ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 10, 1998
By Steve Newton
During my formative years as a rock-obsessed reader of Circus magazine, my teenage world revolved around heavy ’70s bands like Aerosmith, Montrose, Alice Cooper, and Blue Öyster Cult. I’ve adored riff-driven guitar-rock ever since, but lately I’ve been opening myself up to mellower sounds. Maybe it comes with being a first-time dad, as BOC’s searing “Hot Rails to Hell” just doesn’t cut it as incidental music for living-room videos of our baby’s first steps.
“Walk This Way” might do the trick, but I’m pondering something even more tranquil. I haven’t stooped to buying Sting CDs yet, but I sure don’t mind the delicately entrancing vibe in Toronto flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook’s new version of the ex-Police man’s “Fragile”. Featuring the luscious vocals of Canadian jazz diva Holly Cole, it’s a standout track on Cook’s latest “nouveau-flamenco world-pop” CD, Vertigo.
“Well, I’m a Sting fan,” admits Cook, calling from T.O. between rehearsals for the tour that brings his quartet to a sold-out Arts Club Theatre on Sunday (September 13). “I love that whole album, Nothing Like the Sun. But I didn’t actually start with that song—I started with the idea of doing a collaboration with Holly Cole. She and I were talking about various songs, and searching and searching to find a good one, and we went through everything. I mean, we looked literally for months before we finally settled on ‘Fragile’.
“And what I liked about ‘Fragile’ is that the guitar part almost sounds a bit like Brazilian guitar to me, and it’s maybe got elements of jazz to it. It seemed like it had a foot in her world and a foot in mine.”
In addition to Cole, Cook recruited Louisiana zydeco great Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural Jr. to play accordion (and provide catcalls) on Vertigo’s opener, “That’s Right”. He also managed to get renowned cellist Ofra Harnoy to do her thing on “Canción Triste”. Another feather in Cook’s cap came when his music was played during figure skater Michael Weiss’s performance at this year’s Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Cook was working to meet deadlines in the studio during the Games, so he didn’t get a chance to see any footage of Weiss slicing ice to the strains of “Baghdad” and “Mario Takes a Walk”. But he sure heard about it.
“Suddenly, my phone was ringing off the hook,” he explains. “I mean, we’re talking about the Olympic Games, watched by billions of people, so you can imagine—everybody I’ve ever known, even people I didn’t know well were calling in and saying ‘You’re not gonna believe what I just saw.’ And the other thing that’s funny is that people don’t seem to realize that the whole world is watching the Olympic Games. Each person who called me somehow thought that they were the only one. They just happened to be flipping through the channels and whoa, there’s my music to Michael Weiss.”
It was on a broadcast of another kind that the Paris-born Cook’s recording career got its first big boost. In 1995, his rumba-flamenco music was featured on Canada’s TV Guide Channel, which introduced it to nearly three million Canadian viewers. An overwhelming demand for more of Cook’s music resulted in his first CD, Tempest, which in turn led to a signing by U.S. label Narada and inclusion on Billboard magazine’s new-age chart for 49 straight weeks.
His follow-up CD, 1996’s Gravity, was even more successful, and Vertigo should continue the trend. Of course, the fact that Cook’s music first came to light under such questionable circumstances might give flamenco purists ammo for slagging his music as watered down for mass consumption.
“I haven’t heard those criticisms yet,” claims Cook. “It is a bit of a dubious distinction, I realize, but I mean, the music industry is a very difficult industry for any musician, and any way you can get your foot in the door… I mean, it wasn’t just a matter of getting my foot in the door—I needed to be convinced that it was an enterprise worth embarking on. I was making a living composing music for dance companies, theatre companies, and when this thing happened, and people were sort of hunting me down, I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I should try and sell music to the public.’
“Before that I had assumed that somehow the public was too fickle. I mean, you hear about people spending years playing the bar scene trying to work their way up, and somehow the TV Guide Channel thing managed to bypass that whole stage for us. And it’s just taken off since then.”
And how. Not only has Cook’s captivating music stolen its way into this die-hard rock fan’s collection, but his favoured style of music is making great advances the world over.
“I think that’s the direction that music’s going,” he states, “that in the 21st century it’s all gonna be about cross-pollinization. The music we’ll all be listening to will be hybrids of different types of world music, ’cause there’s so much going on out there. I mean, the first time you ever hear a 100-piece Brazilian percussion ensemble, you never really wanna go back to just a straight drum kit. I joined a West African drumming ensemble when I was in my 20s, and it was just the hippest thing I ever heard. I just thought, ‘That’s it: from now on, when I think of rhythm, that’s what I wanna hear.’
“And for me, it was the same with rumba guitar the first time I saw these guys in southern France pounding away on the box of their guitar and thrashing at the strings. People might say it’s easy listening, but for me there’s nothing easy listening about it. It’s invigorating, driving, exciting music.”