published Thursday, January 31st, 2013

Flamenco rumba ambassador next featured performer in Patten series

Jesse Cook
Jesse Cook
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

What: Patten Performance Series featuring guitarist Jesse Cook

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5

Where: Roland Hayes Concert Hall, UTC Fine Arts Center, 752 Vine St.

Admission: $22 adults, $19 ages 60 and older, $15 students

Phone: 425-4269

Venue website: www.utc.edu/administration/fineartscenter

Artist website: www.jessecook.com

ELSEWHERE ...

Before his concert at UTC, guitarist Jesse Cook will perform in Barker Auditorium at Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tenn. The show will be presented by the Monroe Area Council for the Arts at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 4. Tickets are $20, $10 for students. Advance tickets ($18) are available with cash or check at Citizens National Banks in Monroe County and Century 21 Hendershot Realty in Madisonville; by credit card at www.monroearts.com; or by pho 423-442-3210.

DISCOGRAPHY

1995: "Tempest"

1996: "Gravity"

1998: "Vertigo"

2000: "Free Fall"

2003: "Nomad"

2004: "Montreal"

2007: "Frontiers"

2009: "The Rumba Foundation"

2012: "The Blue Guitar Sessions

Despite being one of the most prominent performers of flamenco rumba guitar music in the world, Jesse Cook spends a surprising amount of time defining the style to others.

"It's amazing how many people will often say, 'I like flamingo music,' and I immediately think of the pink bird," Cook said, laughing, during a recent phone interview.

"Or people will say, 'Oh, I was in Mexico, and there were those guys in the big hats playing flamenco music, and they came to our table.' "

Confusion with mariachi music aside, flamenco rumba is a substyle of traditional Spanish flamenco music that has been infused with the rhythms of Afro-Cuban rumba. It is, as Cook described it, a passionate music -- and a personal obsession since he was a toddler.

Although he has lived in Canada since his adolescence, Cook spent his childhood in Europe. In France, he was exposed to flamenco rumba through Manitas de Plata, a French gypsy whose albums his parents would play in their Parisian home.

De Plata was notorious among flamenco rumba purists for ignoring certain conventions of the genre, and although he follows these rules, Cook's career also has been defined by his adventurousness in fusing flamenco rumba with other styles, such as blues, jazz and vallenato.

"The work I do has always been a great length from flamenco anyway because as much as I love that music form and respect it, I feel like the role of an artist is to learn the rules and break them to come up with something new," he said.

Tuesday, Cook will perform in the Roland Hayes Concert Hall as part of the Patten Performances Series.

His fiery, precise playing has earned him numerous accolades, including a Player's Choice Award in Acoustic Guitar Magazine, three guitarist of the year titles at the Canadian Smooth Awards and about a dozen Juno nominations, including one win.

As an ambassador of flamenco rumba music, Cook said he feels compelled during his shows to supplement the music with information that gives it context and deeper meaning.

"For a lot of people who come to my concerts, I may be the only instrumental artist they go to," he said. "They may be fans of other musicians and go to Peter Gabriel concerts or to The Black Eyed Peas or whatever, but they may not be seeing other jazz artists or world music artists.

"I try and lead them through that journey ... so that, by the end of the evening, they really feel like they understand what was going on and get something out of it."

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Juno Award-winning, Canadian flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook about his childhood in Europe, how the cosmopolitan nature of Toronto affects his music and why he chose to work while on vacation.

Q: What drew you to the guitar originally? How old were you?

A: It's hard to say. I have to sort of answer that based on the mythology my mother has been spinning my whole life. [Laughs.] I was born in France, and when I was very young, two or three years old, my parents had a Manitas de Plata records. He was a gypsy guitarist from France, who people over there were listening to. We had those records, and I apparently used to love them. They would put them on, and I would go crazy.We lived in Barcelona, too for a few months, and my mom got me a toy guitar. She says I used to wander around the house strumming and singing.

