Jesse Cook — Featured Smooth Jazz Artist Archives (2017)

Aug. 2017

Jesse Cook – Coloring World/Jazz Music in Magnificent Hues

The music of Canadian guitarist Jesse Cook is very different from your average smooth jazz musician. His unique blend of Rumba Flamenco, Classical, and Jazz guitar styles produce a soothing tableau that evokes swirling skirts, castanets, and the loneliness of campfires in a forested twilight. It’s an altogether beautiful sound and as refreshing as clear cool mountain water on a hot summer’s day.

Cook was born in Paris and spent his early years travelling with his parents between Barcelona in Spain, the French capital, and southern France. As a child, he was fascinated by the guitar and tried to copy the sound of the great Gypsy guitarist Manitas de Plata (Ricardo Baliardo) who he heard from his parents record collection. De Plata was a guitar maverick who, although gaining worldwide attention as a flamenco artist, was often criticized for not following the traditional flamenco rhythmic rules (compás).

Following his parents’ divorce, Cook and his sister went to live with his mother in her native Canada. It was here that his mother recognised Cook’s prodigious talent, and she arranged for him to take lessons at Toronto’s Eli Kassner Guitar Academy. Cook eventually studied under Kassner, who was himself a student of another guitar maestro, the Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia. Cook went on to study classical and jazz guitar at Canada’s Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto’s York University, and Berklee College of Music in the United States.

While Cook was still a teenager, his father retired to the French city of Arles in the Camargue where his neighbour just happened to be Nicolas Reyes, lead singer of the flamenco group, The Gipsy Kings. Reyes, as is the way of things, also happened to be related to Cook’s original guitar inspiration, Manitas de Plata. Reyes was the son of flamenco star José Reyes, de Plata’s cousin.

During frequent visits to Arles, Jesse Cook became increasingly fascinated by the “Camargue sound,” the rhythmic, flamenco-rumba approach that could be heard on many corners and cafés in the “gipsy barrio.”

He has often quipped that he later attempted to unlearn all his “formal” training, the better to become immerse himself in the oral traditions of Gypsy music. This helped him widen his range of musical tastes. Of his style, he has said: “My strange way of playing guitar is a hybrid of styles. I was a classical guitarist as a kid, and I studied flamenco and then I studied jazz. So, there are three musical and guitar traditions in my background. And one of the forms I use, rumba flamenco, is itself a hybrid created in the 1800s when sailors were coming back to Spain from Cuba, having heard these Cuban rhythms. And here I am, 150 years later, taking it and mixing it back with modern music and seeing where it takes me. Music is a constantly evolving thing.”

Cook’s big break came at the 1995 Catalina Jazz Festival where he was booked to play during the twenty-minute intermissions in a little bar downstairs from the main stage. His performance was so well-received that he was invited to give a performance on the main stage where he received a ten-minute standing ovation before the audience allowed him to play. His debut album, Tempest, had been independently released in Canada and, within a month of its release, had been picked up by the Narada record label in America. It was the label that provided Cook the opportunity to perform at the festival. Following his live performance, the album entered the Billboard charts at #14.

The follow-up album, Gravity, was released in 1996. It hit the Top Ten on the new age charts. Vertigo was released two years later, and Free Fall appeared in mid-2000. In 2003, Nomad was released, followed by the live album Montréal in 2004. Though it was started conceptually in 2005, Cook didn’t issue his next studio album, Frontiers, which marked a return to his initial simpler production style, until 2007. The Rumba Foundation followed in 2009.

Cook varied the routine a bit with his next release, 2012’s The Blue Guitar Sessions, adding ballads and vocals on some tracks (by singer Emma-Lee) for a more expansive and jazzy mid-stream pop sound. The guest artist-studded and aptly-named One World, which drew inspiration from music of the Middle East, South America, Spain, and beyond, was issued in May 2015.

For Jesse Cook, music has been a journey both literally and sonically.

“Over the years, I’ve taken my music and tried to cross-pollinate it with music from different parts of the world. For the (2003) album Nomad, I went to Cairo and recorded with musicians there. On my (2009) record The Rumba Foundation, I went to Colombia, and worked with musicians from Cuba as well. On (1998’s) Vertigo, I went down to Lafayette, La., and recorded with Buckwheat Zydeco. For me, the question has always been: Where did you go? Where did you take your guitar?”

In 1998, Cook was nominated for a Juno Award as Instrumental Artist of the Year. In 2001, he received a Juno Nomination for Best Male Artist. In 2001, Cook won a Juno Award in the Best Instrumental Album category for Free Fall. In 2009, he was Acoustic Guitar’s Player’s Choice Award silver winner in the Flamenco category (gold went to Paco de Lucia). He is a three-time winner of the Canadian Smooth Jazz award for Guitarist of the Year and has received numerous other awards.

Listening to any of Cook’s albums is a beautiful musical adventure. Tracks like “Red” from the Vertigo album shift from an all-out skirt-swirling flamenco style swift picking extravaganza to an eerie Arabian feel without missing a beat. Cook’s music paints pictures in sound. It’s almost impossible to listen to his playing without imaging being away from wherever you are. The way he weaves flamenco nuances across a straight, almost pop, backing is mesmerising. Early on “Tuesday” from the Nomad album features a standard vocal refrain that is just transformed by Cook’s infectious playing, lifting the tune to a different level. One of my personal favourites, again from the Vertigo recording, is “Canción Triste.” It’s a beautifully mournful piece. Maybe it’s the cello, but I defy you not to be moved by this piece. Cook’s restrained playing on this is delicate and deeply blue.

“When I started as a kid, it was as a classical guitarist with some flamenco training,” continued Cook. “Then I went to jazz school and learned jazz improvisation and later turned back to flamenco. Now what I do now is none of the above. My musical style is now more of a fusion; I am trying to find out what happens when you mix it all together. Now I appreciate we live in a sound-bite culture so when someone asks me what is it that you actually do if you are not a flamenco artist. What are you; Country, Heavy Metal? I realize what I do is not for everybody,” Cook explained. “I make music I like to hear. I have an esoteric taste in music. Some people don’t get it, and I quite accept that; yet, some people love it, that’s why my music is so subjective.”

No, your music is simply awesome. – Steve Giachardi

To view Jesse Cook’s complete discography, click here