“I want to take people to places they haven’t been,” Jesse Cook says. The Juno winning Canadian guitarist, known for his masterful fusion of world music styles, has traveled the globe looking for sounds that resonate with him. On his new album, Beyond Borders, he continues his journey, playing music without any cultural or geographical boundaries.
“I like music that provides a common ground for different traditions, a space where music from all historical eras and parts of the world can mingle,” Cook explains. “On this album, and One World, my last record, I began to realize that you can go anywhere on earth, without moving. There are many borders in our lives. Some have been built by others, some we create for ourselves, but whenever I ventured beyond the borders of my life, I have been the better for it. In the past few years, we’ve been moving backwards. I don’t want to focus on politics, but after the fall of the Berlin wall, Europe united and people began thinking of themselves as global citizens. The rising nationalism of today is exploiting our differences, not celebrating them. Beauty, humanity, artistry, joy, wisdom, and of course love…these things don’t stop at some line on a page. If music is the universal language, maybe there is something it can teach us?”
True to his philosophy, Cook has recorded in seven countries on three continents, collaborating with Egyptian, Columbian, Brazilian, African and Armenian musicians to develop a singular synthesis of flamenco, jazz, R&B, electronic and world music. On Beyond Borders, he found inspiration in his own backyard. “Toronto has become one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world, so I can stay home and find everything I need. We have musicians from Armenia, Greece, Spain, Columbia, India, West Africa, Cuba and Jamaica, to mention a few. You can find Brazilian samba schools and West African drum circles, so I was able to record Beyond Borders in my home studio.”
The album took two and a half years to make, with every track created to Cook’s own meticulous standards. He writes, records and arranges the music, creating templates with deep emotional foundations, before inviting collaborators to add nuance and shading to the compositions. “Everything on this album comes from my own experience. I was going through a difficult period in my life and it blew the door of my imagination wide open. I went for a huge sound, without limits. I threw away the rules, trying to find places I’d never been before, and I got there. The sad songs are sadder, the rhythms are more intricate, the sounds mashed up to look at traditional patterns in a new way.”
“Double Dutch,” the album’s first single, exemplifies Cook’s approach. It’s a percussion heavy excursion into the rhythms of Spain and Cuba, with a side helping of salsa styles from Miami and New York. The mid-tempo rumba groove is stated by Cook’s guitar, overlaid with his hand clapping and a basic djembe line. Processed drum loops generate unfamiliar sounds that suggest India, Latin America and the Middle East, as Cook’s shimmering lead guitar weaves in and out of the mix. Chris Church adds Egyptian flavored violin accents, while the chorus rubs shoulders with a samba-like cadence. “The rumbling bass line is borrowed from modern urban and pop music, but without auto-tuning,” Cook says.
Egyptian vocalist Maryem Tollar co-wrote the title tune with Cook and adds improvised countermelodies to the track. Her processed vocals dart in and out of focus, adding passionate ululations to the intro and outro. Cook’s guitar has an oud-like resonance, as he plays the melody against a funk-like pulse of clapping hands and programmed dumbek. Long, sustained, subterranean bass notes and his brief, brittle solo set up a chorus played by Church’s multi-tracked violins that suggests a Bollywood string extravaganza. Tollar’s vocals and a flurry of complex dumbek rhythms take the tune back to Cook’s simply stated hook.
“A Mi Niña” is a solo showcase for Cook. It was recorded in one take, at the small studio he maintains in his countryside cabin. It’s a slow flamenco rumba that alternates between single notes that resonate in the air and short bursts of rhythmic accents. “It’s my daughter’s favorite song, so I named it after her - anonymously.”
The moody album closer, “Wisdom of a Thousand Years,” was co-written with Bulgarian vocalist Tamar Ilana. “I asked Tamar to improvise vocals for another track,” Cook says. “What she did was so compelling, we wrote a song around her chorus.” Ilana’s mournful vocal, rumbling, ambient bass notes and Cook’s measured guitar introduction are supported by funk accented tabla and hand claps. Cook’s flamenco guitar and Ilana’s vocals play out against Church’s processed violin, as the track opens up to give Cook space for a short, impressive solo. Things come to a close with an intertwining cluster of dumbek, tabla and guitar.
“What holds the record together is that everything is blurring,” Cook states. “Every song has different global elements. At one point, I stopped trying to figure out how many genres were in each song. It became world music without limitations, without borders.”
Cook was born in Paris, to Canadian parents. The family moved to Arles, where they bought a small home built in the 16th Century, for 100 dollars. “It was like stepping into the Middle Ages,” Cook recalls. “Manitas de Plata was popular then. His albums got me interested in the sound of flamenco guitar.”
After moving back to Canada, Cook started guitar lessons. “My teacher played flamenco. It was as if the world conspired to get me interested in the style. When I visited my dad in France, he was living next door to Nicholas Reyes, the singer of the Gipsy Kings. I saw the gipsy kids on the corner playing guitar that way, and got hooked.”
At the Eli Kassner Guitar Academy in Toronto, he continued studying flamenco. Kassner told him he was a natural, but long hours of practicing didn’t sit well with him. “I’d look out the window and see my friends playing, so I quit. In high school, I told a friend I could show him how to play and got interested in music again.” Cook studied classical guitar at the Royal Conservatory of Music, moving on to York University and Berklee College in Boston. Then he heard the Paco de Lucia, Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin album, Friday Night in San Francisco. “It captured their freewheeling, virtuosic spirit. I was amazed by people playing whatever they wanted, using flamenco as a foundation.”
During his school years, Cook got interested in recording. “My mom was a TV producer and traveled a lot. I built a studio in my basement and, since there were no parents around, my friends and I were able to write and record around the clock. At Berklee, I majored in Music Synthesis and minored in guitar. There was a Macintosh computer at every workstation. I wanted to be a producer and knew I’d have to get into computers if I wanted to pursue that goal.”
Cook’s cousin got him a job writing for a choreographer. That led to offers to compose for dance troupes. “Having synthesizer skills allowed me to write, record and flesh out my compositions.” Although composing kept his guitar chops in shape, he wasn’t thinking about performing. “At the end of my 20s, I recorded Tempest a flamenco album, with some electronic elements. I made it at home, just for fun. I released it independently and the first thousand CDs sold out in a week.” Cook made 2,000 more. By the end of the second week, they were gone too. “I got a record deal from a company in the States and decided to start performing and writing seriously. It’s the best decision I ever made.”
On his albums, and in concert, Cook explored the history of flamenco, tracing its roots from India to Spain and Cuba. Along the way, he developed his signature synthesis of world music. He’s released ten genre-defying albums, garnering eleven Juno (Canada’s Grammy) nominations – and one win, in 2001 for Free Fall - in the World Music and Instrumental categories. “I write music without lyrics, so it’s a statement of pure emotion,” Cook says. “Music touches your soul, or it doesn’t, and every tradition on earth has its own way of doing that. When we venture beyond our cultural and geographic borders, we can gain the whole world.”