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|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Wednesday, 08 July 2009 00:00|
When Jesse Cook steps onto the Ottawa Bluesfest stage next week to perform his rumba-infused flamenco guitar stylings, he'll be bringing with him fourteen years of experience and, quite literally, a world of musical influences. The Juno award-winning artist has recorded six critically acclaimed albums (with a seventh set for release this September) and has travelled the globe exploring and absorbing a diverse range of musical traditions. While mixing his upcoming album and DVD, and preparing for the Bluesfest performance, Cook took some time to chat with (Cult)ure.
(Cult)ure: Your song "Mario Takes A Walk" was one of the 49 songs chosen by the CBC to represent Canada to President Obama. As a world musician who spent his youth in France, what do you think is particularly Canadian about your work?
Jesse Cook: I think that when people think of Canadian music, they think of Anne Murray's "Snowbird" and Gordon Lightfoot; they think of songwriters singing about snow, the prairies, and Canadian winters. They don't always think of rumba guitar mixed with Brazilian samba!
But when I think of Canada, I think of this crazy country that people have come to from all over the world, in record numbers. I live in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities on the planet. There's a very strong Brazilian community here. There's a whole bunch of samba groups and a community that loves to hear them. There's lots of flamenco going on in this city. There's lots of everything: Indian music, Asian music... its all going on here.
So when I think of Canada, I think of these amazing hybrids that happen when you have all these communities living side by side. Eventually, they start mixing it up. In my case, it's what happens when you mix Brazilian samba with rumba flamenco.
On the new record, I've been mixing rumba flamenco music with Cuban music and Colombian music. I went down to Colombia last month to record with a group of vallenato style players. I'm going to be bringing a lot of those people with me to Bluesfest: an accordionist from Panama, a percussionist from Colombia, a percussionist from Brazil, a percussionist from Cuba. It's going to be a fun time.
You've collaborated with other musicians, and worked as a solo artist. Do you approach the two differently?
I think everything that I do is collaborative work. When I'm writing a piece of music, it starts initially with me alone in the studio writing. Sometimes I'll record and play all the parts, just so I can get it on tape and hear the full mix. After that, I'll call up my friends, invite them to play, and replace the parts I recorded with people who actually play those instruments well.
Over the years, though, I've found that one of the most fun ways to make a record is to get on a plane. On Nomadic, I went off to Madrid, then flew to Egypt and worked with a whole bunch of people there, and then went down to LA as well. Travelling turns the making of a record into a bit of an adventure. The record becomes a journal of your trip.
When I flew to Colombia, I'd never been there before, and I was welcomed into these guys's home. They served me this fantastic traditional soup, and gave me this little concert in the living room and explained their music. It was wonderful.
How would you characterize the differences between live performance and studio work?
They are very different. One is an immediate experience that won't be reproduced, and the other is a concrete experience that will be played over and over again.
In the studio, I think of it as being like a painter. You're painting with sound, and the canvas is your hard drive. You're able to record the parts and put them together exactly the way you want. You can be very precise about the mix of the instruments and how they sit in the soundscape.
When you're performing live, it's a bit of a free-for-all. You have to embrace the chaos; especially if there is improvisation, like there is in our show. You don't know what people are going to do from night to night, and that's the excitement of it. It's a high-wire act. You're not sure if you're going to fall, or if they're going to fall and you're going to need to catch them. That's the fun of it. I think the audience feels that too. They know they're getting a unique experience and it's only going to exist for that night as a collective experience.
When you're in the studio, it can be a very personal. There's an intimacy there. Especially in my case, where I record in my own studio. Some days I don't have an engineer, and I just sit there alone with a microphone. It can become a very sort of personal thing, as opposed to when you are performing for an audience. With an audience, they will react to something you play, and it will affect what you're doing. Then maybe you'll play something different because you're getting into them being into it, and the whole thing feeds off itself.
Having played concerts in countries all around the world, can you characterize Canadian audiences in a specific way?
As much of a variety as I see travelling the world, I also see travelling Canada. In Quebec, for example, I find audiences there are different than audiences in Ontario. If you play out West in Vernon BC at this crazy festival they have up in the mountains and you have hippies dancing on the beaches, it's very different than if you are playing in Vancouver in some big symphony hall. It really varies from audience to audience, or even within one city. I find if we're playing Toronto's Massey Hall, there will be a sort of electricity to that show. If we go out to the suburbs and play Markham Theatre, it will be very different, because it's a different group of people. The people who buy houses in the suburbs and go to shows in the suburbs have a different kind of energy than the people who want to live downtown.
