Melding of Musicians

Jesse Cook travels to multiple continents for collaborators on his latest album

I've almost burnt a hole in Jesse Cook's newest CD, returning again and again to the seamless transition between the first and second tracks.

"Prelude" slams into "Qadukka-l-Mayyas" with a punch of violins and cymbals and deep, deep drums banging against each other before Cook's signature flamenco guitar bursts forth. And then, 25 seconds into the second track, Maryem Tollar blares the lyrics of this traditional Andalusian tune in a subterranean alto. An Egyptian string ensemble headed by Hossam Ramzy in Cairo is responsible for haunting threads, while back home in Toronto, Cook has enlisted Chris Church to electrify the violin on the first track.

"It didn't start as a master plan," explains Cook of his aptly dubbed fifth album, Nomad. We spoke by phone between gigs on his 14-city U.S./Canada tour, which brings him and his Toronto-based band through Tucson on July 24.

"I usually record at home in my own little studio. I tend to do all the writing, arranging and producing myself. But I wanted to be far enough away to get perspective."

Cook was determined not to let distance drag down his dream of incorporating musicians on several continents into the 12 tracks that make up his Juno (Canada's Grammy equivalent) award-winning album.

"I also was dying to work with Simon (Emmerson) of the Afro Celt Sound System. So we called him in London and he loved the idea. He's the one who introduced me to Hossam who said, 'Man, you need some strings on here.'"

In the end, Cook grabbed musicians from London, Madrid, Cairo, Toronto, Nova Scotia and, in the States, Milwaukee, Austin and Los Angeles.

Paris-born and Toronto-raised, Cook already had four albums under his belt before embarking on his latest project. Since 1995, he's produced CDs that have soared to the top of Billboard's World Music charts in the United States and gone gold in Canada--albums with quirky one-word titles mostly on the Narada label (Tempest in 1995; Gravity a year later; Vertigo in 1998; and finally Freefall in 2000). His last two albums featured musicians from further reaches--like Djivan Gasparyan (dubbed the god of Armenian Duduk) and Danny Wilde of the Rembrandts, among others.

The Gypsy Kings influence is noticeable, as are hues of the Afro Celts' arrangement. At Narada, he shares a lineup with a litany of world musicians including Lila Downs, Shelia Chandra, Jai Uttal and Baka Beyond--all mavericks fusing their own styles into new genres.

Danny Wilde comes back for a cameo on Nomad, and Cook's masterful guitar yields its fiery, familiar taste--a smorgasbord of expressive rumba and flamenco arrangements--a gypsy amalgam if there ever was one.

"Montsé Cortés is a legend in gypsy music," Cook says, discussing the singer's willingness to lend her vocals to "Toca Orilla," the last track on Nomad.

"Gypsy is a very guarded music. Sharing it with a foreigner like me--a mungicake--is amazing," concedes Cook of his admittedly "white bread" status.

As for any fears of putting together an album with musicians living far away from each other, Cook says it wasn't that difficult.

"Hossam invited me to stay in his Cairo apartment, and it just snowballed from there. It made sense to contact my vocalist friend Maryem, who happened to be in Egypt at the time. She actually lives three blocks away from me here in Toronto," he adds with a chuckle.

"Once you get the travel bug, it's pretty easy to just grab the laptop and go. It's amazing. I was flying home from Europe and I'm mixing with 64 tracks on my Mac right there in row 13."

He's quick to add, "Just because you have the capability of recording on the fly and have access to these tools, it doesn't mean everyone can be a producer. Remember, it's in the ears."

Going to where the musicians live is crucial, says Cook. "I'm not sure you get the best take when musicians aren't at home. In their own space, they're in the groove."

The liner notes to Nomad hint at adjustments, however. Cook sprinkles in bits and pieces of his album journal.

Cairo, January 11, 2003, 3:15: One of the violinists has arrived. The first musician to show for a 2 p.m. call. Cairo time. Got to love it.

"I expected to have a hard time due to my Western origins. They all thought I was from the States. I expected more hostility, post-Sept. 11. But people were great," says Cook about his hosts. "I guess politics operate above humanity."

Nomad isn't just different from Cook's other albums for its melding of musicians.

"Most of my previous music is instrumental. But I knew I wanted lyrics and singing on this album. So, scary as it was, I made a demo so I could generate interest in this project. It's really awful, if you've ever heard me sing. You begin to understand what a great singer can do for a song--it makes it or breaks it."

So, Cook wrote the tune for Montsé Cortés in her range. But he took a different tact for Brazilian singer Flora Purim.

"I was just writing another version of 'Girl from Ipanema,' and then, ironically, her CDs just flew across my desk and the project clicked. I went to L.A. to record her voice tracks."

Liner notes expand on his process for Purim's track, titled "Maybe." It's not so much Bossa Nova as it is Brazilian samba meets rumba flamenco.

"I love eclecticism," says Cook. "Finding a flow is important and a bit of a trick. Basically, all the tunes are rumbas. The guitar is front and center, chugging away."

He adds, "I think people are obsessed with division--culturally, spiritually and musically. For me as a musician, the similarities are far greater than the differences. In Tibet, for example, when we played there, it didn't matter what language we were singing in or even talking in. It's the music that's the universal language. Boy, that sounds clichéd. But it's true."

For Cook, it's all music from the planet Earth.

When I asked him to describe contemporary music in one sentence, he responded quickly.

"It's music of the next millennium. Our travel time is shorter now, though we cover great distances, compared to say, France in the 18th century. It changes how we listen. So, Britney Spears now has a Bollywood string riff, and people don't hear it as such. They just hear that they like it."

Yet with the shrinking of travel time and the ubiquitous ability to taste everything, Cook says the business of musical genres and audience promotion is slower to catch on.

"Here in Canada, the CD went gold. In the States, it's more of an underground following. Is it the music business or a cultural thing? I don't know. Some songs did quite well, even charted on the radio. But not in the States. Oddly, "Qadukka-l-Mayyas" charted in the United Arab Emirates."

With all this globalism, Cook says he had the hardest time, ironically, working with one musician closer by in the States.

"Once I decided I wanted to work with the BoDeans on the track 'Early on Tuesday,' I went looking for Kurt Neumann in Austin. We made all the arrangements, and I'm about to leave Toronto, and the SARS scare hit. Kurt cancels, saying we all had cooties up here," Cook quips.

"I spent a good deal of time convincing him that we're all OK. No one I knew had gotten sick--it's a big city, you know. But Kurt wasn't taking any chances. The running joke later was that I'd be somewhere in the States working, and I'd call Kurt in Austin just to tell him I was doing OK."