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One World infused with many, old and new

September 6, 2015 11:46 A.M.
Canadian guitar troubadour Jesse Cook performs at Sagebrush Theatre on Sept. 21.

If Jesse Cook were a chef rather than a musician, he’d be tossing everything in the pot, jambalaya style.

One of the beauties of world music, though, is that there is no best-before date. The fusion of forms can transcend cultures and the passage of time.

“It’s kind of like making a soup,” he said before hitting the road for a tour that stops at Sagebrush Theatre on Sept. 21. “You put all your favourite ingredients into it. There’s a sense we’re not only blending different cultures but different time periods as well.”

As the Juno winner notes with his latest release, One World, Cook’s repertoire is a moveable feast and the menu is ever changing. In the late ’90s, he was in bayou country, Lafayette, La., and cut a record with Buckwheat Zydeco. A dozen years ago he was in Cairo to record with Indian musicians. For The Rumba Foundation, he went to Columbia.

The question, he says, has always been, “Where did you go? Where did you take your guitar.”

In some ways One World brings Cook full circle with the understanding that the music doesn’t have to be tied to place, that it’s all connected at some level. He considers it his most diverse album in a career spanning 20 years.

“The Constantinople of sound,” is how he describes it. There is a greater use of electronica in these tracks along with acoustic guitar, but there is also sitar blended with synthesizer, evoking the feel of an ancient bizarre.

“You had to pass through it to get somewhere else. What would a marketplace sound like? Istanbul’s actually one of my favourite cities. You can feel the culture there. This was the New York of the ancient world for 1,500 years. When you’re in that city, it still feels like New York.”

He called attention to one song, Bombay Slam, as an example of the musical crosscurrents.

“It’s kind of that crossroads between a whole bunch of different time periods and styles of music. It’s kind of like Parliament Funkadelic meets Bollywood. I don’t know how to describe it.”

Between steady touring, Cook spent part of the summer in southern France. He was born in Paris to Canadian parents. When his father retired in the city of Arles in the Camargue region, their neighbour was Nicolas Reyes, lead singer of The Gipsy Kings and a teenage Jesse, studying guitar, was drawn to the flamenco-rhumba fusion known locally as the Camargue sound.

A few years later, Cook gained the spotlight with a breakthrough performance at the 1995 Catalina Jazz Festival. As sometimes happens at festivals, Cook’s band was such a surprise hit on the bar stage that they were given time on the mainstage, earning a 10-minute standing ovation. The acclaim carried over and their album Tempest made it to No. 14 on the American Billboard shortly after.

A dozen records and 11 Juno nomination followed as Cook’s career paralleled the growth in popularity of world music. Yet he consciously strives to produce distinctly different recordings each time.

“I try to put it in a context I’ve never heard before,” he said. “That is my goal, to make a new record so that then we’re on a new journey.”

That journey doesn’t necessarily require an overseas flight with a sort of UN of session musicians to enrich the mix.

“We’re very lucky in Toronto in that there is no single group that is unrepresented. There is a huge community of every group,” Cook said, reciting the city’s large ethnic makeup — Asian, Italian, Caribbean.

“I’ve always felt it fascinating that this has happened, but that it is kind of a North American phenomenon.

PBS has been airing Cook’s special Live at Bathurst Street Theatre this summer on stations across the U.S.

“You don’t expect to get that kind of blanket coverage,” he said. “My music doesn’t fit any radio format. I rely a lot on word of mouth.”

It helps that the public broadcasting audience is a good fit for his music.

“You won’t see Kim Kardashian getting her nails done.”

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