Jakob Bro: Searching for Beauty Through Sound
Beauty is perhaps one of the most common words used in association with music, but it is also one of the vaguest terms in musical criticism, and it rarely says something substantial about the work that is described. And yet, despite its intangible character, it would be almost impossible to characterize Danish guitarist Jakob Bro's music as anything else than beautiful. In the aesthetic universe of Bro, beauty becomes synonymous with the process of artistic creation. It is the attempt to find a musical form that both is born within tradition and lies outside it. It is the will to find the space between composition and improvisation, the fleeting moment that is allowed to blossom and become something that exists both within and out of time.
While still relatively young, Bro (born in 1978) has come a long way on his journey into sound. He has played with the legendary drummer Paul Motian, trumpeters Tomasz Stanko and Tom Harrell, saxophonists Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano and Mark Turner and fellow guitarist Bill Frisell, just to name a few. However, it is characteristic of Bro that he collaborates with musicians that erase themselves in the music. The quality of having a distinctive musical voice while still being able to immerse himself in the music is something that Bro shares with the artists he has played with. To Bro, playing music is a voyage of constant discovery.
From the beginning, music was an important part of Bro's life: "I played trumpet at an early age. My father had a big band, and has always taught music. We had all kinds of instruments in the house. So there has always been a lot of music. I played the tambourine with my father's big band before I even learned to walk. The next step was to pick up the trumpet. I became a member of a youth orchestra and played there for a few years, and later it evolved into a position in the big band. I also played the trumpet in church, and it was a challenge playing in front of an audience because I was really shy, and this is something I have thought about recently. Playing music, you have to be on stage a lot and in a way, it is a strange situationbeing on a scene, but it is a situation I have learned to deal with."
Bro's transition from trumpet to guitar came about when he began listening to guitarist Jimi Hendrix in the sixth grade and started to explore rock music. There was a period when he played both trumpet and guitar, but gradually the guitar became his only instrument, and he started playing guitar in the big band as well as in a rock group. The change from trumpet to guitar marked an increased interest in music that culminated during his first year in high school, when he started to play fusion, and he listened to the records that his father brought home, among them albums by guitarists John Scofield and Pat Martino. There was a situation where Bro was driving home with his father and told him that he might as well break out of school and focus on music because this was what he wanted to do. His parentsespecially his motherweren't too fond of the idea and wanted him to get an education, but in a way this only made it clearer to the guitarist that this was a path that he had to pursue on his own.
Bro began studying in a jazz school in Aarhus and later attended the Royal Academy of Music when he was only 17: "The most important thing that happened to me in that period was when I lived in Aarhus and met drummer Rune Kielsgaard and bassist Eske Nørrelykke. I was part of the musical environment and listened to pianist Heine Hansen at the jazz venue Bent J. He was incredibly talented and played with the best. It was a world that fascinated me and a place where I felt that I could go if I wanted to play. I started to jam with Rune and Eske and played a lot of concerts with them."
The relationship with Rune Kielsgaard and Eske Nørrelykke developed through a rigorous regimen of practice and performances, and the more formal education at The Royal Academy of Music was set aside. Eventually, the three decided to leave Denmark in favor of Berklee College of Music. At this point, Bro had already been noticed by musicians like saxophonist Michael Brecker and Danish pianist Carsten Dahl, whom Bro idolized. He had also played with Danish saxophonist Jacob Dinesen, an experience that meant a lot. There was a concert at the restaurant Mefisto that was really special to Bro. Kurt Rosenwinkel, whom Dinesen knew from Berklee, was in town and played with the group, and later he told Bro that it was a wonderful experience and that he had to come to New York to play with him. Rosenwinkel even said that, hearing Bro, he had "somehow found a clue to how guitar and music should be played." This was an amazing boost to the young guitarist.
In America, the musical relationship between Rune Kielsgaard, Eske Nørrelykke and Bro started to dissolve, and he moved back to Copenhagen after studying at Berklee and formed the band Beautiful Day with saxophonist Jacob Dinesen. The band was his entry into the Copenhagen jazz scene, and they played a lot of concerts and received many positive reviews.
After Copenhagen, Bro finally moved to New York to study at Manhattan School of Music, but he found himself unsatisfied with the musical milieu of the school. Instead, he formed new connections outside the school, taking lessons with guitarist Steve Cardenas and bassist Ben Street, at whose apartment he lived for a period. Street introduced him to a lot of people, including saxophonist Mark Turner, and he gradually became aware of the New York jazz scene, with people like saxophonist Chris Cheek, bassist Larry Grenadier and pianist Ethan Iverson.
