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Jazz Fest concert review: Jesse Cook at Maison Symphonique

Canadian acoustic guitar viruoso Jesse Cook. ALLEN MCINNIS / MONTREAL GAZETTECanadian acoustic guitar viruoso Jesse Cook. ALLEN MCINNIS / MONTREAL GAZETTE

When Canadian guitarist Jesse Cook stepped on the Maison Symphonique stage on Thursday night, there was a brief moment of confusion among audience members: either an imposter had sauntered in or his characteristic wavy long locks had been trimmed.

Any and all doubts were quickly erased when Cook’s equally famed fingers began dancing on the strings of his acoustic guitar. It was clear there would be no Samson moment for the 50-year-old.

“If you’re not sure, it’s me. I cut my hair,” the affable Cook said after leaning back and letting his fingers do the talking for an introductory song. Before continuing, he took a few seconds to admire the four-year-old venue for the first time. “It has that new car smell,” he joked, before asking everyone to “not go formal” on him. They did not; this was the sort of energized Jazz Fest crowd that wanted to clap, and they did so with Cook’s full encouragement.

Cook is firmly entrenched as a jazz fest favourite, and his comfortable Spanish guitar-meets-world music formula was familiar to everyone present. He was almost apologetic about playing songs from his latest album, One World, even though they don’t represent a departure from his previous works. As far as surprises go, he performed one song solo with looping pedals, and presented it as a new technique he’s getting acquainted with.

“I spent two and a half years tinkering with loops,” he said in reference to One World. Otherwise, with a clean setup on a capacious stage — even the band’s monitors appeared to be replaced by laptops from my vantage point slightly behind them — Cook and his backing quartet filled the room with reverberating claps and stomps in addition to their drums, violin, two guitars and bass setup.

The drummer switched between regular western percussion, djembes and even a pair of frying pans in an effort to present each song with a different rhythmic identity. At times they contracted their setup even further, with the bandmates huddled around a single microphone or sitting at the front edge of the stage.

Cook was his typically laid-back self, impressing enough with his nimble non-puritanical flamenco guitar playing while never positioning himself as a overbearing virtuoso. It wasn’t a commanding performance emotionally or physically, so much as an unselfish one to allow for greater audience participation. The gambit paid off, based on how often the crowd rose from their seats and clapped along in unison.

Cook mostly went for humour when talking to the audience, although he saved his longest and most informative preamble, about Andalusian music pioneer Ziryab, for an older song of his: Baghdad from 1995’s Tempest.

The three covers Cook chose for his encore were as crowd-pleasing as they were uninspired. Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” was an easy way to get the audience to resume clapping, while their stripped down version of “Fall At Your” Feet by Crowded House was done without microphones to a respectfully quiet room. The mystifying set closer, neo-folk turkey “Hey Ho” by soon-to-be one-hit wonders The Lumineers, ended the night on a forgettable note.

– The Gazette


The Music Express

“For 18 years I have undergone the ritual of walking the red carpet at the Juno Awards and endured the same experience,” reported guitar impresario Jesse Cook, on the phone from Oregon prior to flying into Toronto to perform at two concerts at the Rudolph Theatre which are being televised as PBS specials.

“As I walk down the carpet, the E Talk Daily crew runs past me in pursuit of the Swollen Members or whoever is the flavour group/artist of the year. Next year when I take the same walk, that band/artist has gone missing and they are chasing someone else.

“Meanwhile I still have an audience, I still sell records, I still perform concerts all over the world. I figure that one day, E Talk is going to say `who is that guy we keep running past, maybe we should stop and talk to him?

One thing Jesse Cook doesn’t have to worry about is being a flavour of the year tag. Ever since his breakthrough at the 1995 Catalina Jazz Festival in California where an impromptu performance which triggered a 10-minute standing ovation before he had even performed a note, Cook capitalized on the ensuing publicity to push his debut “Tempest” album into the Billboard charts at No14.

