When it comes to classical guitar stylings, few can match Jesse Cook's musical résumé. The Juno-winning Torontonian virtuoso infuses world music flair into his Flamenco fusion sound, often traveling to far-flung parts of the world like Colombia or Egypt to inject the authentic tones of a region's traditional music into his own sonic blend.
So naturally, the genesis of his 2021 album Libre began exactly where you'd expect — in a car listening to a K-Pop girl group.
"My daughter and I were driving up to the cottage one day, she's playing DJ," says Cook. "I was like, 'Play me what you like, what are you listening to these days?' And she starts playing me a K-Pop band called Blackpink. And I have to say, since then I've listened to a whole bunch of Blackpink, and most of what they do is really not my kind of music. But they had a bunch of tunes that were totally trap-inspired."
"And, at first, I'm kind of thinking, 'Ughhh, K-Pop.' But before I knew it, I was finding myself going, 'Why am I loving this? This is kind of amazing.' There were all these kind of little world music themes, like scales you don't usually hear on a pop tune. And then, of course, the big drop beat on the chorus, where it just suddenly stripped down to this huge 808 kick drum and a great hook. And the thing just makes the whole car vibrate, you know? I really sort of got into it for a while, and then I started listening to all sorts of actual American-style trap music, where it all came from the beginning."
As a result, Libre blends Cook's playing with the omnipresent rhythmic sound of modern hip-hop and pop music — trap beats created on a Roland TR-808 drum machine. For Cook, it was the perfect playful home studio diversion during pandemic times. To keep creatively sane as the prospect of touring seemed ever pushed back, he turned to his YouTube channel.
Starting in January 2021, Cook recorded a new song every week — some of which included the 808s and trap backings — and making videos to accompany them. When management came knocking to make a new record in May 2021, he took some of the material he had been working on, stripped it to its essentials, and brought in other musicians (including Algerian violinist Fethi Nadjem, Portuguese drummer Marito Marques, and Peruvian drummer Matias Recharte) to breathe new life into the instrumental songs. The result is an album that rhythmically pulsates with a modern energy and even sometimes shredding spirit (thanks to Nadjem) that few classical guitar albums can match. The result is Libre.
"[The YouTube versions were] way too kind of trap or pop or something. It just didn't really seem to kind of connect to me as an artist as much, so I just kind of tinkered," says Cook. "I needed to actually inject more of myself and the stuff I love: the world music, musicians I love."
"It's funny because so far people keep telling me it sounds like a real divergence from [my] other music," he says. "And I feel like every album has been like that. I try to go somewhere different. [For] Nomad, I went to Cairo and worked with musicians there; or The Rumba Foundation, I ended up working with Cuban musicians and going to Colombia. I try to take what I'm doing to some new place and see if I can create some new hybrid. So for me, it didn't feel like a change, it felt like this is just the latest destination, right?"
Cook's tour kicks off Jan. 19 in Spokane, marking Cook's first time in front of a live crowd since February 2020. While it's been creatively invigorating for Cook to be back practicing with his band — and he proactively thanks "Spokane for being our first guinea pig" — the COVID break has left even the masterful vet somewhat apprehensive.
"It's been so long since we've been in front of an audience. We used to do more than 100 shows a year, and did that for 25 years. So I never would get nervous. But it's been so long that I'm actually kind of feeling a bit nervous," says Cook. "Like, is this gonna work? Do I still know how to do this? It's like riding a bicycle — I kind of hope that when I get up on that stage, all the gears just kind of kick it. I feel like I'm starting all over again." ♦
Jesse Cook • Wed, Jan. 19 at 8 pm • $25-$45 • All ages • Bing Crosby Theater • 901 W. Sprague Ave. • bingcrosbytheater.com • 509-227-7638