Mike Rud Interview with Jazz Guitar Life

“Make sure you enjoy the opportunities of playing as they come up, and don’t ruin the performances by racking yourself with worry. I’ve had many really cool playing situations where I got to play with incredible players, or in front of a wonderful audience, or in some really neat venue overlooking an amazing view, or playing with very dear friends and musical associates. Since we never seem to make that much money, I regard these aspects of the musical life, and the mental health and sense of well being that goes with these pleasant situations”

Mike Rud

Mike Rud is a working jazz guitar player out of Vancouver. He shares his thoughts on everything from his musical education, to what it’s like raising a family as a working jazz guitarist. A very informative and sometimes humorous read.

This interview was conducted via email on April 13, 2004. Check out his website at www.mikerud.com


JGL: How old are you?

MR: 36

JGL: At what age did you first get into guitar playing and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? What was the motivating experience to get you involved in this particular music and instrument?

MR: I started playing guitar in grade six (eleven years old). The first jazz I heard was when my dad used to play this one Willie Nelson record called “Stardust”, which was all jazz standards (a really nice record). When I was about 17 or 18, I had some lessons with a fellow named Brian Hughes, who was the first guy I ever heard live playing eighth and sixteenth-note lines through jazz harmonies, and that seriously hooked me.

Around the same time I heard Herb Ellis live, which also had a very strong effect. Brian showed me recordings by Pat Martino, Pat Metheny, and George Benson, and that was it; I was on board. There was a pretty serious jazz band going on at our high school in Edmonton, so I got with that and it was a huge influence on my direction in life.

JGL: What kind, if any, formal training do you have (i.e.: lessons, schooling, that sort of thing). And how did these experiences help you get where you are today?

MR: I’ve heard it said that some people are educated far beyond their intelligence. That’d be me. I did private lessons with many different teachers through my teenage years, and entered Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, which had a very demanding set of technical standards thanks to the guitar teacher there, Bobby Cairns. Then I did my bachelor of jazz music degree at McGill, studying improv with Kevin Dean and Fred Henke, as well as guitar lessons from Mike Gauthier and Greg Clayton, who were both really inspiring to hear and learn from. They both remain in my memory as really hardcore jazz guitar guys, a kind of model. Plus that degree included jazz composition and arranging , which obviously have been useful and influential.

Most unexpectedly, being forced to analyze counterpoint, fugues, sonatas etc, opened my eyes to where much of our music comes from. I did some private lessons in New York with Jack Wilkins and Jim Hall, and studied at the Banff center’s summer jazz program, which was amazing. In 96-98 I went back to McGill and did a masters degree, which included some really stimulating composition and arranging classes, as well as lessons from guitarist Roddy Elias, who was wonderful. He gave me stuff that I still work on, and continually pointed out to me just how wide music is. The music scenes in Montreal and especially New York, were wonderfully enriching, and I learned about as much informally as I ever did in a classroom.

JGL: What was your first guitar? What are you playing now?

MR: My very first guitar was a classical Yamaha G231, which I still own. In grade eleven I got the Ibanez FG-100 that still is the only instrument I gig on. Nothing I can hope to afford plays as easily, or sounds any better. Compared to most guitarists, I’ve never owned much gear. I think in my whole life I’ve owned about a half dozen guitars. This makes me woefully uninformed about what’s out there, but the actual notes, chords and phrases have just always interested me more than the gear. When I hear someone play well on a truly exquisite instrument, I regret this, and perhaps someday I’ll buy a really beautiful guitar, but for now I’m happy.

JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning? And have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years? Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?

MR: In the start, I listened primarily to Benson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Joe Pass, Charlie Christian, and Django Reinhardt. I discovered Wes Montgomery’s small group jazz albums a few years later, which seemed so deep, mature and inventive. Then Mike Gauthier got me started on Grant Green’s sound and time feel, and I fell in love with that. At a certain point I went ballistic on Wes and Charlie Christian and transcribed a lot of both. There are still two Charlie Christian solos that I keep in my fingers as a kind of warm-up/swing reminder.

