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Jesse Cook Chats with Concert Communicator

(Jesse Cook at Pantages Theatre 05/3/2014)



All content by: Patrick Dunn

Concert Communicator had the unique privilege to speak with Juno award winning Canadian guitarist, composer and producer Jesse Cook in advance of his upcoming performance scheduled for May 10th at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis, MN. He shared some interesting insight and stories related to his life as a professional recording and touring musician.  


Concert Communicator: You’ve always been well received in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis / St. Paul, MN).

Is there anything that stands out about visiting our city that you look forward to?

Jesse Cook: Yes, I love playing Minneapolis. I’ve been coming here over the years and started out playing the Dakota. Now I’m at the Pantages, which is very nice. As a Canadian, it’s closer in some ways to Canada in terms of the people, the climate and I can identify with that.

Concert Communicator: What is the interest level you are seeing in young players to pick up a nylon string acoustic and take a shot at learning to play Flamenco style?

Jesse Cook: It certainly seems to be happening more and more. I go into music stores and I see nylon string cutaways with pickups in them, kind of like my guitar. When I first started, it was hard to find a Flamenco guitar that you can play live that would have some sort of pickup system in it that was useful. Now it seems like it’s a pretty popular thing. If I’ve been part of that movement in any way to increase people’s awareness that’s great.

Flamenco has been around for centuries, it’s not going anywhere.  It’s sort of one of those things that goes in and out of fashion over the years. There was the Carlos Montoya period, the Sabicas period, the Paco de Lucia wave, the Gypsy Kings in the 80’s and then there’s this kind of movement I’ve been part of. I’m not really part of traditional Flamenco, but maybe because I’m using elements of that with other different kinds of music it speaks to a wider audience.

It’s funny, in Toronto so many of the players who are “the” players on the scene have come up to me and said, you know when I was a teenager you’re the reason I got into Flamenco. There was a rocker who first heard my stuff at a festival, which led to him getting heavy into the more traditional stuff in Spain. He went on to start up the Flamenco festival in Montreal, which makes me feel like I’m the gateway music to the more hardcore stuff.

Concert Communicator: What do you strive for in your tone that sets you apart from other guitar players in World Music?

Jesse Cook: It’s hard to say because the people I listen to are all over the map.  I don’t listen to other players in my genre for inspiration. The guitar players I love are mostly out of Spain like Vicente Amigo. As a producer, I listen to people like Peter Gabriel, Pierre Marchand, Sarah McLachlan. It’s people who are doing certain things with soundscapes, a modern sensibility to making records sound huge and impactful.

What I’m doing as a guitarist is just a small part of what I’m trying to say musically. People often hear me and only think of me as a guitar player. I think the guitar is a voice in the music, but it’s really not that much of what the music is doing overall. What I’m trying to do with my albums is create a world you can go into. You don’t even need your passport and you can go around the world.


I recorded a song called “That’s Right” in Lafayette, LA with Buckwheat Zydeco. I did an album called Nomad where I went to Cairo and recorded with musicians in Cairo and Egypt. I went to London and recorded with a group called Afro Celt Sound System, who are themselves kind of a hybrid group of musicians from around the world. So for me, that’s what I want my record to be about. It’s sort of a journey. I like to take people to somewhere they haven’t been sonically, maybe even where I haven’t been. On my records I like to try and find something that I haven’t done before. How that compares to other people in my genre, I don’t know?

Concert Communicator: Do you have a preference between recording a new album vs performing live on tour, or find one more rewarding than the other?

Jesse Cook: I don’t really have a preference, they are such different experiences. I always compare recording to being an artist in a studio with a canvas and you get to decide exactly what goes on that canvas, what paint, what color, everything. If you don’t like it, you can paint over it. Whereas live, whatever you play is out there. If you play a funny note, you’ve got to make that a good note and kind of justify that choice you made.