Born in Paris to photographer John Cook and TV producer Heather Cook, young Jesse constantly moved between Paris, the Arles region of France and Barcelona where he picked up an interest in flamenco music.

Cook proved to be a child protégé, enrolling in the prestigious Eli Kassner Guitar Academy in Toronto after his parents divorced and his mother moved him and brother back to Canada. From there it was on to the Royal Conservatory of Music, York University and Berklee College in Boston.

During visits to his estranged father who had moved to Arles, Cook became acquainted with his father’s next door neighbour Nicholas Reyes, who happened to be lead vocalist for the renowned Gypsy Kings flamenco band.

Since the release of “Tempest”, Cook has reeled off six more records and three performances DVD, all of which have registered either gold or platinum sales marks. Cook’s latest release, “The Blues Guitar Sessions” released in 2012 is enjoying a similar success story.

Known to the masses as `that flamenco guy’, Cook notes his guitar styling are much more wide ranging, as reflect in his new release. “I love flamenco music; a true flamenco artist is the best guitar player on the planet. The unfortunate thing is because we live in the West, we don’t have an appreciation of what flamenco is.”

“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.”

Yet considering Cook’s music receives virtually no radio exposure and his albums aren’t exactly a hot selling item at Costco, Cook accepts he has to be creative in marketing his product. This involves constant touring plus a series of PBS concert specials recorded for the North American market.

“Normally, I try to restrict my touring to short segments, but having said that, I have just completed a European tour, a Canadian tour plus about 70 dates in the U.S, it’s what you’ve got to do to sell records these days,” explained Cook. “It’s no longer possible to browse through a record department to find your favourite albums, those departments don’t exist anymore. It’s all about the Top Twenty CD’s that are being sold at Costco, or Walmart or Target. If you are not in that Top 20, you’re not selling CD’s at retail.”

Cook is also disturbed that in his opinion, all music on commercial radio follows the same formula. “The hooks are up front, the chorus is up front, they’ve auto-tuned the snot out of the vocals, every beat is corrected by computer – this is how you have to sound to get on radio. But I am saying this as people queue up in droves for McDonalds or Starbucks coffee and other things that are manufactured en masse. Yet at the end of the day I believe people want something with a little more humanity to it.”

“I don’t live in the world where I sell millions of records, I am completely out of that box,” he continues. “If people buy my records, it’s because they’ve seen my shows or it’s a word of mouth thing.”

Another problem for Cook is that he doesn’t release singles that can be downloaded on to MP3 players. His recording world is albums, a form of process that is becoming increasingly obsolete. “I grew up in the world of albums. I love to play an album from track one, listen to the whole thing, I immerse myself in it. Yet the majority of people who listen to music don’t list to complete albums. They download from one track to another but they lose the sequencing of an album. Imagine downloading track seven from Sgt Pepper and then track three from Abbey Road or re-sequencing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. You lose the entire sequencing of the record. Correct sequencing has always played an important part of me producing a record. My records are created to be heard in sequence.

One method Cook has utilized to promote his records is television exposure of his concerts via a series of PBS specials. “PBS is a fantastic outlet for people like me to get my music heard. They will play entire concerts,” noted Cook. “I had played at the Montreal Jazz Festival and the organizers gave me a DVD copy of my performance. Problem is they always shoot these concerts the same way. The cameras are locked in position, there’s no dark spots on stage, it’s all illuminated for the camera, the audio and video are mixed simultaneously as the concert progresses. They virtually hand you a copy of the show as you walk off the stage – but they are all so generic looking.

Even in this state, Cook found he could get some mileage from the DVD’s but he wanted a better performance so he decided to shoot his own performance. Cook couldn’t secure any financial investment so he rented out the Rose Theatre in Brampton Ontario in 2012 and shot his own show. “I had no budget whatsoever so I called in a group of young movie students to produce the show, passed on a mobile and instead stuck a hard drive on the mixer. I had friends show up with their cameras and shot the show – the result was that it looked and felt like a movie.

