Many popular musicians seem to prefer enhancing their images than exploring their music. From Elton John to Kenny G. to Lady Gaga, the list is endless of musical artists for whom style precedes substance.
Jesse Cook is not one of them. He showed his musical priorities at the Pantages Theater in downtown Minneapolis on Saturday night, May 3, 2014. The reigning interpreter of the Nuevo Flamenco idiom of world music today, this Canadian guitarist and his four-piece band rocked the rafters for two solid hours.
New flamenco combines traditional flamenco music with elements of jazz, rumba, bossa nova, Gypsy, Latin, Middle Eastern, rock, Cuban swing, tango and salsa. Combined with the five musicians’ multi-instrument virtuosity, this eclectic brew of styles created hypnotic, dance-inducing rhythms impossible to resist.
Dressed in a white shirt, black tie and vest, Cook opened each set with a flamenco-flavored tune familiar to his core audience. From there he and his four hipster cohorts explored the subtleties of music ranging from the improvised rhythms of Latin house music, the mournful intonations of the Armenian duduk, and the intimate reverence of a Moorish incantation. However far they roamed culturally, Cook always maintained a firm focus on revealing the rhythms and emotions that underlay each piece.
Several times the more intimate pieces almost beckoned Jesse Cook to break out in song or at least hum the tune of the more melodic passages. But he let his guitar alone express the vibrancy and emotion in the music. In cognizance perhaps of the physical demands his percussive strumming places upon his hands and wrists, one innovation he introduced was to use brief sequences of improvised riffs recorded onstage in real time for the band to embellish and play against for additional sonic effect.
Only during the encores did Cook join violinist Chris Church and the others for chorale renditions of Paul Simon’s “Cecilia” and the Lumineers “Ho, Hey.” These unaccompanied songs juxtaposed well with the pulsating rhythms of the band’s more incessant, trance-like instrumental numbers.
Several crowd members spoke for everyone when they urged the group “to go all night.” No doubt the energy and passion expressed in Cook’s music made such a wish desirable. But as the beginning, mid-western portion of a 34-city tour that ranges from Reno, Nevada to Riga, Latvia, quitting after the standing ovation to the last of their three encores was a fitting end to Jesse Cook’s rousing exploration of world music and his commitment to expressing its subtleties via his guitar.