the past tense – he can still do any of this stuff!

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Yes, he's still playing.

Rud: And he's still playing as great as ever. I saw him a few years ago do his tribute to Nat King Cole at Place des Arts. And in the middle of this long vocal set where he primarily didn't touch the guitar, he picks up the guitar, just at the very end of one tune, and pours out this razor-sharp lick that on my best day, with the warmest hands, I've never come 50% of what he did on that one thing!

I act surprised that he's still playing that well, but maybe that's a testament to how the guy is probably like a total road warrior. If you've been constantly playing for years and years and years and years, of course, even when you're quite old, you're still going to be at the top of your game.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Is that the only time you heard him live?

Rud: I guess there were two times that I heard him live, and both were in that room. They were both in the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier [in Place des Arts in Montreal]. And I loved it, because he did a bunch of straight-ahead stuff, but he also did his funky stuff. They were nice long shows, so we got to hear him play plenty of guitar, which was, of course, the part that interested me. It's always wonderful to hear that guy sing, but...

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Is there any particular era you're picking the material from?

Rud: I'm trying to get around between them. Since this gig is trio, it will probably skew more towards the straight-ahead jazz stuff, because that's the easiest to represent with guitar, bass, and drums.

But I have to say – people have been asking me about this project and expressing interest in it, so I wouldn't be surprised if this isn't the last time it sailed. In which case, who knows what will get added to the book?

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Are you sending sheet music of the music you've picked to the other two musicians?

Rud: So far I've sent them YouTube [video] links. And over the next few days, I'll be writing charts for them, and I'll probably scan them and send them along. And then by the time they've listened through to the tunes and done that and we have a run-through, we'll be set.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Are you feeling excited about this?

Rud: Very excited about it – for sure.

Like I said, I'm really hoping I could bring that project maybe here [to Montreal] at some future date.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What are you working on next?

Rud: I'm learning that the big challenge for somebody playing jazz guitar may be singing, [but] in Canada, [it's] finding enough places to play as the year goes on that you don't over-saturate yourself in any one place. And the solo show [of Rud's most recent album, Miniatures], I'm discovering, has this nice possibility of doing house concerts, which are becoming quite popular.

And that was what I was thinking when I started coming up with the repertoire for the solo show. Hey, this way I can get to Portage La Prairie, Manitoba and Orillia, Ontario. And if I can find 15 or 20 people in these cities – well, I could not afford to play in those cities if I had to hire a rhythm section, but I can totally go play them on my own. I have no intention of stopping doing that! I have a feeling I'm going to be doing tons of that over the next several years – which is great! It means I can grow that book – I can start coming up with more and more of those arrangements.

But at the same time, I cooked up Miniatures as a knee-jerk reaction to the grandioseness of Notes on Montreal. So the idea would be that I would have this thing that was much easier to book and to play, because it's just me and the guitar. And then other dates I'd have larger ensembles, sometimes play with a local big band like I just did in Edmonton, or with the strings like we've done with Notes on Montreal. That way I'd be able to have large versus tiny musical projects so that there could always be something that was feasible.

I've got a group of guys from Toronto I really want to record with. I'm feeling fairly certain I want that to be the next project. I want to do all the writing, like I did for Notes on Montreal, and I want to sing it myself this time. But it means I've got to do the writing, and I need the writing to be really good, so that's just going to take a lot of time.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Which musicians are you thinking of?

Rud: Well, the last couple years every time I've gone back there, I've played with Kelly Jefferson, the tenor saxophone player, David Braid, the piano player, and we've had a very fine bassist, Jon Maharaj, and Terry Clarke on drums the last couple of times.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: That's a pretty high-powered group!

Rud: They're really, really wonderful. I don't know if I'll be able to swing that. I don't know if I'll be able to make that work. I'm hoping. And you never know, eh? The best-laid plans … But that's definitely where my sights are set.

Mike Rud, Michel Delage, and Alex Bilodeau will pay tribute to jazz guitarist George Benson in shows at the Options Jazz Lounge at the Brookstreet Hotel in Kanata on Friday, July 29, and Saturday, July 30. Downbeat is at 8 p.m., and there is no cover charge or reservations.

The trio will also play a shorter version of the show from 3 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 31, at The Record Centre, 1099 Wellington Street West (at Sherbrooke). PWYC donations are strongly encouraged.

They will also perform this show in Montreal, at the Upstairs Jazz Club, on Thursday, July 28, for three sets starting at 8 p.m. Cover is $8.

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