Cook took the resulting production to the PBS convention in Denver, working the halls, handing out flash drives of the show’s highlights. “PBS stations are all autonomously programmed – it’s not like one person makes a decision for the whole network – but we got four or five stations playing the concert. Then it was 20 to 25 and after five months we had over 50 stations airing the show, some of them repeatedly.

Encouraged by the results, Cook decided to shoot another show to promote his Blues Guitar Session release resulting in two dates at Toronto’s Randolph Theatre in April. “Bit more of a budget but I am essentially using the same people and the same production techniques,” explains Cook. “This time we have firm commitments in place from a number of PBS stations including key stations in Chicago and Boston. They don’t pay for the programming but the exposure they provide is invaluable.”

Cook may continue to get a cold shoulder from the E-Talk Daily crew but his popularity is international and his product sales are consistently solid. His music is utilized by such sources as Russian figure skater Irina Slatskaya who won a bronze medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Beijing dancing to `Mario Takes A Walk’. He has also opened for the likes of B.B King, Ray Charles and Diana Kroll, appeared on records by several artists including a 13-year old Charlotte Church,Holly Cole and Liona Boyd.

Cook meanwhile is committed to more concert activities as his criss-crosses the globe promoting his new recording. “We’re musicians, we have to tour to pay my bills, that is what we do,” concludes Cook. “I really don’t have many other options. I’d make a lousy dentist.”




The Smooth Jazz Ride

To be sure, one should not confuse the title of the new release from Nuevo Flamenco guitar great Jesse Cook, The Blue Guitar Sessions, with the 12-bar blues that may come to mind. This is not The Blues Guitar Sessions. Rather, it is a very different, very well-produced and well-performed project full of soft, sweet melodies and moods.

Oh, there are clear nods to the blues. A good example would be the opening track, sung by a breathy Emma Lee, the classic Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” and, later in the album, a sublime and beautiful jazz/blues arrangement called “Miles Shorter.”

However, following that is a great group of tunes designed to place you in that romantic space that disregards any part of the world that falls outside of melody, exoticism, and romance. Helping with that escort into that world are the celestial strings that make their presence so well felt.

Now, there are instances where the tempo is picked up, as on “Witching Hour,” which has an interesting feel to it with its somewhat hybrid gypsy/reggae feel. This is one of those tracks that’s certainly not one easy to pigeonhole, much to Cook’s delight, I’ll bet. The stirring “Ocean Blue” is another stirring upbeat World track with an identity all its own.

Mind you, all of the tracks on the album still feature the licks and familiar Latin guitar fingering style of Cook embedded somewhere in each tune.

Cook has traveled much, seen much, and experienced much. Because of this all-encompassing experience, it is no wonder that he can simply let go with his imagination and envision then paint such a diverse project. Tunes like the melancholy “Toybox,” the sweet “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” and the telling “The Road” probably do the best job of describing the album’s title and mood as they conjure up “blue” as effectively as any piece on the album.

Wherever Cook tends to “go” with his projects, he always returns with an assortment of fine tunes and a noteworthy production that displays how seriously he regards his art while still having fun with its many facets.
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– Ronald Jackson


The Vancouverist (Interview)

Today we had the great pleasure of talking to guitarist extraordinaire, Jesse Cook about his sensational new album, The Blue Guitar Sessions. Here's what he had to say.

tV: You've created a much more intimate and personal album with The Blue Guitar Sessions. Can you talk a little about that?

JC: It's something that I've wanted to do for a long time. I love the fiery rumbas and the albums with lots of percussion I've been known for and I've always tried to be the Phil Spector of sound: the wall of drums and wall of guitars and big world music but on this album I wanted to go in the other direction and leave as much space as possible which is something I hadn't done in the past. It's something that Miles Davis has spoken about: it's not the notes you play it's the notes you don't play. I wanted to do that: leave enough space so when you play a note it has more significance.

