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“There's something irresistible in it”: Mike Rud pays tribute to Wes Montgomery

Juno-winning guitarist Mike Rud is back in Ottawa this weekend – for his second tribute to an iconic jazz guitarist.

Mike Rud pays tribute to one of his first influences, Wes Montgomery, this weekend ©Brett Delmage 2012Last summer, Rud collaborated with Ottawa drummer Michel Delage to celebrate George Benson, and ended up taking that show to Montreal as well. This time, he and Delage are going back another step – to a guitarist who was a major influence not only on George Benson, but on Rud himself.

Wes Montgomery introduced an entirely new approach to playing guitar in the 1960s – including his octave technique (playing the same note on two strings usually one octave apart) and his use of chords in solos. He won the Down Beat Critic's Poll award for best Jazz guitarist in 1960–63, 1966, and 1967. He was nominated for six Grammy Awards, and won two: for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance in 1966 and in 1969.

Guitarists Jimi Hendrix, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, Russell Malone, Pat Martino, Pat Metheny, and Lee Ritenour all credited Montgomery as a major influence. His most celebrated records among his peers were the hard bop records he recorded in the early 60s, but he achieved great commercial success with more melodic records (including jazz versions of Beatles songs) in the late 60s, before his sudden death of a heart attack in 1968.

Rud and Delage, along with Alex Bilodeau on bass and Peter Hum on piano, will perform Montgomery's music at the Options Jazz Lounge at the Brookstreet Hotel in Kanata on Friday and Saturday evening, and at the Record Centre in Hintonburg on Sunday afternoon. The trio (minus Hum) will also perform at Upstairs in Montreal on the following Tuesday.

OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor spoke with Mike Rud last week about the shows, his regard for Montgomery and how he was influenced by him, and his plans to record some of these songs this summer. This is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So why Wes Montgomery?

Mike Rud: I can still remember the first times I listened to Wes Montgomery – and they were a very big deal. [pauses] You know, he … I have to find the right words for this … he's beyond important for anybody who calls himself a jazz guitar player.

So this is finally a chance to get my hands around some of that repertoire. I've been learning bits and pieces of his improvised solos for a few decades now, but always shied away from away from playing the actual pieces that he wrote, in order to avoid an unfavourable comparison. But then I just thought, well, it's more important to learn the material and to try it on and to see how it feels to play that stuff with the band.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: I understand that George Benson held up Wes Montgomery as a real influence. Benson even wrote the liner notes for The Ultimate Wes Montgomery Album.

Rud: Oh yes, there's a real serious connection between those two. To me, there's kind of a line you can draw, going right from Charlie Christian and through Grant Green and Wes and George Benson and Kenny Burrell and Pat Martino. There's a pantheon there of groove-based … They're all guys who played with organ players a lot, and they're very blues-infused, post-bop guitar players. So definitely, there's an enormous connection. I think they even played together a little bit, but it never got recorded.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Do you have a favourite Wes Montgomery album?

Rud: My favourite Wes Montgomery record, that I can first remember, hardly seems to exist anymore. It was a late compilation of alternate takes that I got out of the Edmonton Public Library, called The Alternative Wes Montgomery.

That was because, at that point in Edmonton, CDs hadn't started happening yet. So the early Wes stuff was not widely distributed. All you could find was the stuff that you hear on the Weather Channel, where he plays Beatles songs in octaves with a giant string section. And that's really incredible musicianship on those records, incredible guitar playing and he sounds like a million bucks on it. But what it isn't, it's not something that works the same exact way that comparable groups like Miles Davis' Quintet worked. It's not quite as much hard-core jazz going on in those pop recordings.

And so when I finally did get my hands on the recordings of him playing small-group, what you would call proper jazz music, it was because I took trips, one to Ottawa, and one to Victoria, where there were some more 'happening' record stores. And then I managed to buy up the whole Riverside catalogue.

But, before that, the only thing I'd ever found was this [record] in the Edmonton Library, of all alternative takes, of him playing in those small group sessions.

And my jaw just hit the floor! I couldn't believe anybody ever played such appealing, logical, coherent, groovy sentences, melodically on the guitar. In a way, it's a pity that he did all that amazing octave playing, because it overshadowed that – melodically, in terms of blues vocabulary, and rhythmically, and sound, groove, and all those things. Without the octaves, he's still very clearly the most important jazz guitar player to his time. And there's something irresistible in it.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: It's interesting that the background I read on Wes Montgomery talked about his technique – but you're talking more about how he thought about his playing.

Rud: Oh my goodness, yes! It beggars belief, his ability to speak musical sentences with just an unprecedented, unparalleled eloquence. The musical imagination on the guy, and his ability to enact that in real-time. I can't think of any other musician … you'd have to go to a Charlie Parker or something to find somebody who, in my mind, compares – with the same type of just an incomprehensible melodic sense. I have no clue how this guy put his musicianship together.

And my jaw just hit the floor! I couldn't believe anybody ever played such appealing, logical, coherent, groovy sentences, melodically on the guitar.
– Mike Rud

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Do you think that having listened to Wes Montgomery an an impressionable age affected how you approached the guitar?

Rud: Omigod, yes! The first transcriptions I ever did, the first times I copied solos, were all Wes Montgomery solos. And I still play all kinds of stuff that I took in those transcriptions [laughs].

We all do! If you talk to any jazz guitar player, they'll tell you that. There's that old saying, that nobody ever thinks they need better judgment or a better sense of humour – but when it comes to musicianship, you go and you try and learn from transcribing people's improvised solos. You are trying to actually improve your judgment, your musical judgment. You're hoping that their aesthetic will sort of seep into you, and that your musical judgment will get better – and become more like theirs.