It started really very early on. When we moved to Canada, I still had this interest in the guitar, and my mom managed to find me a place to study when I was still pretty young. I actually managed to read music before I could read words.

Later, by the end of grade 1, I still couldn't read properly, and my teachers were very concerned and were thinking of flunking me. My mother went into the school and said, “He can read music, so if he can't read words, it's because you don't know how to teach him properly.” [Laughs.] Based on that, they passed me, which maybe they shouldn't have done, but I made it work out properly now, so we're OK. [Laughs.]

Q: What were your parents doing in Europe?

A: My parents were Canadian, and after university, my mom had gone to London to be a journalist, and my father had moved to Paris because he always imagined he would be an author. Basically, he wanted to be Hemmingway, I think. It didn't really work out for him. He wrote a book, but it didn't go anywhere. In order to make a living, he ended up being a photographer and filmmaker.

They had met in university. They were sweet hearts from university. Eventually, they ended up moving in together in Paris and living there for 12 years. Then, my sister and I came along somewhere in the middle of that. Eventually, my parents divorced and my sister and my mother and I moved back to Canada. My dad lived the rest of his life in Europe.

Q: What was the first guitar you played on that wasn't a toy?

A: When my mother moved back to Canada, she became a TV producer and started directing and producing TV shows. Her boyfriend was a camera man, and he went to Mexico to film some show he was working on, and when he came back, he brought a little guitar with him from Mexico. It was a half-size guitar, but you could play real music on it. In Spain, the guitars I had were toys, but the one from Mexico, I started playing actual music on it. Obviously, once I got lessons it probably started sounding more like music.

Q: What attracted you to the rumba flamenco style?

A: You know what, I think it was just that there was something very visceral about it, something very raw. Manitas de Plato is a very controversial figure. He's not very respected among flamenco purists. Now that I'm an adult and have studied flamenco and know what is, I'm not sure he really knew that much about flamenco. [Laughs.]

He was a gypsy and was from Spain. He was part of this group of ex-pat Spaniards who left Spain during the Spanish Civil War and resettled in the south of France. It was certainly part of the culture, but he didn't play the forms properly and his technique was very strange. I look at what he does now and think, “Wow, what's he doing?” [Laughs.]

We live in an age that is post-Paco de Lucia. Paco de Lucia arrived on the scene in the late '60s and early '70s and elevated flamenco guitar to a whole new level. Since then, it's been a very virtuosic enterprise.

I think in the days of Manitas de Platas and the records we had, there was a virtuosic element, but it was very crude and raw and passionate, and he treated the instrument like a percussion instrument; he would pound on it. I loved it. It connected somehow to my little three-year-old brain.

Q: That's a style of music just seems so intrinsically tied to the guitar.

A: It's amazing how many people will often say, “I like 'flamingo' music,” and I immediately think of the pink bird. Or people will say, “Oh, I was in Mexico, and there were those guys in the big hats playing flamenco music, and they came to our table.” Obviously, that's not flamenco; that's mariachi.

They're not really related. There's a Spanish connection, and there's a similar chord progression, but flamenco is the music of the gypsies of southern Spain. It's like what blues is to America. The gypsies were hated throughout Spanish history. They weren't allowed to own land or go to school or be part of guilds. All those oppressions were pressed on them.

Flamenco is an, at times, very passionate music, but there are also many sad songs about hard life and difficult times. That's what flamenco is. For me, that's what made it very easy to connect to. It's not a very subtle musical form; it's passionately happy or passionately sad. [Laughs.]

That's why I had this latest record go so far away from flamenco music. The work I do has always been a great length from flamenco anyway because as much as I love that music form and respect it, I feel like the role of an artist is to learn the rules and break them to come up with something new. The new record is really part of that. I'm trying to put my style of guitar playing into a context that never heard it before. In this case, that would be that Miles Davis, “Kind of Blue” kind of vibe.

Q: You've melded the flamenco music with elements from many other genres. Did you anticipate when you took it up that the style would be so malleable?