Bro returned to Copenhagen and was in doubt as to whether he would go back to New York again. At this point, he played with Beautiful Day again. But then, one day, bassist Anders Christensen told him that he had been considered for a position in Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band. As it turned out, the guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel got the gig, but it was amazing to the guitarist that they had thought about him. However, the dream would actually come true. Later he was told to contact Paul Motian, and he phoned him, and things were set up. Bro says: "I prepared for six months and memorized Motion's repertoire, all of his songs, so when I started playing with him [in 2002], and he announced the compositions on stage, I could play them by heart, while the others were looking at sheet music. Playing with Motian was the greatest thing. It doesn't get better than that, and it opened a lot of doors. It's a whole network I have gotten access to through him."
Speaking of his network, Bro says: "I have been very happy working with Danish saxophonist Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard and trumpeter Jacob Buchanan, and generally I try to find jobs where I can be myself but also be challenged musically. I am very privileged because I haven't been in a situation where I regretted that I said yes to a job. I have learned incredibly much from playing with Paul Motian and Tomasz Stanko. When I started out in Stanko's band, there wasn't room for a guitar, so I had to create a space where I could play, and a situation like that has taught me a lot. But ultimately, my goal is to play my own compositions and immerse myself in the music, but I'm still young and have a lot to learn. Hank Roberts has given me the opportunity to be in his band, and this is another way I can develop my musical language. So there are offers you can't refuse, but there might come a time where I will have to cut down on the jobs as a sideman."
While being in demand as a sideman can potentially create a conflict in terms of finding time to focus on his own projects, Bro has also found that working as a sideman has given him the opportunity to include players of a very high caliber on his records: "Playing with people like Paul Motian and Tomasz Stanko has given me the opportunity to hire some musicians who can bring a lot to my music. This has especially been the case on my last two records, Balladeering (Loveland Records, 2009) and Time (Loveland Records, 2011), where it has been unique that I could just say to guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan, 'These are sketches. Let's just play them and see what happens.' And then an aesthetic rises out of it all. It just blooms, and it has been unbelievable to witness. It is a case of bringing just enough to make the music happen."
There is one guest on Balladeering and Time who especially stands out: Lee Konitz. Speaking of his experience of recording with Konitz, Bro says: "When I heard Konitz play, it was so fragile. It was as if it could collapse any moment. It was a process where it was hard to tell what was going on, but something was released. I stood beside him and had never tried a thing like that before. I didn't know whether it was right or wrong; it was a strange feeling. But then, when I heard it outside the studio, it was, like, incredibleit became more than music. When Lee plays, it is something bigger. It is some kind of sound you become witness to."
Elaborating on his experience of hearing Konitz, Bro says: "When I hear Konitz, there is something. I think he sings directly from inside. It doesn't matter whether he makes a mistake, it touches something. There are others who might be better technically and have developed their own language but still don't touch me, so there are many things that have to fall into place before a musician makes sense to me. You can take Coltrane: he was incredible in terms of technique, but I never think about that, it just goes straight into the heart. That's what I aim for. And the thing is, you can also do this with two chords and a blues scale, but no matter what, it takes a lot of practice."
Looking back at his musical journey, Bro sees it as divided into two paths: "I believe my career has been two things. One has been to create recordssimply create a kind of beautyand another has been to practice my instrument and develop myself that way. I don't feel like Balladeering and Time are guitar records. That's not the way I hear them. It's music. I wanted to make music that I would like to listen to, and this is a development I have gone through. I have played long solos and experimented a lot, but soon I became aware of the aesthetic I wanted to follow. I would rather play a few choruses where I tell a story than just try a lot of different things. I have also thought a lot about leaving out the solos. Sometimes the song only needs one solo, and this is an approach that is reflected in my writing. I heard saxophonist Chris Cheek play a solo on his record I Wish I Knew (Fresh Sound New Talent, 1997), and it was only one chorus, but that chorus really meant something. I have listened a lot to Coltrane's records and still do, and you cannot really compare the two universes, but I just realized I couldn't do it Coltrane's way when I played live. You can play a solo for 15 minutes, but something is lost. There are very few musicians who can play so long a solo and still keep it interesting. I prefer to play it short and profound rather than long, drawn out."
It is characteristic of Bro that he is dedicated to finding and crafting a musical language that is still in the making. Surprisingly, he finds one of his greatest inspirations in classical music: "I am very inspired by classical pianists, like Glenn Gould and Sviatoslav Richter, who spent their whole life learning and crafting a sound, not thinking about how many concerts they were supposed to play. If I can reach my goal by working at home and playing my instrument, that is the path I should take."
