Jesse Cook talks labels and artistic heroes

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Acoustic guitarist Jesse Cook brings his varied sound to the Boulder Theater.
Allen Clark

Somewhere just past the two minute mark of “Tommy and Me,” one of the middle-stretch cuts on world music guitarist Jesse Cook’s latest CD, One World, a fleeting bit of guitar phrasing streaks by what would normally sound a little out of place on one of Cook’s recordings.

It’s a yawning, urgent, step-and-a-half string bend. A closer listen would reveal that, not only was a blue note gracing the solo real estate on the track, but it was actually ripped off a steel-string guitar. Cook, of course, is a nylon string player, and he has been for decades.

The song’s title kind of gives it away.

“That’s Tommy Emmanuel playing on that cut,” Cook says. “I just wanted to do something with him, so I sent him a couple of tracks, he said, ‘Oh, I want to do that one.’ I just sent him a recording; he soloed all over it and sent me three takes back. Honestly, I could have used any of them; they were all amazing. He’s just kind of a creative fountain; you just turn on the tap and boom, ideas just come out.”

For longtime followers of the Canadian guitarist’s career, One World delivers some new sonority, new rhythms and a fairly generous use of electronics. Cook, who is best known as an arranger and player of original Latin-inspired music borrowing heavily from gypsy, Cuban and flamenco traditions, has charted an impressive two-decade career through the fickle and sometimes risky waters of world music. He does it by combining measured doses of technical virtuosity, dance floor-friendly percussion shakedowns and an uncommonly keen facility at tapping into ancient musical traditions without sounding like an opportunist.

One World, released in April 2015, arrives as a follow-up to his 2012 The Blue Guitar Sessions, a moody, evocative, largely solo and duo CD, kicked off by a counter-intuitively bluesy “I Put a Spell On You,” with a seductive vocal appearance by singer Emma Lee. On a playing field where adventurism is often discouraged and older listening audiences tend to embrace the knowable and predictable, Cook moves restlessly through his influences — modern and ancient, familiar and foreign — with refreshing incaution.

It’s a gesture as much to the trust he has in his audience as he has in his own musical instincts. And the fact that he incorporates jazz, romantic balladry and studio-electronica dressing, with a full band and a nylon string guitar casts him as a rare breed.

We wondered if there was ever a time he felt a bit out on the fringes.

“Any time?” he asks. “How about every time! I’m about as off the beaten path as you can get, I’m not ever sure there’s a path at all, that’s how far off I am. I’m making weird music that has elements of Spanish guitar, mixed with elements of all different types of world music, and it’s all kind of a global mashup. They don’t even know what category to put me in half the time.

“It’s funny, I remember when The Blue Guitar Sessions came out, there was a review that said, ‘Well, this is kind of MOR.’ And I remember thinking, ‘Middle of the road?’ What ‘road’ are these people on? For me, middle of the road is Taylor Swift. [That’s] right down the middle.”

It’s the category of music that offends exactly no one.

“Yeah, making music that everyone embraces and loves, and I’m not putting it down at all. It’s great, it’s popular — that’s why they call it ‘popular music.’ But to somehow call what I do, with weird sounds and exotic instruments and [usually] no vocals is ‘middle of the road?’”

Cook says he managed to keep and grow an audience by slipping through all the various genres (he’s won or been nominated for awards for Best Instrumental Album, Best Global Album, Smooth Jazz Guitarist and Flamenco Guitarist) and just sticking to his instincts.

“Over the years, I’ve been on the jazz charts, I’ve been on the world music charts, I’ve been on the New Age charts — that one really made my skin crawl. … My feeling is that, as an artist, if you establish yourself early on as someone who is just chasing their muse, then people will come to expect that.

“And let’s face it. We as a society, we do revere those kinds of artists. Talk about the Beatles, or Miles Davis, Madonna … David Bowie. Artists who constantly break the playbook and push the boundaries are the people who we admire. Frank Zappa, Paco de Lucia in the flamenco world — those are the kinds of artists I’ve always tried to be like.”
Thinking about Tommy Emmanuel’s appearance on One World, we couldn’t help but ask Cook how long it had been since his calluses had danced across a set of steel strings. Not counting the guitars that people bring to shows from time to time, asking for autographs.

“Well, I never do. I actually own a 1969 Les Paul that I bought when I was a kid. I don’t know, 14 or 15. And I love it. I haven’t played it decades.

“Honestly, I’m not sure where it is. I think it’s in my basement. It’s terrible, it’s a beautiful guitar, and I’ll never part with it. But it’s just not me.”

 

On the Bill: An Evening With Jesse Cook. 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.