Over the years there have been albums that I've loved: Miles Davis' Kind of Blue was certainly an influence for this record hence the album cover which is kind of a throwback to the Blue Note records or Prestige Jazz Collection albums. Another artist who has influenced me for this record is Ihasa de Sela. She did a beautiful album called La Liorona which was kind of an underground hit: immediately people all over the the planet loved it though I don't think she ever received mainstream attention. Her album is very moody and it sounded like a cross between Chavela Vargas and Edith Piaf. There are a lot of elements of almost circus music almost Kurt Vile at times. You can certainly hear those influences in this album. Adele's 21 was certainly an influence as well.

tV: You mentioned Miles Davis. Track six in particular sounds like a tribute of sorts to Kind of Blue.

JC: It was actually sort of a tongue-in-cheek title. I usually sit with a guitar and improvise until I find something that I find compelling and then I'll try and orchestrate it or arrange it into a song. Once I've done that I'll record it into my computer and as soon as you record it you have to name it. In this case because I was writing something that felt a bit like a tribute to Kind of Blue, I called it Miles. Later I did a shorter arrangement of it and called it Miles Shorter, which then sounded like a pun on Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter.

tV: I was thinking of the tone of the song itself.

JC: Oh for sure. It's probably the most jazz sounding piece on the record.

tV: This record is a departure from your usual style so why was it important for you now to make that switch?

JC: That's an interesting question. I guess because right now is the time I actually had the courage to do it. I wouldn't say it was a switch: it was something I wanted to explore. I'm probably going to go back to doing big and bombastic pieces because I love them but this was something that I wanted to explore. I'd wanted to do it the last three albums but other things caught my attention: or I wasn't sure I was ready to do it; I wasn't sure my audience would be interested. For whatever reason I just didn't do it. This time around I actually had to write two albums in order to convince myself that this was the album to make. I actually wrote a whole lot of music for another album which would have been, had it come out, a loud and bombastic, world music album. Then I wrote a whole bunch of other music that I called Plan B, which was all of these quiet little songs. I played them for a friend of mine and asked him which he preferred: he said he liked Plan B. That was how I felt as well but sometimes you need the validation of somebody else because when you write these things you're too close to them. That was all the encouragement I needed and from that point on it was Plan B all the way.

tV: It's quiet and more intimate. Was there something specific you were trying to express?

JC: The beauty of instrumental music is that it doesn't really have to mean anything: it's wide open for interpretation. When you write an instrumental piece it can be about anything. Maybe for me a particular song feels like that feeling that you get on an autumn day when it's raining outside and you're looking out the window going, “Where has the time gone?”, or “Where has my life gone?” or whatever (laughs), but for somebody else maybe it's something completely different: maybe it's that uplifting feeling of driving to the horizon. It's up to each person to find their own meaning in the songs.

tV: What was the most challenging things about making this album? You mentioned not wanting to fill the space.

JC: Oh my god, for me that was probably the biggest challenge. I had to fight my own inclinations all the way because I'm an arranger and my motto has always been “more is more.” You start arranging these things and they lose that space. If you fill that space suddenly it sounds like a big, dense arrangement. In order for it to have that intimacy you just can't load it up. The more instruments you have the more it starts to sound epic and I really didn't want to get there: I wanted to keep it personal.

All of the songs were written for two guitars, in fact they sounded beautiful with just two guitars and it was one of those things where I would add an instrument and listen to it and think, “No, I prefer it with two guitars” and off the instrument would go. I'd try out a violin or a cello and, take out the violin and leave the cello. You're feeling your way through. I had to keep removing more than adding: anytime I'd add something there was an 80% chance it wasn't going to end up in the final version.

tV: How has this album affected your choice in venue? Are you finding you're trying to book smaller, more intimate venues because of the nature of this album?

