A Conversation with... Jesse Cook

Canadian guitarist, composer and producer Jesse (Arnaud) Cook is widely considered one of the most influential figures in the “nuevo flamenco” music world today. He incorporates elements of flamenco rumba, jazz, & many forms of world music into his work. A Juno Award winner, Acoustic Guitar magazine honoured him with the Silver Player’s Choice Award in the Flamenco Category, and he is a three-time winner of the Canadian Smooth Jazz award in the Guitarist of the Year category. Cook has recorded on the EMI, E1 Music, and Narada labels, and has sold over 1.5 million records worldwide. Bill King caught up with Cook last week to talk about his career and his recently released One World album.

Bill King: You were Paris born?

Jesse Cook: I know, people say ‘oh, you were born in Paris’ like I was born with a croissant in my mouth or something. I don’t remember that — until I visited later. We left France when I was four. I do remember the south; we had a house there. I have no recollection now but we also lived in Barcelona for six months….

B.K: Going back must have been an eye-opener…

J.C: Oh yes — you look around and can’t believe people live there. You know you play Paris, New York, or any place like that and you feel your day has come. It’s fantastic!

I haven’t been to France since my father passed away in 2001. My main reason to go back every year was to visit my father and his family. Once he passed away, the destination became Spain.

B.K: Have you been able to inject yourself into the European music scene?

J.C: We get to tour there. Every country has a reason for accessing my music. When you’re not a pop artist you don’t get that blanket coverage. In Poland, it’s my live record — called Montreal — done at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

For some reason in Poland they liked it and it got on the charts. I go there and interviewers will say, “and your most successful album to date” — oh, really — whereas here, Montreal is not a big seller because people don’t go crazy for live records in this part of the world. Last year we were in Ukraine, Italy, Russia — the Baltic States — all sorts of places I never imagined I would get to.

B.K: When you play these regions do you have local musicians wanting to pull you aside and jam with you?

J.C: There’s a lot of that — in fact, in the Ukraine, at the end of the show, I kind of walked out into the audience because they were so loving and didn’t want us to leave. So we went out and talked with people and this one guy pulled out a guitar and asked to play with me. So we had this jam session out in the auditorium.

B.K: Do some cover your songs and insist on playing for you?
J.C: All the time. It’s the greatest form of flattery for a musician or composer. For someone take the time to learn your song  and perform it for you. You think that’s all I ever want in life — that someone else would do me this incredible honour. That’s how music stays alive — when other people do it.

B.K: When you were young did you experience W.O.M.A.D. (World of Music, Arts and Dance) at Harbourfront?

J.C: I knew about it and am very sad to say I didn’t experience it. I love Peter Gabriel.

B.K: The programming during that time was universal. The music you play has so many of the countries represented in it…

J.C: It’s funny you should talk about that. People think I’m into world music is because I travel a lot or because I was born in France. I think the reason I’m into world music - other than Peter Gabriel who was a huge influence on me - is because I live in Toronto, the world’s most multi-cultural city. There are large communities of great musicians from those musical traditions living in our city. You don’t have to go off to Armenia to find a great Armenian duduk player. or to West Africa to get a master drummer because they live right here.

B.K: And you bring these players into your band.

J.C: I do, do that. It’s fun to do that. Sometimes it ends up making a bit of a mess when you spontaneously invite musicians up on stage and everybody’s playing. It can get a bit bombastic — but you know, I love that!

B.K: Your new recording is called One World. This one was recorded at home without you travelling….

J.C: On this recording I started experimenting with computer drum loops, samples, and other things, and rather than write sitting on the guitar as I have in the past, this time I started at the computer. Then started inviting friends in to create multi-layered tracks.

This record actually started with my son, who is seven, and wanting to get into the studio and play with my computer. Basically, anything with a screen and he wants to get on it. The computer in my studio is connected to absolutely everything: all the electronics, all the gear, the samplers.

Those little hands all over the computer, I just couldn’t watch so I went into another room and then came back and he had all sorts of screens open I’d never seen before and I thought 'is that in the program?’ I had no idea. He said, ‘yes, just press this button, then this button – drop down and drag this…’ It wasn’t that he was making music, more moving things around and having a good time. I said, 'Get out of that seat and let me in there’ and I started playing. At first I was doing it sort of for the fun of it and then, at a certain point, I thought, this could be something I may want to explore on the next record.

B.K: I was thinking back to what set this new world of world fusion in motion was the group — possibly Strunz and Farah.

J.C: For me, I think it’s earlier than that. When I hear Strunz and Farah I hear Friday night in San Francisco — that Mediterranean sun dance in half the songs those guys do. It was a flamenco fusion between jazz and flamenco. With flamenco there have been waves of interest in the Andalusian cadence that sort of swept over the western world whether it was Sabicas or Carlos Montoya and then later Paco de Lucia in the '70s, and then the Gipsy Kings…

B.K: Tomatito?

J.C: He’s amazing.

B.K: Catalonian?

J.C: No, I think he’s from the south of Spain. He’s more of a traditional flamenco player. Paco — the God of the guitar — the greatest flamenco guitarist of all time was such a great technician and did so many things. Tomatito (José Fernández Torres) had a real gypsy sound — a groove.

As I mentioned before, my influence was Peter Gabriel. Not so much for his pop music but for the world music he recorded. The soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ was an influence. There was also this piece of music he did called “The Rhythm of the Heat” that has this incredible Ghanaian percussion ensemble. The first half is sort of the ‘art rocky’ British thing and the last two minutes is this explosion of percussion and as a teenager hearing that, well I’d never heard anything that powerful before. It left a mark on me.

B.K: You write in the album liner notes, “I wanted to make what I was doing feel like Constantinople, the ancient city that existed between the East and the West. It was the meeting point of all these great cultures — Africa, Europe, Asia, India. I want my music to be that place: The Constantinople of sound — a place where ancient sounds meet with modern ones and pass though that port.”

J.C: Constantinople today is Istanbul. You still feel it. You go there and it still feels like it was the New York of the world for 1,500 years. Even today it’s so vibrant and cooking. Little coffee shops everywhere — the grand souk — the underground cisterns.  

People often ask me what’s the most amazing place I’ve played in or visited? I think it was easier answering those questions at the beginning of my career but the more I travel the harder it becomes to answer. It’s like asking, “Which is your favourite colour?” I like them all!



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