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Jakob Bro: Bay of Rainbows


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Jakob Bro: Bay of Rainbows
Few ECM artists, barring perhaps longtime label stalwart, pianist Keith Jarrett, have been afforded the opportunity of releasing two albums within the same calendar year. That Manfred Eicher has chosen to follow up Jakob Bro's impressive quartet date, Returnings, less than seven months later with Bay of Rainbows clearly speaks to the label head/primary producer's appreciation for the guitarist's work. Bro may not be an overtly virtuosic player (though he's clearly capable of more than he largely lets on), but that's never been what's driven the Danish guitarist. Instead, darkly melancholic lyricism, slowly evolving compositions that are often ethereal— celestial, even—and, also often, an exploration of rubato as an underlying/overlying musical context, have defined Bro's work since almost the beginning: a guitarist more concerned with substance over style, and purity over pyrotechnics.

Bro first emerged, early in the new millennium, with the group Beautiful Day, releasing four albums between 2002 and 2007. The quartet's first, self-titled Music Mecca debut led to Bro receiving the 2003 Danish Music Award for New Danish Jazz Artist of the Year. The guitarist has gone on to receive the Danish Music Award five more times since then, including recognition for his first ECM date as a leader, 2015's Gefion. Bro has also received a number of other accolades including, amongst them, the 2016 and 2013 Carl Prize, in recognition of his growing skill as a composer for his work, respectively, on Gefion and Bro/Knak (Loveland), his 2012 collaboration with fellow Dane, electronic musician Thomas Knak.

Bro's discography as a leader (largely documented on albums released on his own Loveland Records imprint prior to being recruited by ECM), has continued to build his reputation as guitarist, composer and bandleader/conceptualist—and, increasingly, on the international stage. Internationally, Bro's best-known work, prior to ECM, was his triptych of albums that, with slight shifts in personnel, was consistently predicated on a core trifecta also featuring alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and guitarist Bill Frisell. Balladeering (2009), Time (2011) and December Song (2013) were all glorious explorations of Bro's largely dark-hued and often-times rubato writing, his approach to guitar clearly informed by Frisell but equally, by the time of these recordings, clearly delineated in their work together.

Amidst his growing international visibility, Bro also garnered deserved attention for his early ECM work as a sideman. His first ECM date was with the late American drummer Paul Motian, on Garden of Eden (2006). Three years later, Bro contributed an atmospheric presence to (now, also deceased) Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko's then-new Polish/Finnish/Danish quintet. First encountered live at the 2009 Molde International Jazz Festival, the quintet was documented later that year on Dark Eyes (ECM), before being caught, one last time, at an even more impressive show the following year, at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival.

It may have taken Bro six more years to receive an invite to record his own project for ECM, but his four records have not only raised his visibility and international popular/critical acclaim, they've afforded the guitarist the opportunity to mine similar but different territory with two trios (with Returnings taking his "other" trio and expanding it to a quartet, with the participation of Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg). Bro's two trios demonstrate just how much changing even one band member can alter a group's complexion.

With double bassist Thomas Morgan a constant alongside Bro in both groups, it's the drummers, each with long and varied careers resulting in significantly different personalities and singularities, that render the two albums each that Bro has released with those two core trios so consistent in some ways, but so different in others. Gefion and Returnings both feature the great Norwegian drummer who's been recording for ECM since the early '70s, with artists including Jarrett, Eberhard Weber, Bobo Stenson and Ralph Towner, amongst many others: Jon Christensen. 2016's Streams and, now, Bay of Rainbows are, on the other hand, gently propelled and colored by American drummer Joey Baron, who may be twelve years younger than Christensen, but whose discography is equally large and stylistically broad, including ECM work with artists including pianist Steve Kuhn, bassists Marc Johnson and Gary Peacock, and guitarists Bill Frisell and the recently departed John Abercrombie.

Bro's first live date for the label, Bay of Rainbows was recorded at New York City's Jazz Standard almost exactly a year after the Returnings sessions, in Oslo's heralded Rainbow Studios, from July, 2016. The 47-minute, LP-friendly set draws largely on material from Bro's growing repertoire of original music. Two variations on Bro/Knak's "Mild" bookend the album, both versions adopting a darker complexion than the 2012 original, and both considerably lengthier explorations as well. The almost nine-minute version that opens Bay of Rainbows feels folkloric in approach, with Morgan a strong contrapuntal foil to Bro's arpeggiations, as Baron treads a fine line between texture and time while the trio also explores the subtext of dynamics throughout the piece.

