Release Date:
September 29, 2009

Reviewed by:
Anne Aufderheide

Juno Award winning guitarist Jesse Cook is no stranger to Smooth Jazz audiences.  He first burst onto the scene in 1995, when he appeared at the Catalina Island Jazztrax Festival. Originally the band was to perform during the twenty minute intermissions in a little bar downstairs from the main stage. His performance was well appreciated, so much so that Cook was invited to give a performance on the main stage. Shortly afterwards, his debut album Tempest entered the American Billboard charts at #14. It was the first of many appearances by Jesse Cook at this famous annual gathering.

A charismatic entertainer who has sold over one million albums worldwide, Cook has performed to sold-out crowds the world over. It has garnered him a truly global fan base and a unique following that embraces both contemporary jazz and new age/world music, despite his music being rooted in fiery flamenco rhythms. He is beloved for his hybrid rumba flamenco music; audiences cannot stay in their seats, up dancing, or at least doing some major toe tapping and hand clapping.  You’ve been there.  You know what I’m talking about.

In 2008, Cook achieved something no one before him ever has. He dominated both the smooth jazz radio charts with his Top 3 single, “Café Mocha,” and the Billboard New Age chart with his #1 album Frontiers, which spent over 70 weeks in the Top 10. Earlier this year Acoustic Guitar magazine awarded Cook the Silver medal in its prestigious Player’s Choice Awards. He shared the stage with his hero, the legendary Paco de Lucia, who won gold. When Canada compiled its gift to newly elected President Obama, Cook’s “Mario Takes A Walk" was one of the 49 songs chosen by the CBC to represent Canada.

Now he is back with a brand new recording, The Rumba Foundation.  Already the album has reached #3 on Amazon’s Jazz chart. So far, the first radio single, “Bogota By Bus” hit #12 on Billboards Smooth Jazz chart and #11 on The Smooth Jazz Network charts. On the opening day of the release, The Rumba Foundation rocketed to #1 on iTunes Canada Album Chart (Madonna was #2,) #2 on iTunes USA World Music chart, and #3 on Amazon’s Jazz Album chart.

So what’s all the fuss about?  The Rumba Foundation could quite possibly be the very best album Jesse Cook has ever released.

The project took Cook on a journey to Bogota, Colombia, where the artist was given the opportunity to entwine traditional Vallenato folk music with the ever-infectious beats of Spanish rumba flamenco. Cook explains, “Travelling turns the making of a record into a bit of an adventure.  The record becomes a journal of your trip.  I don’t believe that Vallenato and rumba flamenco have ever been mixed before.”

Originally Cook’s concept for The Rumba Foundationwas to bring his rumba flamenco music back to rumba’s birthplace, the Americas, more specifically, Cuba. Cook explains, “A hundred and fifty years ago or so (historians are debating that constantly), rumba arrived in Spain.  It was brought by sailors who'd been to Cuba and heard this new rhythm.  You can imagine sailors hanging out with gypsies in the bars of Spain, and saying, ‘Hey, I heard this new rhythm, it goes like this...’  The gypsy musicians incorporated it into their music, and it became rumba flamenco. I thought, for this project, it would be interesting to take rumba flamenco from Arles, and mix it back with the music being made in the Americas today.”

But then he was invited to Colombia by the Latin Grammywinners Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, a traditional Vallenato group.  From that moment on, an infusion of culture and sounds, melodies and rhythms, intermingled in the recording studio, as Cook produced the Vallenato-meets-rumba flamenco amalgam. He also wrote or co-wrote a dozen compositions for the album, vividly colored and intricately textured with Colombian, Brazilian, Haitian, Cuban, and Spanish influences.  “I don't think it's ever been done before," says Cook, "The sound is just so beautiful and so intoxicating to me. But, blending these styles also speaks to their shared roots."

The album was recorded in two parts: in Toronto, Jesse was supported by Rosendo (chendy,) Leon Jr. (drums and percussion,) Chris Church (all violins, black violin,) Drew Birston (double bass,) Dennis Mohammed (bass,) Rosendo (chendy,) Leon Sr. (bongos,) Juan De Sedas (accordion,) Kevin Fox (cello,) Jonathan Tortolano (cello,) William Arivalo (caja and guacharaca,) Jeremy Fisher (vocals;) in Bogota by Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto; the group makes their own instruments by hand including gaitos flutes. “I learned these flutes are always played in pairs and in only one key. They are doing it old school,” comments Cook.

