Jesse Cook: World-music troubadour
Jesse Cook's performance tours take him to countries around the globe, where he and his bandmates find inspiration in divergent paths of music traditions.
They've played to audiences in Poland, Malaysia, Malta, Latvia, Italy, Turkey, Dubai, and his homeland of Canada.
"We probably played 130 shows after 'One World' was released in 2015," Cook says. "A large number of those shows are in the U.S. 'Beyond Borders,' released just last September, may be on track for something similar."
This year will take Cook and his band to Saudi Arabia and on an eight-city tour of China. There's no telling where Cook will push his adventurous guitar skills afterward.
The upcoming trek is in support of his newest studio album, 'Borders,' that debuted at No. 1 on iTunes' World Music Albums Chart, and includes a show at the Craterian Theater in Medford.
Cook and his group — percussionist and drummer Rosendo "Chendy" Leon, born in Havana; violinist, pianist and accordion player Chris Church, from Halifax, Nova Scotia; bassist Dennis Mohammed; and Nicolas Hernandez on second guitar — will perform a masterful fusion of world music styles at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 14, at the Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave.
Tickets are $29, $32 or $35, $20, $23 or $26 for ages 22 and younger, and can be purchased at craterian.org, at the box office, 16 S. Bartlett St., or by calling 541-779-3000.
"Beyond Borders" draws from music all over the map, he says.
"Some of my records, like 'Nomad' (2003), I went to Cairo and worked with Egyptian musicians. On 'The Rumba Foundation' (2009), I went to South America. But I wanted 'Borders' to be pan-global, not focused on any one area. So there's Persian sounds in there, Arab sounds, Spanish guitar is always central, there's electronic, Latin percussion and the Armenia duduk."
Duduk is a wind instrument that can be heard on the album's second track, "Hembra," playing back and forth with Cook's flamenco guitar.
"It's one of the oldest instruments in the world," Cook says. "It's been played for 3,000 years. It has an incredibly haunting sound. The first time I heard it, I thought it sounded like a ghost."
For awhile, Cook worked remotely with musician Djivan Gasparyan, sending recorded files back and forth between Canada and Armenia. About a year later, Church learned to play the Armenian double-reed woodwind instrument. He's also learned surdo, a Brazilian percussion instrument, and gaita, a Columbian bagpipe.
Cook was born in France, grew up in Canada and studied at Berklee School of Music in Boston.
"So I had a western music education," he says, "but I also studied flamenco, visited Spain and studied with many different players there. It's a lifelong thing. You never think that you're finished.
"It's not that I master another country's music. It's more like I have a bit of an idea of a style, of what they're doing from my perspective. It's really about collaborating with these musicians who are from different musical traditions, not that I master another country's music. I'll bring a piece that I think incorporates a traditional style, and the other musicians bring their music. We try to mix the two together. Sometimes it's great, and sometimes it's a real struggle.
"When I went to Colombia, I worked with traditional players from the mountains who had never stepped outside their genre. They found it difficult to play my music because there were none of the usual landmarks. Then we decided to record a track with a maraca. So they played this percussion instrument, a little shaker, to the track. Once that was there, as a guidepost or marker, then they were fine. Then they knew what was going on, and they were terrific.
"There they were playing these big drums, beautiful flutes and singing, but this tiny shaker is the anchor, the thing that let's everyone know where they're at. It's funny. Every culture has that thing. In Cuba, it's the clave."
Cook moves forward with every album that he records. He started in 1995 with "Tempest," followed by "Gravity," "Vertigo," "Free Fall" and "Nomad" on independent new-age music label Narada. "Frontiers" and "The Rumba Foundation" were recorded in 2008 and 2009, respectively, on EMI Records. "The Blue Guitar Sessions," released in 2012, and "One World" and "Beyond Borders" were released on Entertainment One Music.
"It's important to me to keep breaking new ground," Cook says. "When I began in '95, there weren't a lot of other people doing music like this. There was The Gipsy Kings, who are mostly singing and rumbas, and Ottmar Liebert, who is contemplative and quiet. It seemed the field was wide open, and I wanted to explore adding Brazilian and Latin percussion. What happens when you add a Bollywood string section, a Chinese erhu, Buckwheat Zydeco, jazz singer Flora Purim or whatever?
"I discovered lots of musicians who were doing things similar things, and I thought 'Well, I'd really rather keep moving.' I didn't want to stay and do the same thing over and over. I'd rather keep looking for those pastures that are unexplored."