Like all of the jazz guitarists my age, I went through the obligatory fascination with the urbane, sophisticated musics of Scofield and Metheny. Overall, though, if I could play one tune in my life with the depth, candor and intelligence of Ed Bickert, I’d consider my mission accomplished in life as a guitar player. At one McGill clinic I even got to play a couple tunes with him once. I will never forget it. Stole two licks from him that day that I still play! Stylistically I don’t come out of his playing (aside from certain phrasing things during single-note passages in my solos), but I remain very much captivated by his profound and relaxed musical wit. There’s so much going on now! I certainly admire and envy the chops of some of the modern super-guitarists, but with my favorite current players, it’s sound and time feel that do it for me. I just like to sense an accoustic quality, and a connection to a simple, hard-swinging quarter note.

For example I like Peter Bernstein a lot, and if I could wave a magic wand and play like anyone, it would be Dan Faehnle, who not a lot of people have heard of, but he’s got it all. Above all, besides being a ridiculously good player technically, he’s hands down the most entertaining, swinging, good feeling guy I’ve heard, of the guitar players in my own generation. There are so many great players, though.

To name two Canadian examples: in Victoria there’s a guy named Marc Atkinson who’s trio is burning, and I love listening to Jordan Officer as well. He came out to that gig at Upstairs and made me a very nervous man. He really swings, and captures something really wonderful from the older music. These days my interests as a listener are utterly different from what they were during my development as a player. I listen a lot to Leonard Cohen, Ron Sexsmith, Rufus Wainwright and other singer-songwriter types. I bought an Edith Piaf collection that I love, too. I know most jazz musicians just kind of roll their eyes if you bring up Cohen, presumably because of his pitch and other shortcomings as a singer, but I adore some of his songwriting –and not only the lyrics but the melodies and chord progressions as well. I even like his voice and his delivery. I think it’s partly because of his depth as a lyricist, and partly because he symbolizes a time in Canadian history when I was a younger man.

I’m an incurable nostalgic. I also got this box set of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who I like a lot too. Lots of drive. Like all jazz guitar players, I’ve also checked out a fair chunk of the straight ahead jazz canon, and so it goes without saying that the overall list needs to include people like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Clifford Brown, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, etc, etc. I just thought I’d list my listening habits insofar as they deviate from the average jazz musician’s.

JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what were some of the things you did to make this choice work for you?

MR: Yes. I knew when I started. I wanted to be a Beatle, more or less. Then when I heard jazz, I wanted to be a Beatle with chops. Now I just want to play well, and entertain whoever comes to hear. And I don’t want my musical parameters dictated to me by anyone else. Something I did when I was young that was helpful was to practice hard, and treat it very seriously. I was willing to memorize fingerings and run them every day for years, and to EAR TRAIN all the time. I was never shy about this, because it was clear to me that the thing jazz musicians had the amazing ability to do, was to put their money where there mouth is in terms of theory and practice. They could hear an idea, understand what it was, and produce it on their instruments. I wanted that and never doubted it was possible.

Of course I don’t quite feel I’ve done it to my satisfaction, but trying has been fun. I also think it was a good idea that I never believed in talent. I’ve always felt that people use the idea of talent as an excuse for why other people sound better than them. If some one sounds amazing, it’s almost always really unfair to them if you dismiss it as a mere ‘talent’; they’ve virtually always turned themselves inside out to learn how to do it. Or if you can’t get some musical concept happening, it’s really counterproductive to assume that you lack the necessary ‘talent’ to do it. Leave that for history to judge. Assume it can be accomplished with work, no matter what it is. It’s only music after all.

I actually think that there are such things as talents, but if you want to learn something musical, anything less than a very strong commitment probably won’t accomplish it, so why cloud your mind by worrying about talent? I think a serious interest in learning can go a long way toward making up for people’s initial differences in talent. You can get a lot done without having to be as talented as Stan Getz.