Another thing is when I’m in the studio, sometimes I’ll be there for months and months. I’m writing, arranging, producing and it’s me, mostly by myself for days on end. It’s a very solitary occasion. You sit there by yourself day after day writing this music, trying to find something compelling to say with notes, timbre and harmony, whereas live, you’re in a room with 2,000 people. It’s a complete inverse. My life sort of goes through these swings where the year I’m making a record I’ll be alone for months on end and then I’m on the road every night in a room with a thousand people. Even when I come off the stage I’m on the tour bus with the band and the crew, so it’s like people all the time. It’s very strange.


Concert Communicator: Can you recall an event or circumstance that ended up being an unexpected song inspiration?

Jesse Cook: I think cause I write instrumental music, my stuff is not always directly connected to something I’m living through. People will say, what were you thinking of when you wrote that. Maybe they’re imagining me standing on a cliff and the waves are crashing below while I’m contemplating my life. It’s probably more like I’m thinking play in E minor and do something with Surdos and a Brazilian groove with maybe some Armenian Duduk. It’s different than if you write lyrics and you need to have something to say in words and you look for inspiration for that.


Concert Communicator: “The Blue Guitar Sessions” stands out as one of the more significant shifts in your album catalog and contains one of my favorite tunes “Fields of Blue”. What was different about how this album came together?

Jesse Cook: Yes, you know it was one of those things that I realized my records from the beginning have always been a bit bombastic, danceable, and up-tempo. There were a few sad songs here and there or songs that meander and take you off on a bit of a journey, but I noticed many of my favorite records that I listen to just as an audience were albums that are kind of melancholy from beginning to end. Something like Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”, Tonto Tempo by Bebel Gilberto, the famous Norah Jones album “Come Away With Me”. You can just put them on in the afternoon, get in that space and live in them for 45 minutes while you have your coffee and it feels great.


I thought, I’ve always wanted to make one of those records and also realized those are the records I loved so why am I only making up tempo stuff. Each time a new record would come around I’d say to myself, this time I’m going to make that “blue” record, but then I end up writing something danceable and it just sort of takes over. This time I’m going to force myself to write that record and be unapologetically melancholy and I finally did, it was the Blue Guitar Sessions. 


It was funny because when it first come out, you could see my audience was kind of confused about it. However, as the years have passed, people will come up to me and kind of lean in and say, you know my favorite album of yours is the Blue Guitar Sessions – and I’m thinking why are you whispering?


Concert Communicator: Your standout song “Alone” captured my attention and made me a lifelong Jesse Cook fan. What significance has this song had in your career?

Jesse Cook: It’s one of those songs that a few people have come up to me and said I like that part of the concert because I get to hear you play just solo guitar without the band and all that other stuff going on. Generally though, the people’s favorite songs are “Mario Takes a Walk” or “Bogota by Bus”. I guess because it’s instrumental music and there are no real hits being established on Pop radio, everywhere I go the song that is “the song” tends to be different. It seems to depend on how people first encountered my music, which song that is. 


In the States, early on we got supported by the Smooth Jazz format, so the songs that got played under that are the hits here. In Canada, we had some songs chart on Pop radio, the cover of “Fall at Your Feet” by Crowded House became a hit there and we have to play it. The song called “Mario Takes a Walk” was used in all the Olympics and has become one of my top songs.


Concert Communicator: What can fans look forward to on your May 10th stop here in support of the “One World” album?

Jesse Cook: In theory we are promoting the “One World” record, but we do songs from all the records and I try to kind of vary the show and use stuff from all points in my career. I’m now actually just finishing up my 10th record, so we will be trying out some new material from that. 


This show consists of the 5 piece band I’ve been touring with for years, so we have the unenviable task of trying to replicate some of tracks where I had a much bigger cast in the studio process. That makes it difficult reproduce that full sound with just the five of us and we don’t run studio tracks. We prefer to do it all live, so we use midi tracking to play synthesizers behind the guitars and our violinist has a bunch of tricks that help. We also build live loops on stage so we try very hard to make it sound as big as the record.

Don't miss this chance to see Jesse Cook in action, May 10th at Pantages Theatre. For quick access to tickets, follow this link.

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