Canadian flamenco-jazz ace Jesse Cook says the future of guitar playing is in good hands

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By Steve Newton

Jesse Cook called me up last week in advance of his June 4 show at the Queen E. Theatre in Vancouver, and we chatted about a few things, including the fact that Aussie fingerstyle great Tommy Emmanuel performs on a track on his new album, One World.

In the course of our conversation I asked Cook if he picked up things from fingerstyle players like Emmanuel–or his hero, Chet Atkins–and got an interesting response.

“It’s funny,” he said, “I never did, just because I think that the well of flamenco technique is so deep that I sort of feel like there’s a lifetime’s work just figuring out how to do everything that Vicente Amigo did, or Paco de Lucia did.

“But about a year ago I was in the States, and they asked me to adjudicate a guitar competition, and it was all fingerstyle guitar players. And I just thought, ‘Well, what do I know about fingerstyle guitar? I mean this is absurb! Who am I do judge these people?’

“But I had to say, I was really knocked out by the level of playing, the level of musicianship and inventiveness–there were a lot of things in there that I just thought, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful way of playing the instrument, and completely different from what I do.’ I mean in flamenco they’ve always used the guitar a bit like a percussion instrument, but I think in fingerstyle they almost do it more unabashedly. You know, like they’ll be banging the frets to create the rhythm, like hitting the note, and the way they physically hit the string makes it sound like a snare drum on the same beat. It was just like a whole bunch of other things that they do.

“And I always think that’s the thing about music. There is an assumption–or there was an assumption in the Western world–that by the end of the 1800s we’d sort of taken music as far as we could. You know, Europeans had taken music as far as it could go, and all that was left for the 20th century is to break it apart and create atonal music and weird, sort of rhythmicless music or whatever.

“And I always think that they were so wrong, they were so incredibly wrong, when you realize, well, first of all, what other cultures did with music. What the Africans did with rhythm, you could compare it to algebra. What the East Indians did with rhythm, you could compare it to calculus. Compared to Europeans who did simple addition and subtraction–maybe a little bit of multiplication.

“And then you sort of see, even within this instrument that I play, people just keep changing how they play it and what rules they use and what type of things they’re able to express on it. It was really heartening to see that the future of guitar playing is in good hands.”

For more from Cook on working with Tommy Emmanuel and recording One World, stay tuned to Ear of Newt.

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