JC: No. I don't think there is a correlation between the size of the venue and how loud the music is or how many people you need on stage. The other thing too is when you tour a new record, if you only play songs from that new record they're going to hate you. People come because they want to hear their favourite song and the more albums you have, the more difficult it is to make sure you get everybody's favourite song. What we try to do in any concert is play music from right across my discography. Certainly on this tour there'll be a focus on the music from The Blue Guitar Sessions but I'll be surprised if it'll be a third of the concert.

tV: What was the biggest thing that you yourself took away from this experience? For example, was there anything that you discovered you'd like to do more often?

JC: There were a number of things like that. I engineer my own albums and with a few exceptions I've recorded all my albums in my own studio. For me sound has always been important: the way my records sound and the production on them. On this album, because I was trying to make a record that sounded like a BlueNote record, I did a lot of research on how they recorded them. They didn't record the way we do today. Nowadays people will have a mixing room with a computer and a little booth where the musicians record one-by-one, and then they mix them all together later. In the old days they had a great big sound stage. They'd put out these really expensive mics, have the band play all at the same time, and they'd lay down an entire record in a four hour session. Nowadays to modern engineers that's terrifying. There are all sorts of complicated things that happen and if you do that, suddenly the drums are bleeding into the bass microphone etc., and it starts to sound awful. It's a difficult process to record that way but somehow they did it and there was a very organic, real sound to it and a bigness.

I did a lot of research on the mics they used and the way they recorded and the way they mixed and I ended up searching all over the planet for the best microphone. I did a huge number of test recordings on most of the modern mics that are available and started doing tests on old vintage mics and ended up finding this one mic, which I can't tell you about because it's so fantastic and it took me so much work to get it that I want to keep it as my own secret (laughs). It's probably the greatest mic that was ever made. I found one of them in London England and another in Los Angeles and they cost as much as a small house because there are very few of them to go around. I recorded most of the record on them and I couldn't believe that these old mics sounded better than the new mics. To me that just seemed counter intuitive.

tV: That's the way though, isn't it?

JC: It is. And the old mics were made by hand so you think, “How accurate can that be.” The fact is they weren't accurate and maybe that was part of their magic.

tV: You said before that you were planning on going back to your original style but would you consider making another album like this at some point?

JC: I might. I certainly enjoyed it but after a year of music that has that blue mood to it, I was kind of looking forward to some happy rumbas. Honestly, I'm not sure what the next record is going to be or where it's going to take me. I try to make each record a little bit different. One record I went to Cairo and recorded with Egyptian musicians and the record before this one I went down to Columbia and recorded with Columbian musicians. Each record tries to find a new sound and I hope that the next record will too. Whether or not it's a quiet sound, who knows.

Jesse Cook will be in Vancouver at the Orpheum Theatre, Sunday December 16.

Check out Jesse's web site for other tour dates.


– The Vancouverist


C'est aujourd'hui que paraît le nouvel album du guitariste Jesse Cook. Un son flamenco plus nuancé que ces deux précédents opus, plus près de la sensibilité du musicien et riche en collaborations instrumentales.

Dès la première écoute, j'ai été éprise de grands frissons: ce gars-là parle mon langage, celui de la guitare classique émotive, solo, oui, mais aussi à l'écoute de son entourage métissé.

Des meilleurs titres, on retiendra Broken Moon, Ne me quitte pas (superbe complainte chantée par Emma-Lee) et Fields of Blue. Chacune d'entre elles possède leur propre caractère, mélancolique, lumineux ou empreint d'espoir.

C'est une guitare flam à son meilleur, moins «show-off» qu'avant, mais qui risque à mon avis de retenir l'attention d'un plus grand bassin d'auditeurs. À écouter enveloppé dans une couverture de laine, en ce bon début d'automne pluvieux. On a testé!


– Marie- Eve Boulanger

SHARE (Special feature)

Jesse Cook’s new album, The Blue Guitar Sessions, is out Sept. 18, and it’s already hit the sweet spot with many listeners, thanks in no small part to CBC Music's exclusive preview stream of the album. The stream is down now, but of course you can get the album yourself from iTunes.