A: Well, I live in Canada where the population, like the United States, is made up almost entirely of immigrants. In Toronto, in particular, it's a city where there is no group that forms a majority anymore. I've heard it's the most multi-cultural city on the planet - the largest Asian city outside of Asia and the third largest Caribbean city outside of the Caribbean.

There are all these large, fully developed communities living within the city. They have lots of musicians who are arriving from those countries because there's a place for them to play when they come and a community that supports them.

When I was growing up in Toronto, I studied music at York University, and the guy who I studied with taught South Indian drumming. And over the summer, there were courses offered in North Indian music. Later, I was asked to join a West African drumming ensemble and study with this Canadian guy. It was jut for fun, things my friend were doing, so I joined in.

Nowadays, I think there must be five fully fledged Brazilian percussion schools representing different styles of Brazilian percussion. There are all these different flavors of Brazilian rhythm that are available to me if I'm writing a track and think, “Oh, wouldn't it be great to do this or that.” These are all sounds I live with in that city. When I'm making a track, the idea of bringing in a plain old drum set seems kind of boring once you've heard 50 people pounding on huge drums. Those beautifully orchestrated Brazilian rhythms end up being some place you want to go.

Q: When you're on stage, what element of your performance are you most fixated on?

A: Whoa, that's a very difficult question to answer. I think my role on stage is a little bit different from the musicians in the band, in that I don't only have to play my instrument but also communicate with the public between songs. I realize that, because I'm playing primarily instrumental music, the communicating part is actually very important.

For a lot of people who come to my concerts, I may be the only instrumental artist they go to. They may be fans of other musicians and go to Peter Gabriel concerts or to The Black Eyed Peas or whatever, but they may not be seeing other jazz artists or world music artists.

To help them cross over to listening to this concert where there's a whole evening of just notes floating around and no story being told in a song, I try and lead them through that journey and tell them about where the songs come from and who the musicians are on stage. I give them a little background about what we're doing so that, by the end of the evening, they really feel like they understand what was going on and get something out of it. I also try and make it fun. I try to keep things from being too serious because by the end of the night, you do want to have a good time.

Q: Your eighth album, “Blue Guitar Sessions,” has been out now for about four months. How well do the songs translate to a live setting?

A: I think people like them. The whole evening is not just material from the new record. With any artists, if you go out with a brand new record and only play songs from that record, your audience hates you because they come to see you because there's some other record they love. I think most people are open to hearing new material and seeing if they can connect to it, but they don't only want to hear that. We try and play music from all eight studio records.

There have always been sad pieces in our set to create a show that has a nice flow to it, that has nice ups and downs, sad moments and more exciting moments. I think now, what we're doing now is using the songs from “Blue Guitar Sessions” to occupy those more somber moments in the show.

People seem to like them, but I'm only judging by what people write on my Facebook page at the end of the evening. [Laughs.] You can feel people exhale at the end of the songs. The funny thing about sad songs is that they don't cheer wildly or get up and dance, and you can just sort of feel if they've been moved. My feeling is that they are, but you'd have to ask them.

Q: Was the process of making an album comprised of somber songs at all depressing?

A: It's a funny thing. You would think that, that with all these sad songs, I was very bummed out, but actually, I was very happy the entire time I was writing that album. I wrote a lot of the material while I was on vacation. That's actually a great time to write because you're relaxed and don't have any worries about a show or the business side of it. I was just enjoying myself.

I had a rule that I would get up, have my breakfast and then I wasn't allowed to do anything else until I'd written a song. I'd sit down and play around, and I found that the music came really easy to me. As soon as the song was written, I had the rest of the day to go out and do what I wanted. It took the worry out of the process.

The music came to me easily because I've wanted to do this record now for the last two or three records. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, “Oh man, I'd like to make a really quiet, blue album,” but I never did it. Once I gave myself license to head in that direction - and unabashedly so - it was like opening the floodgates. All that music that was waiting to come out just flowed out. It was great.

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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