Every artist navigates a tense question: Is it more important to please or challenge an audience?
New-flamenco shredder Jesse Cook confronted this issue when creating his latest album, The Blue Guitar Sessions. Expectations from his record label were clear: produce another instrumental album in his signature rumba style. But Cook hoped to achieve something different. Instead of the fiery performances for which he’s known, he sought to assemble a mostly original collection of soft ballads and lush pop.
“I thought of Picasso’s ‘The Old Guitarist,’ how it forged a new expressive approach,” Cook says. “It’s the role of the artist to try something new. As a musician, you’re not just making music for yourself. Of course, if you don’t consider an audience, you may not have one. But the best way to serve your audience is to push yourself, to be emotionally honest with the material and hope they follow.”
Fiercely technical as his playing is, Cook views himself as a combined talent—writer, producer, guitarist. Note that guitarist is third on the list, despite his formal training at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and his informal studies with Gipsy Kings’ Nicolas Reyes.
“I’m trying to create a painting,” the Paris-born Canadian says. “My paint is the guitar. The actual playing takes the least amount of time; arrangements and production require the most. But the guitar-playing is easy.”
Following the lead of an artist who both pleased and challenged fans, Cook found inspiration in moods set by jazz icon Miles Davis.
“He was able to take incredibly complicated music and make it sound simple, organic, soulful—to the point you forget it’s actually quite difficult.”
In the same way Davis strips down his music in the 1959 landmark Kind of Blue, so does Cook investigate the space between notes in The Blue Guitar Sessions.
“Silence is just as important,” Cook says. “The more space you leave before you drop a note, the more beauty and tension can result. In contrast, if you play 100 notes in a measure, you’re exhausted by the next one. That’s what I take from Miles.”
The Blue Guitar Sessions reveals other influences. Kurt Weill’s hauntingly skewed sense of melody crops up in Cook’s own “Toybox.” But nothing is mannered or nostalgic. The music came, Cook says, effortlessly.
“In some ways, it’s hard to make another rumba record, because I’ve done seven and explored so much of that terrain. Not to say I won’t return to it, but, as an artist, moving forward is necessary.”
It’s not all blue. Sun-kissed joy shines in many new songs, such as “Ocean Blue,” with its soulful arpeggios, ebullient chord progression and skyward melody. Reviews have been positive, but Cook realizes you can’t please all the people all the time. Which is why he’ll play rumba-flamenco material in Henderson this week with a five-piece band.
Jesse Cook at Henderson Pavilion, 200 S. Green Valley Pkwy., 8 p.m. March 29, $10-$20, 267-4849, HendersonLive.com.