JGL: When you were younger what was your band experiences like? Did you have any friends who were involved in music as well? Did you have to search for people to play with.

MR: Well, I played informally in some garage bands as a kid. But my first semi-serious playing situations were probably at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton. That aspect of going to school was probably a much bigger advantage than I knew at the time. Having a scene of like-minded souls, who are willing to slug through an hour of F blues with you is a wonderful thing indeed. Edmonton is also where I did all my first paying gigs, with a great trombone player named Bob Stroup, who used to play in Woody Herman’s band, and with the amazing PJ Perry too, who is an incredible alto player.

When I got to Montreal, it was its own world, and I did a lot of $20 gigs there (this would be in the late 80’s). I remember that when people were watching me play, my right hand would freeze up on me. But as I got used to playing in front of an audience, I learned to relax. $20 gigs are not without their uses. Going to schools may have unduly limited the spectrum of musicians I met. For example I scarcely met any Concordia music students during my undergrad at McGill, to say nothing of the many great francophone players (the bulk of Montreal’s scene).

On the other hand, I forged connections at the schools to large groups of people, who shared a lot of my musical concerns. As the years have gone by, that’s been of immeasurable value, from the standpoints of both musical development and networking.

JGL: Were your parent(s) and family members supportive of your musical career choice?

MR: Very much so. They put me through school, and convinced me not to quit school during my moments of doubt.

JGL: What was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes?

MR: It’s gone through a lot of changes. When I was doing my undergrad degree, I kept a practice manual and checked of each part of my regimen as it went by. It always included stretches, slow warm up exercises, and a pretty hefty diet of scale and arpeggio stuff, sight reading, and finally improv.

After that bachelor’s degree, I was aching to practice the stuff I’d been learning in all that schooling, and like an idiot, started practicing 6, 8 hours a day, with no warm up or stretching. That’s when I began having trouble with my hands.

Now, I’m usually jumping as a sideman from one person’s music and arrangements to another, which means that my practice routine usually entails about 10 minutes of slow scales to warm up, a bit of improv, and then just working through whatever the difficult and exposed bits are of whatever I have coming up the next weekend. Sometimes that’s been trio arrangements for Chuck Israels, and sometimes that’s been heads for tenor saxist Ralph Bowen, or big band parts for Fred Stride, who’s music is full of difficult-to-remember unison passages. When you heard us last weekend (at Upstairs Jazz Club in Montreal – ed.) , we had just the previous weekend been in the Clarendon in Quebec City playing through vocalist Isabelle Wolfman’s richly detailed original compositions. So when you came and heard us playing standards, I know I was sighing in relief over being able to just hang back and do what we’re all best at. All the arrangements were by guess and by gosh, but everyone was relaxed and felt strong, so it generally worked out pretty well.

This is the privilege of working with really good players. All this is to say that usually my practice time gets taken up with memorizing arrangement details for my next gig, so I won’t screw up in front of everyone. Aside from that, when I play at home, it’s in short spurts, between other things, and it’s usually up-tempos, rhythm changes, giant steps, etc. Just reminding myself how to do them and relax.

JGL: How difficult do you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player? Or have you found it to be relatively easy?

MR: This isn’t meant as a complaint, but aside from making rent and basic expenses I don’t make much of a living at all; and of what I do make, I’d say well over half of it, most years, comes from teaching music of various styles and levels. Other players I know who make more of their living playing, often have to play a lot of styles and gigs that are just less attractive to me than teaching a lesson. If I had to get by strictly on what I make as a player, I wouldn’t be able to without playing in wedding bands, or dance bands, or getting into studio work or something. This is not uncommon. I think that with some exceptions, most jazz musicians in Canada also teach, play R&B, run a home studio, etc.

JGL: How do you go about searching for gigs or do they come to you now that you are known? And what have you found in your experience that makes looking for gigs easier?

