Flamenco guitar ace Jesse Cook tries to be as accessible as possible

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, APRIL 17, 1997

By Steve Newton

When Canadian flamenco-pop sensation Jesse Cook was a small child, he spent time in southern France and Spain, which may have been where the seed of his attraction to flamenco was planted. Then again, you’ve gotta wonder how much musical influence a three-year-old kid can ingest. Cook sure does.

“I’ve been trying to sort of reconstruct why I would be interested in flamenco,” says the 32-year-old guitarist-composer from his Toronto home. “I don’t have a lot of memories of France and Spain, so why, when I was growing up in Canada, was I so drawn to flamenco guitar? The only reason I can come up with was maybe it was those early years, maybe that’s what got me hooked. I know we had a babysitter who used to sing ‘Quanta La Mera’ to us, and so I was singing ‘Quanta La Mera’ and strumming a plastic guitar.”

Cook’s early involvement with guitar got a serious boost when, at the age of six, he was enrolled in the prestigious Eli Kassner Guitar Academy in Toronto. His many years of study include attendance at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, York University, and Berklee College of Music in Boston, but despite all his schooling, he doesn’t feel formal training is essential to a musician’s development.

“It depends on the artist,” he says. “For example, one of the heaviest players I ever met was [Toronto session musician] Ron Allen, and he just had huge ears. He could hear anything and play any style of music on any instrument, and I think he’s had like one lesson in his entire life. So I don’t think formal training is necessarily that important, but—whether you go to a school or learn from listening to records—you gotta really work at it.”

Cook admits that, apart from his institutional studies, he spent a lot of time copying guitar riffs from the likes of Paco DeLucia, Al Di Meola, and Pat Metheny. And his dual learning experiences have paid off better than he ever dreamed. Just two years ago, upon releasing his independent debut, Tempest, he was concerned about getting stuck with unsold overflow from the CD’s first run.

“We manufactured a thousand CDs,” he recalls, “and I was going, ‘I hope I can sell all of these someday, so I won’t have to give them away as Christmas presents or store them in the basement.’ And when they flew out the door I was amazed. Then I got signed [by Wisconsin-based Narada Media], and now Gravity has been on the Billboard charts for the last six months. And Tempest has been on for the last year and a half! So it’s eerie. Suddenly I can’t relate to my own life.”

When Cook makes his first-ever visit to Vancouver, for a show at the Starfish Room on Friday (April 18), his brand of “rumba-flamenco-worldbeat-jazz-pop” will likely draw some fans of the Gypsy Kings, the crossover act that has helped popularize flamenco music worldwide.

“There have been a number of guitarists over the years who have popularized the idiom,” he says, “but the Gypsy Kings have taken the fun side of it—which is rumba, the thing you do when you want to get up and dance—and given it a sort of pop sensibility. And for sure, it worked. So they were a big influence on me, because I try to make what I’m doing as accessible as possible. I don’t want people to feel they have to do research in order to understand my music.”

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