Bro's admiration of classical music doesn't only extend to role models like Gould and Richter. He also uses classical music on a more practical level: "I play a lot of Bach and Chopin. There are pieces for piano that somehow sound fantastic on guitar. So right now, I have two worlds I work with: the exploration of sound effects, where I attempt to create different textures of sound, and then there's the work with the classical pieces. Things are starting to come together in a way they haven't done before. I have this idea that it is possible to create a new kind of contemporary music using the guitar in a way that brings it close to classical music and music that is sung through the human voice. Right now, it is only an image I have in my head, but it is the reason I get up in the morning and play the guitar. I believe I have entered a plateau of sound that is endless."
Elaborating on his approach to writing, Bro says: "I make the music that I like. It could be dreamy or beautiful, but it isn't something I think about. I have an aesthetic that tells me if something is good or not. Much of my music is constructed around melodies. My compositions are almost like a song. But within the frame I set up with a melody, a lot of things can happen. New layers of music are constantly added to the vocabulary, and when you play, you unconsciously get to a new place. And then there's the aspect of collaboration. For instance, with my trio (with bassist Anders Christensen and drummer Jakob Høyer), I think of what happens around me. What do I hear and what can I add to the sound?
"When I write, I try to create a mood, but I do not say that I want it to sound in a particular way before I begin. It's an intuitive process where I sing the structure from the instrument. I try to find the core of the pieces I write. Many of them are very simple, but there are still considerations: how should this tone bend, and so forth. This is a process of interpretation and a way into the core of the song. It's a repetitive process where the song is sung again and again and gradually begins to take shape. It's like the use of 'and.' Why is it there? Is it just filler or something that enhances the meaning? I'm very reflective about stuff like that, and this is also the case when I work with a larger setting. Sometimes I need to point out that the theme should be played exactly this way. There shouldn't be any extra notes. Then there are other times where there is room for improvisation."
Bro has arrived at his own approach to composing and playing, where he sings through his own instrument and uses it as the entry into composition, but there was a time when he didn't know what to focus on: "I have been through many phases where I also wanted to sing, but through it all, the guitar stayed with me. As time has passed, I have begun to realize the possibilities of the instrument, and right now I'm absolutely awed by it and practice endless hours every day, exploring sounds that I begin to hear and want to learn how to express. I could just sit with the guitar all day long, so I really feel I have found my place and an instrument that has become part of me."
Bro's work as a leader, composer and guitarist has been documented on many records, among them Daydreamer (Loveland Records, 2003), Sidetracked (Loveland Records, 2005), Pearl River (Loveland Records, 2007) and The Stars Are All New Songs (Loveland Records, 2008). He has worked with a veritable who's who of modern jazz, enlisting such collaborators as saxophonist Chris Cheek and the late Paul Motian. But in the middle of the constant flux of collaborators, there's a group that has a special place in his musical life: his working trio with bassist Anders Christensen and drummer Jakob Høyer. Their work together has been documented on Who Said Gay Paree? (Loveland Records, 2008), which is a bold exploration of standards, but the sound of the trio is in constant development. Bro has used it as backing for artists including trumpeter Tom Harrell and saxophonist Joe Lovano, but he also continues to refine its sound with his comrades.
Speaking of the trio, Bro says: "The trio has been the constellation that has allowed me to focus on my solo voice. It's an expression where I feel nothing is missing. There's no need for a horn or something else. I have worked with bassist Anders Christensen for a long timehe knows all my songs by heart. We experiment together and know each other's history and have played together in many constellations, and this is something that we bring into the music. It is unique and beautiful. And drummer Jakob Høyer is part of it all now. We have around 30 tunes that we can play by heart. It is a working trio, but I would like it to be recorded. It is only a matter of when. It is a band that we all care about, and we're going to work together for a long time."
While the trio represents a flow of continuity in Bro's musical life, there has also been a series of finished projects. One of the records Bro has finished recently is among his most ambitious projects. It is a work that consists of two CDs or three LPs gathered in a box with original art by famous Danish artist Tal R. Bro/Knak (Loveland Records, 2012) is a collaborative effort between Bro and electronic musician Thomas Knak. Bro has worked with electronics before, on his album Sidetracked, which was more minimalistic in its approach, but Bro/Knak is a grand project, enlisting people including pianists David Virelles and Paul Bley, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Jeff Ballard, just to name a few. It is a work that crosses boundaries between classical music, western soundtracks, electronica and modern jazz. Speaking of the record, Bro says: "With Bro/Knak, I wanted to do something that was entirely different from what I had done before. I have often thought about making a sequel to Sidetracked, but I wanted to use more instruments than I have worked with beforefor instance, harp, cello and theremin. I didn't want to know the sound of the record. I wrote several fragments and asked different musicians to interpret them, and little by little I had a lot of sound pieces that were developed."