MR: I probably get what I deserve, because as a guitar player, I have a strong case of sideman’s disease, where you just sit back and let the phone ring. If I were a saxophone player with this attitude, I’d probably never play, since I so seldom hustle any of my own work. But you know, singers and horn players need chord players, so the phone tends to ring more than it would if it were up to me to make the work happen. Also, there are only so many times I can play in a certain town in a certain period of time as a leader, because who’s going to come out three times a year to pay $15 to hear the same show with the same guys? But if I’m a sideman, and the tunes and other players are different all the time, the frequency goes up dramatically.

In some instances I do actually create work by calling someone at a festival, club, or jazz society up and asking them for a gig. This is rare, though, compared to the other way, which is where in the network of musicians I know, someone recommends me personally to someone who’s hiring. People tend to act on word of mouth a lot. The other thing that happens a fair amount is that once the producer or club guy from one place hears me, he recommends me to someone else. I think in those cases it pays to have a reputation for being professional and easy to work with, too. But I do some hustling too.

For example, I submitted a package to Vancouver’s jazz festival this year, and they called and booked. Simple as that. Then a week later, the Victoria festival called me out of the blue to book with them, too. Mind you, as the years have gone by, the list of people I’ve played with, and press quotes etc. have piled up to make a better case for giving me a gig than there was 15 years ago, let’s say. Still, I’ve had friends who submitted killer packages to jazz festivals and been completely ignored. Happens all the time. The people doing the hiring have to operate, by necessity, in a completely different world from the musicians. Their concerns are very different from ours, and I sometimes think we grumble too much about their decisions. Maybe all musicians should work for a jazz festival or record label for two years, as an organizer. I’m sure we’d come away with an appreciation for just what they have to deal with. My website has also generated a fair amount of interest, and makes getting bios, pictures, etc. out to people MUCH easier. My wife designed it. Pays to be married!

JGL: From your web site I have learned that you are married and have two girls. If it is not too personal could you talk a bit about raising a family and how you handle being father, husband, and a working jazz guitar player. How have you been able to maintain all these responsibilities and obligations?

MR: So far, so good. I think the main reason is that my wife, Suanne, is uncommonly patient and rational. Our kids will be much more of a responsibility for me when Suanne goes back to work this year. If you’re going to have an income as low as ours, I doubt you could ever do it with a better sense of well-being than the one that comes from being a musician. After all, I’m home with Kelly and Abby all the time (so far I find my kids really easy to get along with), and when my wife comes home from work, I’ll be able to go out and play, or teach. I’m glad I got around to a few places and played a lot of music with a lot of different musicians in my twenties. Makes it easier to commit to fatherhood as I head into my old age! Most of our stress is financial, but we have a lot of help from family and friends, and we’re heading into calmer waters as my wife gets into her career. My daughters like it when daddy plays guitar, which is a nice thing about being able to play.

JGL: Could you describe some of your best musical situations or experiences and the worst?

MR: Probably the biggest thrill I’ve had as a player was a gig I did about ten years ago in Edmonton with a local rhythm section and Herb Ellis. He was gracious to me and very encouraging, and he totally kicked my butt around the stage. This was a thrill I’ll never forget.

The following week I spent a week out here in Vancouver playing at a club called the Glass Slipper with Hugh Fraser’s Jazz Workshop Orchestra. For the final performance they brought in Kenny Wheeler, who played big band and small combo stuff with us all night. This again was a thrill.

Another type of great musical experience would be my wedding night, when I hired a trio to play for the reception, and then my friends the jazz players just sat in all night long, while our guests danced. Wonderful. Like being circus people or something. What a sense of community that created.

Worst situations would include one night in an R&B band where I resorted to doing aerobic leg lifts on stage in front of a large group of Parisian tourists in Montreal, just trying to get ANY reaction out of them. Nothing. In the heat of the moment, I forgot that the workout queen is Jane Fonda, and mistakenly bellowed at the bewildered tourists “Look at me, I’m Barbara Streisand over here!” They had no idea what to make of it.