Most of his songs are original instrumentals, though it’s as if Cook’s guitar is actually singing.  In the hands of this master, the guitar has a voice all its own. His compositions reveal great depth of character and intellect. His performance demonstrates remarkable execution of guitar chord and fret work; the extent of his talent is far beyond any of his competition. In short, he’s an outstanding artist who is prodigiously gifted.

We are now entering into a journey through the vibrant music world of South America. Invoking the impressions of the long, bumpy, dusty, bus trip, “Bogota By Bus” has an infectious beat. The many layers of instrumentation make for an intriguing listening experience.  Along with Cook’s agile guitar fingering, the accordion provides an additional voice for the melody. Los Gaiteros’ flutes add the earthy authenticity of the country’s music heritage.  This is a great choice for the first radio single. 

“Santa Marta” is deeply romantic, with its strong yet melancholy melody played with fiery intensity by Cook. Los Gaiteros contribute a mélange of flutes and voice, and the band’s complex percussion is so engaging.  Bringing the tempo down, “Tuesday's Child” opens with echoes of a distant child’s voice. With minimal backing instrumentation, Cook’s acoustic guitar takes on the gorgeous melody while Chris Church’s plaintive violin and a string section delicately answer the melody. The performance is utterly exquisite. 

“Manolo’s Lament” opens with voices singing a repetitive verse and full complement of multi-layered percussion. You can easily hear the influence of Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto’s flutes along with the vocal harmonies of Juan De Sedas’ accordion.  “Improv # 1” is a brief but lush guitar solo by Cook.  Then we move immediately into “La Rumba D'el Jefe,” where Cook’s guitar and Church’s violin carry on a passionate musical conversation. Percussion and backing guitars add to the tension and textures of this classic Cook rumba flamenco with a twist of Cuban son music.

In “Improv # 2,” Cook’s deep and rich solo guitar and adept fingering takes us into one of my favorites on the CD, “Gaita.” It is strong, driving, and full bodied. Cook’s melody propels us into the essence of a lambada jam session. At the bridge, the flutes and human voices fill in more South American sounds.  One of the longer tracks on the record, the song builds to a full blown storm of powerful, intoxicating percussion, deep drums, guitars, flutes, accordion, voice, and shakers. And oh! what glorious rhythms!  This is Cook at his best when colorful timbres in his thrilling playing style entwine with complicated rhythms taking it much further into an unparalleled, multi-faceted, global hybrid.  The raw passion of flamenco is unquestionable.  It may interest you to know that gaita is the Spanish name for kuisi, a Native American fipple (or duct) flute made from a hollowed cactus stem, with a beeswax and charcoal powder mixture for the head, with a thin quill made from the feather of a large bird for the mouthpiece.  

Bringing it down, we find another magnificent melody in “Rain Day.”  Minimal instrumentation allows Cook’s dexterous guitar fiingering and lengthy runs to interplay with Church’s dazzling violin and the string section.  Another of my favorites is “Bombay Diner.” In an ultra cinematic approach, the track captures the pulsing city life of Bombay. Cook’s guitar voicings accentuate with Middle Eastern phrasing, and the really cool rhythms and full bodied percussion capture a particularly unique view into rumba-flamenco-meets-Bollywood.  Tasty!

With a very mysterious air to it, “Afternoon At Satie's” opens with palmas (rhythmic hand clapping) and solo guitar.  Once again, an engaging melody is carried by Cook’s guitar, and as the song builds with a strong bass line and percussion, a distant, background electric piano plays its own detached song with a lingering, haunting effect. The only cover on the album, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia,” is rendered in a refreshing, upbeat rhythm with handclapping and natural vocals that blend Latin swing and Vallentato styles with rumba flamenco.  It is very entertaining.  Closing with “Homebound,” a duet of guitar and violin backed by cello, string section, and percussion, once again draws us in to the passion, artistry, and intrigue that is Jesse Cook’s world.

 “At the end of the day, music is music, and the only competition going on is the competition to win your heart with whatever the musician is playing, whether it's a million notes or just three"    - Jesse Cook

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