Jesse Cook thinks that Banff is one of the most beautiful places in the world. He’s performed in Banff for decades but hasn’t performed in the Shaw Amphitheatre at the Banff Centre. “I’m always happy to be going to Banff especially in the summer. That’s the other thing, normally we tour more in the spring and the fall. So, the idea of being in Banff in the summer is a new experience,” Cook says.
Cook is touring with his ‘new’ album. “New is a relative term.” His 10th album Beyond Borders came out not quite a year ago. He and his band are going to continue to tour until the end of the year. They’ve been to many places, playing the music of Beyond Borders. They’ve toured China, Dubai and they were in Poland earlier this year. “We did the first jazz festival in Saudi Arabia. They had laws where you couldn’t have music concerts, so this is a great step forward for Saudi Arabia, and it’s exciting to be part of that.”
When Cook was composing musical scores in his twenties, for dancing and television, he was playing Spanish guitar on the side. “That was the music that I really loved and I often tried to convince the directors of the programs I was working on… I’d be like, hey do you want some Spanish guitar in there and they’ve be like no.” Then he created his first album Gravity and it did really well. “It was one of those things where I didn’t really have to pay my dues. Suddenly I went from being nobody to having a record sold out across the country, within the first week. I got signed to a US label, It was on the Billboard charts and I was touring, I didn’t do all those years of schlepping my gear into bars and things.” Since the record did so well, the record company wanted him to keep doing the same thing. “I wanted to change. Doing this as an artist, you’ve got to keep changing. All the musicians that I kind of admire that way, whether you’re talking about Miles Davis or the Beatles, they kept redefining themselves. They kept saying okay, you loved that but that was what we did before and this is the new thing.”
Therefore, Cook has traveled to Colombia and recorded with musicians there, he explored Arabic influences in Cairo for his album Nomad, he also experimented with Persian music. Lately, he’s been into looping and electronica, experimenting with urban sounds. His album One World was about mixing all the sound together. Beyond Borders has no rules.
“I start to feel like there is a second meaning to Beyond Borders right now, where we’ve got Trump wanting to build a wall, you’ve got Britain and Brexit, and there is an extreme right party sort of on the rise in Germany, on and on it goes. It seems like I grew up in a time where we were tearing walls down. The Berlin wall came down. And now it seems like the ebb and flow of history we are back to building walls and separating, trying to scapegoat other people or accuse them of being enemies.
I feel like it is a great time to have music that is a celebration of cultural coming together.”
Cook hopes music that features a variety of cultural roots will help to break down walls. “The longer they are immersed in the beauty and the poetry of the sounds, maybe it will start rubbing off in other ways. And eventually they won’t feel the need to be so suspicious of their neighbours.”
So what’s next? Cook isn’t entirely sure. He thinks of music as a sandbox and he just goes in and plays. He pokes around until he finds something that “makes the hair stand up at the back of [his] neck.”
“Music and art, it’s all visceral. But there’s an intellectual component that you’ve got to bring it all together. Make it all work. But really, it’s kind of a gut reaction most of the time. When I’m creating, I try not to judge what I’m doing. I just kind of get it out, make it, and not decide whether it is good or bad until much much later.”
Remarkably, Cook has never experienced writer’s block. But he has a secret.
“I’ve never sat down and judged my stuff. I never sit down and go that’s terrible. And I think that’s really what shuts people down, if you judge the first impotence you have, you’ll never get beyond it. You’ve got to accept that the first one will probably be bad, but as you work on it you polish it up and it starts to form.”
He also finds that music is a constant source of inspiration and he doesn’t have to look elsewhere. “Music is this infinite source of excitement and ideas.”
Thought there was a time when Cook was done with the guitar.
“I started studying classical guitar at 6, very quickly I was passed up at the guitar academy where I studied in Toronto. I was passed up to a prodigy himself. He took me under his wing and wanted me to practice 2 hours a day. I remember sitting in my room as a kid, practicing practicing and looking out the window, watching my friends playing outside, and thinking how come I have to sit in here and they get to have fun? That kind of sucks. At 13 I quit. I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore. I stopped playing.”
But the orchestra director at his school wanted him to play for her orchestra, to show the kids what you could do if you practiced. Though Cook said he had quit, he didn’t play guitar anymore, she insisted. So he got up there and started playing a song off by memory but blanked half way through. He felt incredibly humiliated and for years the thought of performing brought on great anxiety. The incident got him to practice like crazy when he got back to playing when he was 15. He isn’t sure if the two are related, but must be connected.
With ten albums under his belt, Cook has to make choices about his live concerts. “There will be people who come to the show who may not know a lot of what we are playing because maybe they only have one record, we try and cover different albums, we try to make sure there are different representations of different periods in my career, when we play live. It’s one of those things that, there are songs that people really liked but at a certain point we did retire them because we just needed to make space for more stuff. It’s a hard juggling act I find, as a performer. Trying to change the show, but also play the songs that people really like to hear. It’s always been my struggle.”
But lately Cook hasn’t been finding as much time to create music, because he’s been creating, directing and filming his own videos that he posts as ‘Friday Night Music’ on his Facebook and Instagram feeds. If you thought he had an entire film team behind him, you’re not alone. “People would say [to me] oh wow, your team is doing a great job! And it would be like, actually it’s just me. It still winds up being mountains of work. I had to stop over the summer and I know it’s kind of crazy, but I love it. I really love filmmaking. Both of my parents were filmmakers. And I’ve always loved the art. And once I started making them myself, I just got hooked. But I kind of need to carve out time from video so that I can actually be a musician.”
Catch Jesse Cook for an evening at the Banff Centre Shaw Amphitheatre this Saturday, August 18th. Tickets are still available online.