Another awful gig memory would be when one city’s jazz festival gave my friend’s band (which include me) a gig at an infamous local strip joint, in the middle of the day. We arrived early (to beat the crowd?) and as I tried to decide which side of the center-stage poll to set up on, some fusbal playing bikers in the back yelled “Go Home”. We set up and played, though, for a valiant group of close relatives and friends, who I sincerely believe all showered when they got home. I know I did.

JGL: What type of musical situation do you enjoy the most (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.)

MR: Given my druthers, I most prefer quintet with a pianist and a tenor sax. That way if I miss a few notes in the melodies, no one’s the wiser, since the tenor doubles me, and thickens the guitar sound so nicely in the heads. Also, the piano does a lot of comping, and that way I can save energy for the solos, and if I throw in a few little extra comping figures here and there, it sounds like icing on the cake. I get awfully tired of my own sound otherwise. When I’m not sick of my own sound, I play better. I have just such a quintet out here, with whom I recorded an edition of CBC’s Jazzbeat a couple years ago, and we’re playing the festival this summer. Tilden Webb on piano, Russ Botten on bass, Dave Robbins on drums, and Mike Allen on tenor sax. All of those guys are first rank players, and by now they’re becoming really familiar with my book. Should be fun. I’ll probably cut loose and sing a bit, too.

JGL: Speaking of singing, when I saw you at Upstairs (March, 2004), you sang on a few tunes and then scatted along with your solos. Is this something that you do often (singing and scatting) and how did you come about doing this? (As an aside, the two non-musicians who were with me really enjoyed these tunes you sang and scatted on. And while they enjoyed the other tunes, they felt they were able to really get into the musicality of these few tunes)

MR: I’m glad your friends liked it. I’ve been singing a bit ever since I began to play, and the scat-and-play stuff is of course, straight out of George Benson; at some point early in my playing, I just started always singing what I practised. But over the years, I’ve put a few of my own touches to it, and I get a kick out of doing it. Plus I think audiences just identify well with words. We all speak, and sing in the shower. The night you saw us at Upstairs, we had lost our singer, Isabelle. Since I knew many of the audience were there to see a singer, I threw in a few vocal tunes to give that dimension to the night. Tosses things up, which is good in a band with 2 guitar players.

JGL: At the show I caught, You were playing in a quartet with a bassist and drummer and another awesome guitarist, Kenny Bibace. How do you find working with another guitar player and what kind of interplay do you notice going on?

MR: Really that’s all down to who the other player is, and what their sound is like. With Kenny, who is incredible for sure, his sound is much more processed than mine, so the two sounds were easily distinguishable from one another, and of course we put our amps on opposite sides of the stage. Kenny used to play with me in a pop group I had, and we played a couple of places in Montreal, like the Yellow Door, and the Jell-O Bar, and back then, when we’d both strum, it could wind up sounding like a swarm of bees. But in the jazz situation, with different sounds and functions, not to mention Ken’s superb musicality, the two guitar thing was pretty easy.

As far as interplay goes, I think through the course of the weekend we had some neat moments of trading and playing together, and our vocabularies and time feels are pretty different too, so it was easy to contrast one another. If he had just been playing a fast run, I would often come in with something sparse. What a treat to play with that guy. He’s super professional too, no vibe or anything.

JGL: Where would you like to see jazz guitar go in the coming years?

MR: I often feel somewhat alienated by the extremely cerebral music that is now so fashionable in jazz guitar circles, but if others like it, that’s that. I hear so many players whom I love, and they all seem to be going off in their own direction. There’s a bit of a paradox here, because if by ‘jazz guitar’ you mean a prescribed set of musical practices relating to a set of traditions, then it may not really ‘go’ anywhere. Some people will keep playing straight ahead stuff, probably because it’s fun and well defined. Others will define ‘jazz’ differently, in such a way as to leave it very open ended, and hence open to the caprices of whatever new influential players come down the pike. Who could have predicted Metheny’s music in 1970? But if I could have one wish, it would be to hear more happiness, bounce, and simplicity in jazz. That’s what I tend to like; sunshiny sounding stuff. There isn’t enough of it. I don’t necessarily mean it has to sound commercial either. Sonny Greenwich’s ballads have a lot of what I’m talking about in them, and any medium tempo by Ed Bickert. Creamy.