Most of my life, if I could have pushed a button and simply traded musical judgment with Wes Montgomery, I would have done it in a heartbeat!

I'm hardly alone. A lot of us have been chasing after that. Even just to be inspired by the feeling of love for it and the swing and the sound. There's nobody like him!

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Which pieces of his are you considering for the tribute show?

Rud: We're looking at “Bock to Bock”, and “Four on Six”, which is a piece he wrote on the changes to “Summertime”. And a tune called “Fried Pies”, which is a really nice blues. Probably “Road Song”, which is a really nice one as well – it's a bossa. And a few others.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Would these be your favourite Wes Montgomery pieces?

Rud: What happened was I've got Peter Bernstein coming back to Montreal in July. We're going to try and record a little CD. So we were casting around for repertoire, looking for things we'd like to play. And we named some stuff, and up came the Wes Montgomery stuff. I thought, 'OK, I've also booked these days in Ottawa. This is a good chance to put together the Wes Montgomery stuff so I'm ready to record it with Peter!'

OttawaJazzScene.ca: That fits with my next question: with the George Benson tribute, you and the quartet ended up taking the show outside Ottawa as well. Do you have any plans like that for this material?

Rud: We're playing for the two nights at Brookstreet and the one day at the Record Centre. And then I got a call out of the clear blue sky from the Upstairs Club here in Montreal to put something together for the following Tuesday. So it looks like we'll probably do the same tunes in trio, without Peter Hum, on the Tuesday night in Montreal.

Other than that, I've just got too many other irons in the fire right now. But if somebody said, 'Hey, we've got a gig for you doing the Wes project. Come to wherever.' – of course, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Why did you want to include Peter Hum on piano for these shows?

Rud: Almost all those Wes records have a really nice strong piano accompanist. There are some recordings of Wes playing trio without somebody playing chords, but it really wants it! It's really written in such a way as to want that. So I was happy that Peter was free and able to do it. It will really make it feel a lot more like the actual vibe of that music.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Will Peter be playing piano or keyboards, sounding more like an organ?

Rud: I think it will probably be more like a piano. A lot of that Wes stuff is with organ, but I don't think that's really Peter's thing.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: This is the second guitar tribute show you've done with Michel Delage. What do you think you've learned yourself from doing a tribute like this?

Rud: Well, I learned that it was possible, for one thing. I was pretty impressed with how much George Benson material we managed to put together for that. I've always shied away from these kind of tribute things for a number of reasons, but it went better than I thought it would.

That, I think, was the main take-away for me. I said, 'I'll be damned. Over the years, I've gotten pretty good at assimilating new pieces and repertoire, and so now is actually a handy time to finally get around to learning some of these pieces I've been listening to for years.'

When I was 20 years younger or something, a couple of these tunes would have been a lot more work, and it's much easier to digest new material now.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What's keeping you so busy now, and what are you looking forward to doing?

Rud: I've got a bunch of gigs sprinkled across the next six months with this great singer from here named Andrea Lindsay. We made a record about a year and a half ago with the guitar player Jordan Officer. It's usually me, her, bass, and drums, and it's all French-inspired jazz music. Blossom Dearie made those albums of French material: we do some of those. [Andrea's] written some originals and stuff that's really good.

Those are coming up through the summer, and I'm just in the process now of booking some more work for my solo thing, where I go out and sing and play. I got that all made and then did it somewhat, and then began to drift more towards group playing and forgot it. [Read the OttawaJazzScene.ca interview with Rud about his solo project and his recording of it, Miniatures.]

Now when I pick up the guitar and play some of those solo pieces, it's wonderful. They've hardened into these gems. I've gotten a lot better at that, so it's really fun to rediscover that. Now the trouble is, 'OK if only I could get equally adept at booking those shows, and following through on creating the work for those situations', because that's how you make it happen.

I'm always, if somebody has a gig for me and says let's go play a bunch of Wes Montgomery tunes, I'm like 'Sure!'. And then I tend to forget that I also have all this other rehearsed material. It's an old habit from playing in so many groups, that if there's a chance to play with other people, I just go 'Yeah! Lets do it!'. But there's only so many days in a year. So that's a nice problem to have.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Have I missed asking you anything about Wes Montgomery and the tribute?

Rud: I think one of the most illustrative things about Wes Montgomery is that Jim Hall famously said that he once spent most of a Sunday afternoon in San Francisco trying to “accidentally” catch Wes' thumb in his car door! Because Wes didn't use a pick and played all with his thumb on his right hand, and so this gigantic callus formed there which had a gorgeous sound. And he could play these passages with his thumb on his right hand that it's just technically impossible for people who aren't Wes to play that stuff, or make it sound quite that way.

It's just a golden thing, and I'll be trying to come as close as I possibly can. It's going to be an absolute ball!

    – Alayne McGregor

The Michel Delage Quartet (Mike Rud, Michel Delage, Peter Hum, and Alex Bilodeau) will present music by Wes Montgomery at the Brookstreet Hotel's Options Jazz Lounge, on Friday, June 9 and Saturday, June 10. The music starts at 8 p.m. and runs until midnight each night. There's no cover charge, and no reservations are required. The Brookstreet Hotel is located at 525 Legget Drive in Kanata North; the all-day OC Transpo route 63 goes immediately by it, while route 64 stops about 14 minutes walk away.

On Sunday, June 11, the quartet will perform at the Record Centre,1099 Wellington Street West (at Sherbrooke) in Hintonburg, from 2 to 3 p.m.. Donations to the musicians are strongly encouraged.

On Tuesday, June 13, Rud, Delage, and Bilodeau will perform three sets at the Upstairs Club, 1254 rue MacKay in Montreal, starting at 8 p.m. Cover is $8, and free after 10:30 p.m.

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