Mike Rud took his obsession with a city, a Don Quixote-like quest, and his daughters' bed-time stories, and turned them into a Juno-winning album.

You can hear the results Saturday, as Rud showcases his album, Notes on Montreal, in a concert at the National Arts Centre. It's the first time that he'll present it in Ottawa in its final form, and the first time he's played the material here since it won a Juno in 2014 for best Vocal Jazz Album.

"Notes on Montreal" CD cover. Painting by Mark Lang.
"Notes on Montreal" CD cover. Painting by Mark Lang.

The show will be simpler than the album – just Rud on guitar and Sienna Dahlen singing the lyrics. But it will still reflect how much Rud has been obsessed by the city of Montreal in the 16 years he's lived there, and how he captured the city and its people in music.

Read about Mike Rud's newest solo project in our linked story.

“I feel that I really had to say that album. I was really haunted by the place. I moved here [to Montreal] first in the late 80s and did an undergrad here, and then moved away, went to the west coast, went to New York, came back and did a graduate degree, and then moved back to the west coast and then moved to Ottawa for a few years, and then came back.”

“And every time I was gone from Montreal, I'd miss it fiercely. Just a sort of raging nostalgia for the place. That's why, when I got the idea, I think I was on to something about who I am as a person. I needed to take the long, long, long hours and walk around St. Henri and think about what the city had meant. I think it's partially because I'm from the West, and in Edmonton, a lot of the structures went up during the oil boom. It doesn't have ghosts the way this place does. And I was transfixed by that.”

Rud didn't just use his own impressions of the city, however. Over a period of four years, from 2009 until he recorded the CD in 2013, he read dozens of novels and plays by Québeçois authors, in both English and French. Those books then inspired almost all the songs on the album.

“Reading those authors got me excited about the city,” he said. “I didn't necessarily draw on their specific images, but I did let them guide the way into what seemed like the richest sources of observations about the city. I wasn't really going to taste the place with the depths that they could bring, not all on my own, whereas if I read them, and walked and walked and walked around, the city called my attention to things.”

“There's rich, thick topsoil here when people describe the streets and the structures. They're talking about something that's a real serious cultural artifact for all of us.”

The authors included Mordecai Richler, Leonard Cohen, Gabrielle Roy, Dany Laferrière, and Michel Tremblay. “I would tell people what I was trying to do, and I have the luxury of having some really well-read friends. And they suggested things enthusiastically. And at the time, I no longer am, I was married to a librarian. So as you put it out into the air with those kinds of people, 'Hey, what are things you've read that really capture the city?', you get no shortage of suggestions. But, of course, since it's not some kind of lit review for a PhD in Canadian literature, you don't need to get it right. All you need to do is find the things that excite you the most and work off them – that's the job description.”

I didn't really need to understand intricate plot details or character development of either of those because it was more just the way the reflections of the city from both of those stories made me feel. That song is about how those characters seem to haunt the places in the city to me.
– Mike Rud

Other books he read just didn't inspire a tune. “I read a little bit of Mavis Gallant. She has a thing called Montreal Stories, and I got about halfway into it and just went, 'Nope.'”

Some francophone authors he read first in English translation and “then later to the extent that I could, I went through them in French.”

For example, three songs on the album are “deeply influenced” by Michel Tremblay's novel, La grosse Femme d'à côté est enceinte [The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant]. “I found that his novel-writing French was filled with really adult syntax, really convoluted sentence structures. I gave it my best shot but my French wasn't quite equal to it. But I did go back and read two of his plays [in French]: one was of course Les Belles Soeurs [The Sisters-in-Law], that would be his most famous work. That was not a problem because it's colloquial French.”

That turned out to be important, because “only reading Tremblay in English would be a colossal error because part of his entire thing was to show that Québeçois joual was a fully-functioning dialect, that it could display the full range of the human condition.”

One song became a dialogue between one of Tremblay's characters – Carmen from the play Sainte Carmen de la Main – and one of Cohen's characters – Breavman, from Cohen's first novel, The Favourite Game.

“I didn't really need to understand intricate plot details or character development of either of those because it was more just the way the reflections of the city from both of those stories made me feel. That song is about how those characters seem to haunt the places in the city to me. The reason I wrote it to both of them is because they both spent a bunch of time in what was called the Tenderloin District around Saint-Laurent and Ste-Catherine which has now been revivified. It's much less seedy than it was. So that's when it was kind of interesting.”

Rud said that one phrase from The Favourite Game also captured something of how he feels about Montreal. It says, “ 'He abused the streets with praise. He expected too much out of wrought-iron fences, special, absurd turrets.' And I just remember thinking, 'Wow! That's exactly how I feel about the place.' Like there's always some wisp of something there that I can never quite catch.”

Singing the sings as bed-time stories

The Notes on Montreal project was a very different process from Rud's three previous albums, which were “much more straightforward exercises in jazz guitar playing. On this one I was really going to reveal myself as a lyricist and having something to say beyond the instrument itself. So, yes, I wanted to get it right, and at the same time, I was raising two kids, so I was able to put about half of my hours that I would have liked to put into the music into the music and the other half making macaroni and cheese.”