JGL: Do you like performing more as a sideman or as a leader? And if you could comment on the pros and cons of both.

MR: I vastly prefer being a leader for the reasons that a) I like to be the center of attention and b) I despise reading music on a gig. It ruins for me, all the spontaneity which drew me to jazz in the first place. On my own gigs, I don’t have to read. I can listen to the drums, improvise, etc. c) If the boss is happy, I’m happy.

As a bandleader I think I’m easy to please, so I tend to relax more on my own gig, because if one of my sidemen doesn’t like the music, he can always quit, but I don’t have to worry that the leader won’t hire me again. d) Setting the pace, the changing keys and tempos, the talking to the audience, all that stuff I really like to be in control of, because I can engineer the evening around what feels strongest and most convincing to me. When you’re a sideman you have to eat what’s put in front of you. As a sideman I sometimes feel as though the leader is squandering opportunities to communicate with the crowd, and this breaks my heart.

The main things that are good about being a sideman are that you don’t have to squabble with the club owner about the bread, and you don’t have to make any phone calls. Also I learn a lot from being forced to play other people’s music. Depending on the club and musicians in question these can be serious advantages, but on balance I still prefer to run the show. I’m planning on doing more of it in the near future. I didn’t become a musician to play other people’s music.

JGL: What was the motivation to release your own CD’s? And what was your experience as such getting those CD’s out (from the initial idea to the final product)

MR: When I found out I’d be going to New York, I knew I had an opportunity to play, regularly, with extremely gifted and seasoned musicians. So I wrote a letter to a small record company with whom I had had some previous contact, and asked if they’d be interested in doing a CD with me down there. They were, and so I wrote a lot of new music, and practiced soloing over it in many, many ways. My band rehearsed, and were in shape to record when we went in. We did the whole CD in about 6 hours. I would have preferred to record for a second day, but the company didn’t want to. I also now wish I’d said some different things during the mix down. But hindsight is 20/20, and overall I’m still just very grateful for having had the chance to record in that situation.

My second record came out shortly thereafter with a different band, with my name as co-leader. So my experiences putting out my own records were both kind of odd, in that I didn’t do a lot of “indie” style legwork on either of them. I’m pretty happy with both of them though. I think the best playing I’ve ever managed to do on CD, though, is on the live album called “Thankfully” by saxophonist Ross Taggart, with Bob Murphy on B3 organ and Bernie Arai on drums. It was done live at the Cellar club here in Vancouver and the audience really egged us on. The guitar sound they got me was the best tone I think I’ve ever recorded with, too. It’s very satisfying to feel great about a recording, because it’s difficult to get it so that the studio doesn’t make you too nervous to play well. Part of jazz’s charm is its looseness. That’s really hard to provide when the mics are on. An audience helped me to forget that there were microphones.

JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?

MR: Make sure you enjoy the opportunities of playing as they come up, and don’t ruin the performances by racking yourself with worry. I’ve had many really cool playing situations where I got to play with incredible players, or in front of a wonderful audience, or in some really neat venue overlooking an amazing view, or playing with very dear friends and musical associates. Since we never seem to make that much money, I regard these aspects of the musical life, and the mental health and sense of well being that goes with these pleasant situations, to be the main benefit we receive from music: namely that it’s fun. FUN DAMMIT! Even if you want your music to be really heavy and intense, enjoy what you’re doing. If you’re not going to do that, what’s the point?

JGL: Thank you very much Mike for participating on Jazz Guitar Life. It has been a real pleasure and very insightful.

MR: My pleasure as well Lyle.

About Lyle Robinson 353 Articles
Lyle Robinson is the owner/creator/publisher and editor of Jazz Guitar Life, an online magazine dedicated to the Jazz Guitar and its community of fine players worldwide.

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