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Guitar virtuoso returns

by on April 14, 2010
(reposted from

For The Daily Gleaner

Jesse Cook comes to The Playhouse next Tuesday, April 20 as part of a five-piece band. He is in the midst of a tour in support of his seventh album on the Narada label, The Rumba Foundation.

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The Rumba Foundation is just the latest chapter in Jesse Cook’s celebrated, eclectic, and increasingly international career. “I am always so humbled to hear the enthusiasm from my fans surrounding my new material and performances. The Rumba Foundation is a new direction for me, and I am really looking forward to having people hear it,” says Cook. He’ll take to The Playhouse stage on Tuesday, April 20 at 7:30 p.m.

Technically a rumba flamenco guitarist, Cook’s actual niche is his blend of that specific Spanish music form with elements of new age, jazz, and easy listening. It has been a successful fusion. Cook has sold over a million albums – a phenomenal total for a non-mainstream genre – and he won a Juno Award in 2000.

In 2008, he had a Top 3 smooth jazz radio chart single in Café Mocha and a number one album on the Billboard new age chart with Frontiers, an album that has spent over 70 weeks and counting on its top 10 charts. Like so much of Cook’s life work of the last two decades, the album and the tour are the result of a geographic and musical journey.

“Initially, the idea was to revisit rumba flamenco by going to the birthplace of the rumba part 150 years later.”

Cook’s interest was returning to “the rumba root” which is in Cuban music, and exploring “different branches off the same tree – what happens when it all comes together.”

The journey had a twist, though.

“Somehow, I ended up in Colombia. So, I redefined the project as bringing rumba flamenco back to the Americas.”

The 13-song album that resulted from this journey is special to Cook’s heart, but he highlighted the pieces done with Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, a northern Colombia-based band who play traditional indigenous music, and won a Latin Grammy back in 2007. “It was not easy,” he admitted. “They play their music traditionally, and I arrive from Toronto with my hybrid style.”

However, Cook described it all as “a great time” that “really did work.”

The whole notion of travel is part of the very life of Jesse Cook. Born into what he described as “an artistic family,” which included a visual artist as an uncle and a ballet dancer as a cousin, he was born in Paris, but his parents were Canadian.

“My parents went to Paris in their 20s and did the bohemian artist thing. My father became a very good photographer and filmmaker instead. My mother was a journalist. She did some modelling and then became a television producer.”

Cook and his sister were born in Paris. When his parents separated, his father moved to Arles in southern France. At age four, Cook moved back to Canada with his mother and sister.

The flamenco bug bit there.

“When I came back to Canada, my mother brought back all of her LPs, including classical guitar albums. I liked them, and Mom got me a teacher at age six.”

Cook, however, gravitated toward flamenco guitar rather than classical guitar.

As well, he was entering his teen years.

“I wasn’t really that interested in practising that hard at age 13. I quit classical, and got into jazz and improvisation.”

His music took on a whole new level during a visit with his father in his late teen years.

Nicolas Reyes of the Gipsy Kings, the band that really brought flamenco to the wider world in the 1980s, was a neighbour of Cook’s father in Arles.

“I ended up being invited to a rooftop jam session. By that point, I was studying jazz at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Now, I was jamming with people, none of whom were trained.”

Cook explained that the tradition of virtuoso folk music is not at all indigenous to Toronto, where he had lived from age four onward. It’s transplanted.

“Folk is indigenous to the East Coast. Folk is transplanted in Toronto. In the same way, flamenco is not indigenous to Toronto. Being with these people, here I was at school preparing to be a professional musician, and now here I was with people making music just for the love of it.

Still, Cook spent many of his years in his 20s as a composer and producer for jingles and the like. He did release a CD at his friend’s urging.

However, in his words, “I honestly thought that it was a vanity project that I would give to family and friends.”

However, that album was Tempest. Released independently in 1995 on what he called “a shoestring budget,” it sold 4,000 copies in the first month alone – something that Cook described as “a great surprise.”

He signed with Narada, a new age, jazz, and world music label distributed by EMI, and the album started charting in the United States as well as Canada – first in the new age category, and eventually on the then-embryonic world music charts.

“My life made this huge 90-degree turn,” he said. “I had made a living as a composer, and played for fun. Now, I was playing for my living. I gave up my composition company, and made playing my whole life.

“From there, I’ve been very blessed. I’ve made record after record.”

That said, one can argue that it all comes full circle with the album and tour for The Rumba Foundation. Cook blends African rhythms and European harmonies in his fusion.

Fredericton has been a frequent stop for Cook through the years. This time around, Cook is excited to be presenting his material in a five-piece band format.

The tour band includes Chris Church, a violinist from Halifax, Cuba-born percussionist Chendy Leon, guitarist Nicolas Hernandez, and bassist Dennis Mohammed.

Cook’s show will also feature two guests, Panama-born accordion player Juan Diego De Setas and flamenco dancer Nancy Cardwell, who is Cook’s wife.

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