By Ed Durocher
Jesse Cook is a Canadian flamenco guitarist, composer, and producer. He has won many awards, including a Juno in 2001 for his album Free Fall (and he’s been nominated 11 times throughout his career), Acoustic Guitar People’s Choice in the flamenco category, and many others. He has studied music at Berklee, Canada’s Royal Conservatory of Music, and York University. His big break really came in 1995 at the Catalina Jazz Festival where he got the chance to sneak on the main stage for a surprise performance. Afterwards, his debut album Tempest went to #14 on the American Billboard charts. Since then, he has been releasing a steady stream of beautiful records that mix flamenco, jazz, and world music.
Now all these years later, Cook is still moving forward with his music, always adapting, working, and recording with a very diverse group of artists. On Wednesday May 27, Jesse plays in Winnipeg at the Burton Cummings Theatre. It was a pleasure to be able to ask him about his views on music and life.
Stylus: What is it that attracts you to flamenco/jazz music? What was the first spark? What was the first real ‘this is for me’ moment?
Jesse Cook: My first memories of flamenco music was as a small child combing through my mother’s record collection. She had an album with a picture of a man’s hands on the cover. The music was raw and emotive. I didn’t know what it was, I just knew I loved it. It made me want to be able to play the guitar so ferociously. The artist was Manitas de Platas, a flamenco guitarist from France. Later I learned he was not highly regarded by the serious flamenco artists. But to my six-year-old ears it was fantastic.
My ‘this is for me’ moment came years later when a close friend of my family’s played me “Friday Night in San Francisco” by Paco de Lucia, Al di Meola, and John McGlaughlin. I was a teenager by that point, and had been studying the guitar pretty seriously since I was six. I thought I was hot stuff until I heard that record. At first it made me want to quit. Then it made me want to practice…and practice…and practice.
Stylus: Did you have a large musical background growing up? Family members who would show you licks? Did you ever apprentice/take lessons?
J.C.: I come from a family of artists. My parents were both filmmakers, my uncle was a respected artist, my cousin is a ballerina with the National Ballet. I am the only professional musician in the family, but many of my cousins were amateur musicians. Family gatherings were known to have some crazy jamborees.
Stylus: You most cherished/hated moments with your guitar?
J.C.: My guitar has been my lifelong friend. People have come and gone, but my guitar has always been there, through good times and bad.
Stylus: What is your compositional process? Does it start with a melody, or a chord progression? Do you compose on other instruments?
J.C.: I try to change my writing process from time to time. Shake things up. Composing, like improvising, has it’s ruts. On stage, if I want to shake things up, I’ll start each solo on a different note, or a different beat, or usually both. It forces me to search for something new, instead of falling into old patterns. Composing can be similar. I try to throw myself into musical contexts which are unfamiliar to me, where I have to struggle to find my voice. Whether that is recording with musicians in Cairo, or Bogota, or dabbling with electronica and drum loops, with each new album I try to find a new sound, a new texture, a new puzzle to solve.
Stylus: What are your desert island records?
J.C.: Rubber Soul, The Beatles
La Llorona, Lhasa,
Kind of Blue, Miles Davis
Security, Peter Gabriel
Ciudad de las Ideas, Vicente Amigo
Stylus: If you could pick any musicians to play with, living or dead, who would they be?
J.C.: Paco de Lucia
Stylus: You’re going out on tour soon. What is your favourite city to play? What do you love about that city? Please don’t feel pressured to say Winnipeg.
J.C.: I don’t have a favorite city per se. There are some cities where I remember having amazing nights, where the band, the audience, and I were really in tune, like we were all transported on some kind of journey, the atmosphere was crazy and the place just blew up. Montreal, Singapore, and New York would be on that list. Catalina and Wroclaw are on it. Winnipeg might be on that list too. But sadly, I don’t think you can say every concert in those cities has the same magic. It’s what makes you appreciate those moments even more when they happen.
Jesse Cook will be stopping at The Walker Theatre (better known as the Burton Cummings Theatre) on May 27th in support of his new album One World. Don’t miss your chance to see one of the gems of the flamenco world.