Even the same people in a different venue will change the feel. For years I've been playing in Montreal at various theatres, like the Metropolis. One year, we decided to play the Wilfrid Pelletier theatre, which is part of Place Des Arts, a much more conservative theatre. The people who came to the concert, I imagine many had been to other shows of mine, but when you put them in this big symphony hall, it's a much more subdued experience. People were on their best behaviour, because, you know, the ushers were keeping an eye on them!
You're often noted for your witty banter with the audience between songs. Is that something that comes naturally to you?
I love playing the guitar. It's something that I've practiced and feel I know how to do, but for years I found the part where I would talk to the audience was the hardest. It took a lot of prodding from the people around me. My managers would always say, "Talk! Why do you sit there so quietly?" As years have gone by, I've certainly been talking more and more, and I enjoy it now. In the old days, I was just parroting something I'd said before that seemed funny. I'd repeat the same jokes night after night; whereas, now I find I can treat my communication with the audience like an actual conversation and just say whatever comes to my mind. Which is dangerous too! Some nights that's definitely got me into trouble...
Do you remember your first guitar?
Yeah, I do. The very first guitar was a tiny little toy thing that I used to strum. I think I was five when I got my first guitar that was actually playable. My mom's boyfriend brought it back from Mexico, and I remember playing it and being very excited to have a real guitar. I still have it kicking around, actually. Somehow it hasn't been destroyed. My son wants to play it. He's only four, so I'm waiting a little longer, since he tends to destroy things.
Your father was a filmmaker, and you've released a concert DVD, One Night at the Metropolis, and are now working on another one. How did you find the transition from music into filmmaking?
Both my parents were part of that world, actually. My mother was a television producer for The Nature of Things for years. All through my childhood I remember sitting in editing suites watching my mother work on a flatbed, pulling reels of film out of big bins. In terms of my own involvement in the DVDs, I'm involved in the concept, but I certainly wouldn't describe what I do as filmmaking. I make the concerts and someone else makes the DVD.
I do love film. I think it's sort of the master of all media these days. It incorporates the written word. It incorporates music. In some cases it's one of the few outlets for symphonic works. It incorporates the visual. The composition on the screen can be equated with what great painters or great photographers do. It really is a fantastic medium, but it's also incredibly expensive. Anybody nowadays can make a record at home. The freedom is fantastic with music. I think making film is a much more challenging medium.
You have a new album coming out this September. What can fans expect?
With this one, I wanted to bring rumba to the Americas. A hundred and fifty years ago or so (historians are debating that constantly), rumba arrived in Spain. It was brought by sailors who'd been to Cuba and heard this new rhythm. You can imagine sailors hanging out with gypsies in the bars of Spain, and saying, "Hey, I heard this new rhythm, it goes like this..." The gypsy musicians incorporated it into their music, and it became rumba flamenco.So here I am, 150 years later, spending my summers in Arles, France, where Dad had retired, and I was a guitarist interested in all sorts of music. I got hooked on the way these guys played guitar, and I started playing it more and more.
I thought for this project, it would be interesting to take rumba flamenco from Arles, and mix it back with the music being made in the Americas today. To that end I'm working with the percussionist in my band. He's Cuban, and came to Canada seven or eight years ago. His father also came, and his father is also a percussionist. He's a Buena Vista Social Club-era musician, and I've invited him to play as well. So those two will be duking it out.
I also went down to Colombia, as I said earlier, and incorporated elements of Columbia vallenato music. There are some elements of Brazilian music in there too, and zouk from Haiti as well. The album is called The Rumba Foundation, since it all started with this rumba that came from Cuba.
You were awarded silver in Acoustic Guitar magazine's 'Player's Choice Awards' earlier this year, and you've been nominated for, and won, Juno awards. Is that sort of recognition important to you?
I'd like to say no, but everyone wants to be accepted and recognized by their peers. When I was a teenager, I was practicing guitar ten hours a day because I wanted to be a great guitarist. I wanted people to applaud. I wanted to give concerts and all of that. So for sure, it's nice, but I have mixed feelings about it, as I'm sure most people do.
Music is not a competition. There are no winners and losers. Can you say quantifiably Bob Dylan is a greater musician than Yitzhak Perlman? It's like comparing apples with... refrigerators, or something. They are completely different beasts. Yitzhak Perlman is a master technician and a genius on his instrument. Bob Dylan is a poet, and he strums nicely and sings just well enough to get the words out, and still manages to moves us incredibly.
At the end of the day, music is music, and the only competition going on is the competition to win your heart with whatever the musician is playing, whether it's a million notes or just three.
You can catch Jesse Cook performing at the Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest on July 11 at 9:00 pm on the Hard Rock Café stage. Click here for tickets and information.