Surprisingly, caring for his daughters “wound up paying for itself anyway, because at times when I was really becoming dejected about the project, my daughters started asking me to sing them the songs as bedtime stories. And that meant repeating them dozens and dozens of times. There was actual stuff that I wound up writing, parts of the songs that I wrote after hearing what they would be like over and over again. That's often the way you write that singer-songwriter stuff. You play it into existence. So my daughters earned their keep on that part!”

The repetition allowed him to refine the material. “It really made me think, 'Well, how is this just going to work as a simple lyric. Could this be simpler? Does this part here need a bridge? Is that really the image I want in that part of the song? Those type of things."

“You only really get those out of dozens of playings.”

The girls were aged about 5 and 8 at the start of the project. “It was tuck-in time, and then they had all kinds of ideas about what they liked best. My youngest liked the scariest-sounding one the most, and always would ask for it to freak out the older one.”

Sienna Dahlen can "interpret the lyric without you being able to see the strings"

He also was encouraged by vocalist and long-time friend Sienna Dahlen. “Any number of times when I wanted to try and stop, she kept egging me on.”

Sienna Dahlen at the rehearsal for Requiem for Fourteen Roses ©2014 Brett Delmage
Sienna Dahlen at the rehearsal for Requiem for Fourteen Roses ©2014 Brett Delmage
Rud and Dahlen first met as students in 1996: “There's a pretty special connection there”. From the beginning Rud envisioned her as the vocalist on the album, rather than singing the songs himself.

“From the moment I had the idea, I had it specifically with her in mind because we had done previous projects together – with strings, even! These particular pieces I wrote very much with her voice in mind, with ideas of where to leave her freedom and where to be very specific.”

Dahlen brings “something irreplaceable to what I have to say”, Rud said.

“It's this powerful, limpid quality of being able to interpret the lyric without you being able to see the strings. I think she's very ingenious and cunning at doing that because she can constantly reinterpret things the same piece and every way it sounds like, 'Oh that's how it should go. That's the right way, of course. And the next time it will be different and you'll say the same thing again.

“But she puts some work into that. That's part of the improviser's toolkit, that I've never really seen anyone else quite use the same way. Because I think other vocalists, especially jazz vocalists, their acrobatic tendencies will tend to occlude. This capacity for revealing the inner life of a lyric and of a melody line – she doesn't really have to change things very much in order to draw out or to call attention to certain aspects of things. And also, just when you cut loose and freely improvise with her, she's as seasoned as any horn player.”

Ottawa audiences last heard Dahlen here in December, when she was the featured vocalist in Elise Letourneau's Requiem for Fourteen Roses.

While Rud has previewed the material several times in Ottawa, including at a fundraiser in 2012 and a workshop in 2013, the NAC concert will be the first time he will perform it here with Dahlen. With just the two of them, it will be simpler than on the album, but “she and I have done an awful lot of playing together over the years and the record has got a lengthy duo piece on it that we've been doing every time. So the whole thing does work really effectively.”

"It never does quite come out the same way"

The material has also evolved through being played many times, and on tour across Canada.

“It never does quite come out the same way. We can't help but change things. There's a tune called 'Streetcar 55', which is another one influenced by Tremblay, and it has a country train beat on the album. And Sienna said, 'What about as a jazz waltz? Why don't we do this in 3 as a jazz waltz?' And I'll be damned if it doesn't work a little better as a jazz waltz!”

“So we take a lot of chances like that. There's a tune called 'As the Cross Looks On', which is like an 80s rock vamp thing, and when we were in Victoria we got to the end of playing it, and – I can't remember who in the band had mentioned doing it in 7/4 instead of in 4/4 – but I just said, 'Hey let's try this!' And we just did it in front of the audience, put the thing into 7 and played through one verse of it to see how it felt. I really like that being jazz musicians means that we've got a group of people with the background and the comfort level that you can change things up with them on a moment's notice.”

A Don Quixote-ish quest

The success of Notes on Montreal, and in particular its winning the Juno last year, provided a real validation for Rud.

“The first few years I worked on this project, it was the love that dare not speak its name, because it just sounded so far away from my bailiwick as a jazz guitar player. I'm going to read all these books set in this city, write a bunch of singer-songwriter-oriented material about it with a jazz tinge to it, and then score it all with string quartet. By the time you've finished explaining the premise, half of the audience has taken off.

“So I felt crazy, I felt really Don Quixote-ish when I would explain it to people. Then when it got such a positive reaction from listeners and then culminating, I suppose, in that Juno Award, I felt like I wasn't crazy. That's the main effect it had.”

– Alayne McGregor

Mike Rud and Sienna Dahlen will perform material from Notes on Montreal at the NAC Fourth Stage on Saturday, March 14. They will perform in the first half of the concert, followed by pianist David Braid with a string quartet. Originally, the NAC had scheduled Rud to do an individual concert in January, but he said they then decided to combine the concerts.

Read the linked OttawaJazzScene.ca story: Mike Rud will split his brain for his upcoming CD.

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