Here are just a few things listeners to our exclusive stream had to say:

KayeIris: “You had me at the first 5 or 6 chords and I was in love by time the first track ended. Dinner waited downstairs so I could listen to all and then I hit replay. Oh my!”

ybg: “Continuing to grow is the mark of a musician who has a grasp of what he wants in his music. A hint of Wiel, a dash of Grappelli and Django, and a wisp of melodies not often heard. Good on ya Jesse.”

And good on ya Jesse Cook for sharing this shuffle playlist with us. He put his MP3 device on shuffle, and told us about the first five songs that popped up.

1. “People Like Me”


“It was the lyrics to this song/rap which made me re-evaluate K'naan, moving him from 'extremely talented' to 'brilliant.'”

2. “Ain't No Rest For the Wicked”
Cage the Elephant

“Love the way this song starts out small and groovy, but then gets bigger and bigger.”

3. “A Whiter Shade of Pale”
Procol Harum

“This song hooked me as a kid, I still love it, although I have no idea what he is singing about.”

4. “Taurina”

“Just saw Duquende this spring at Koerner Hall. He had the great Jerez guitarist Diego de Morao with him.”

5. “Redemption Song”
Bob Marley

“Bob Marley is one of those artists. Every song he recorded was perfect. Nothing false, nothing extraneous. And his recordings still sound great, even by today's standards.”


– Li Robbins


The Montreal Gazette

On his eighth studio album, guitarist Cook steps away from his flamenco default and offers 15 moody, easylistening pieces, supposedly inspired by what he considered the spareness of Adele’s smash, 21. On the surface, the disc has an elevator-music smoothness that sends it receding into the background, but Cook’s relentless precision and perfect tonality on the nylon strings will not be denied. There’s an airy beauty to soft, atmospheric tracks like Diminished and Fields of Blue, with quiet blues (I Put a Spell on You), jazz (Miles Shorter) and bossa nova (Child’s Play) broadening the palette. Add the stirring, delicate interplay between Cook’s instrument and Chris Church’s violin and this aural sketchbook becomes an excursion filled with modest pleasures.

Rating: ***

Podworthy: Midnight


– Bernard Perusse


Brampton Guardian

Toronto-based guitarist Jesse Cook will bring his jazzy latin- and world-influenced music to the Rose Theatre May 2 at 7:30 p.m for a special performance.

The master of Latin rhythms will be taking a live television special during the Brampton concert, which takes place on the theatre’s main stage. The television special will focus on

Cook’s upcoming album The Blue Guitar and will be targeted for Bravo! in Canada and PBS in the U.S. Cook said his team also plans to use some of the footage in music videos for his newer songs.

“We were looking all over southern Ontario for a theatre which met our requirements. Because of the cameras, we needed a certain size, not too big or it would look cavernous, not too small and with the amenities of a world class hall, so we could fly screens and backdrops for the projections and special effects we have planned,” explained Cook.

“Having shot my first two PBS Specials at the Montreal Jazz Festival, I really felt it was time for a change. I really wanted to shoot this one here in Ontario, where I live and where I got my start.”

Cook has recorded seven studio albums in the last 15 years with his latest recording reflecting his Cuban roots. This special engagement, at the Rose Theatre, means Cook and his team will bring “a much grander show” to the Rose Theatre stage than ever before.

“There will be full screen projections and special guests, Canadian chanteuse Emma-Lee, among them,” he said. Also, those in the audience will have a good shot of appearing in some of the footage, as there will be many cameras throughout the audience.

In addition to new material from The Blue Guitar, cook promises to play a range of songs from his popular repertoire.

Ticket packages to this special performance range in price from $59.50 to $99.50, and offer special opportunities such as autographed posters, copies of his CD and a post-show reception.

For more call 905-874-2800 or visit or


– Ashley Goodfellow