Speaking of the feeling of the record, Bro says: "I didn't want the record to be closed, and it was easy, simple, because there were so many musical threads, and it was only in the end I gathered the pieces into something that could be a work. I didn't think that I knew the material while I wrote it, and it has also ended up in another place than I thought. But in many ways, the process has been like that of Sidetracked, where different doors have been opened towards a sound."
When it comes to the structure of the record, Bro reveals that there were pointers that helped him: "During the process, there were certain milestones that pointed in the direction of a structure. The track 'Color Sample' has become a journey in itself. It is a track that works really well because it is through-composed, but at the same time, it is also improvised in the moment. I hear the record as if it was divided into three parts: The first part is 'Northern Blues Variation No. 1,' 'Color Sample' and 'Epilog.' The second part is a sequence of songs that work on their own, and the last part is the improvisation by Paul Bley 'Roots Piano Variation' and the piece with The Royal Danish Chapel Choir."
In many ways, Bro/Knak is a record that challenges the idea of a coherent work of art, Bro elaborates: "If you take the composition 'G Major Song,' it is almost nothing, a sketch that I could have continued to work with, but sometimes when you go to an art exhibition at a museum, you also see the sketch. It is placed beside the original, and it makes sense. This is also the way I feel about this work. There are full- blown paintings and little hand-drawn sketches that sit next to each other."
The album is special because it includes different interpretations of the same material, divided into two records. Speaking of the collaboration with electronic musician Thomas Knak, Bro says: "Originally it was the idea that we would work together on the same record, but it made more sense to divide the work into two parts. The idea was to give him a lot of my sounds, and then he could create his own universe. I liked his sound and aesthetics and told him he could do what he wanted with the material."
Bro/Knak is a fascinating record and a testimony to an artist who constantly thinks about how he can push himself further aesthetically and achieve his goal of finding timeless beauty through sound. This is the reason that Bro keeps going back to the old sources, like trumpeter Miles Davis, while he still seeks to create a contemporary expression: "Whenever I go back to Miles, it is like I peel another layer off and come closer to what it really is about. You get closer to the human and further away from the legend. This is something that is very motivating, also in terms of what I'm trying to do myself. The music just keeps on giving and giving. It's endless."
So far, Bro's own musical process has been about setting goals and being in a state of evaluation: "It is part of my nature that I constantly need to think about what I'm doing. I don't want to be on the wrong path for a long time. I would like to be in control of my artistic direction. This is something I think about every day. And even though it might sound spoiled, that is also why it can be hard to get so many good offers, because they can potentially put one astray. But these existential reflections are just part of life. It's a question I ponder every day. I ask myself: 'What do you want to do if there's only one thing you can choose?' So far, I have chosen the guitar, and I have dreams I haven't fulfilled, and that's my motivation to go on."
Summing his up his musical journey so far, Bro feels that finally he is on the right track: "Even though a lot of things have happened in my career, I still feel like I'm a slow beginner. It's only now I feel that I can begin to connect the dots and find a pattern. It is interesting and something I have thought about a lot, also in relation to things that aren't about music. It's only now I'm beginning to realize what I want. The future looks like it is going to be exciting."
Bro/Knak, Bro/Knak (Loveland Records, 2012)
Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard, Vesper (Hiatus, 2012)
Jakob Bro, Time (Loveland Records, 2011)
Jakob Buchanan, i land in The Green Land (Buchanan Records, 2010)
August Rosenbaum, Beholder (Imposter Records, 2010)
Tomasz Stanko, Dark Eyes (ECM, 2009)
Jakob Bro, Balladeering (Loveland Records, 2009)
Jakob Bro, The Stars Are All New Songs Vol. 1 (Loveland Records, 2008)
Jakob Bro Nonet, White Rainbow (Loveland Records, 2008)
Jakob Bro, Who Said Gay Paree? (Loveland Records, 2008)
Paul Motian Band, Garden of Eden (ECM, 2008)
Jakob Bro, Pearl River (Loveland Records, 2007)
Bandapart, Visions De Lamarck (Whiteout Music, 2007)
Beautiful Day, Copenhagen Melodrama (Loveland Records, 2006)
I Got You On Tape, I Got You On Tape (Auditorium, 2006)
Jakob Bro, Sidetracked (Loveland Records, 2005)
Jakob Bro, Daydreamer (Loveland Records, 2003)
Beautiful Day, Beautiful Day (Music Mecca, 2002)
All Photos: John Kelman