Moments after launching his high powered, dynamics-filled world music extravaganza before a nearly sold-out crowd at The Saban Theatre with the booming, percussive title track to “Beyond Borders" (a true universal anthem of hope for these challenging times), veteran acoustic guitarist Jesse Cook started an audience clap-along by saying, “We’ve got a bit of a Rumba Party going on!” Most longtime fans of the Canadian artist, who launched his recording career with Tempest in 1995, know what “rumba” means when it’s associated with the flamenco style. It’s a subgenre developed in Andalusia Spain in the 19th century where Cuban music first reached the country.
Cook kept the party going with the snappy, high energy “Tempest” before showcasing the more contemplative side of his artistry on the sensual ballad “Come What May,” highlighted by his right-hand man Chris Church’s beautiful violin harmony. Then it was back to the global fusion intensity with “Jumpstart” (also from his debut album Tempest), a number that opened heavy percussive possibilities that Cook explored with the entire band sitting at the front of the stage. Drummer/Percussionist Rosendo “Chendy” Leon took the lead on a beatbox, but Cook used his guitar as a drum and created funky “zipper” sounds in their sizzling duet.
Cook is a generous bandleader, often letting his bandmates (including acoustic guitarist Nicolas Hernandez and bassist Dennis Mohammed) share or dominate the spotlight. Church was a powerful co-star on tunes like “Bombay Slam,” one that Cook called a mix “of musical ingredients including Bootsy Collins, Parliament and Bollywood.” Church opened the trippy and hypnotic jam with his haunting violin before pulling out an exotic woodwind known as the duduk. The highlight of the piece was the interplay of Cook’s rich, low toned guitar lines and Church’s soaring violin. Church is a virtual one man exotica band with an arsenal that includes the gaita, accordion, surdo, a violin with cello strings, pennywhistle and vocals. Cook prefaced “Double Dutch,” one of the plucky, spirited singles from Beyond Borders, with a charming story about “competitive schoolyard skippers” that inspired the song.
Through all the highs and lows, the fiery slams and gently rhythmic ballads that made the two sets zip along, there were a few highlights which resonated long after the pieces concluded. With his powerfully percussive playing style, and a tight, versatile band that can create a virtual world orchestra and the drop of a groove, the presentation gets pretty busy at times. One of the most refreshing respites from those fires was the graceful and deeply soulful acoustic guitar duet Cook did with Hernandez on the poignant, haunting “Lost.” Though it was only a few moments in a show driven by a multitude of sonic textures, it perfectly reflected the idea that sometimes, when it comes to the most meaningful musical emotion, less is more.
Cook followed this moment with his crowd-pleasing renditions of The Lumineers’ catchy “Ho Hey,” done as a vocal duet between Cook and Church, and his feisty re-imagining of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecelia,” a singalong, clap-along jam that got everyone to their feet. Cook may have a more conservative look than he did when he started, long hair flowing freely, years ago, but his passion, energy and commitment to what he called on one album, “The Rumba Foundation” continues with wild, freewheeling abandon.