As the group moves seamlessly from the composition's theme towards freer interplay, it's more about chemistry and collective spontaneity than individual soloing. Bro and Morgan may be individually featured at times, but the demarcations are largely slight, and more about individual players gently emerging for a time, only to recede again into the communal pool driven by Bro's compositional contexts.

The album-closing "Mild (var.)" is longer still at over eleven minutes and, rather than moving into time immediately, approaches the compositional form from a rubato perspective. Brief moments of defined time emerge, but they never last long, as Baron's delicate cymbals and brush-driven kit create a gentle cushion over which Bro layers slowly evolving voicings, while Morgan (a clear torch-carrier for the late Charlie Haden) delivers spare, low-register melodies where, like his trio mates, tonal quality and restrained note choice are key. Even when Bro's arpeggiated chords gradually find their way into more fixed time around the seven-minute mark, Baron and Morgan continue their timeless extrapolations until the three come gently together near its conclusion.

This is hypnotic music that refuses to dissolve into either delineated soloing or virtuosic intent. Still, in order to shape Bro's music into its cogent synchronicity of form and freedom, instrumental mastery is a given, as is the ability to intuit when...and, just as important, when not...to play. Dynamics, too, are essential to the overall success of this music, though the gradations are often so subtle that they make each shift feel all the more dramatic and expansive.

That's not to suggest there isn't any heat on Bay of Rainbows. The mid-set "Dug" (the album's only new Bro composition) is a maelstrom of heavily effected guitar, as Bro carefully injects and layers delay, reverb, overdrive, looping, ring modulation, reverse attack and more. As densely formed as the guitarist's layers become, they're always of clear (albeit telepathic) intent rather than of reckless or unfettered abandon. Morgan largely anchors the piece with a visceral ostinato, bolstered by Baron's tumultuous temporal underpinnings, but ultimately moves to a brief a cappella solo, with the drummer ultimately joining in with the subtlest of support as the song moves towards its inevitable ending. But this calm conclusion comes only after six minutes of otherworldly textures and turbulent psychedelics, as Bro plays rubato over Morgan and Baron's time-based undercurrent.

A nod, perhaps, to guitarist Terje Rypdal's similar exploration of rubato lines over fixed tempo on albums like 1975's Odyssey, but Bro's more extensive use of electronics and confluence of color and melody is entirely his own.

Three other compositions are drawn from earlier Bro albums, two from his pre-ECM days. Gefion's "Copenhagen" is close to the original version in both length and approach, though Baron's soft brushwork is a gentler alternative to Christensen's dark cymbals and delicately (occasionally explosively) articulated toms. Another Bro composition that's folkloric in complexion, it again features Morgan, alone with Baron, as the song concludes.

Bro culls "Evening Song" from Balladeering and, at almost the same five-minute length as the original, demonstrates not just the contrast of a smaller ensemble versus the original's twin-guitar/saxophone/bass/drums interpretation. Bro acts as the context-setter for the entire piece, picked guitar chords creating a beautiful, melancholically lyrical foundation over which Morgan, again, layers carefully chosen melodic ideas until Bro gradually assumes dominance, albeit still focused on chordal picking with a simple melody emerging from the upper strings of his guitar.

Baron briefly opens the trio's look at "Red Hook," from Pearl River (Loveland, 2007), where it was originally titled "Red Hook Railroad." Again, reduced from a dual-saxophone/guitar/bass/drums quintet to a trio, there's more responsibility placed on Bro, who layers looped voicings over and under a slightly oblique melody, this time with Morgan adding rubato lines while Baron injects his busiest playing of the set. Frenetic is, in this context, still a relative term, though the dynamics do ebb and flow as Bro begins to add overdrive to his guitar, creating slightly distorted views of what he played earlier in the eight-and-a-half-minute piece.

If anything, and compared to his playing with Stańko nearly a decade ago, Bro's concept has become even less about any kind of instrumental gymnastics and more about movement not unlike a slow-moving river, where shifts are a constant, but rarely emphatic. Instead, and with both of his trios, Bro is developing a reputation almost as a guitar anti-hero, a player whose interest is more in the overall group result than individual spotlighting.

Bay of Rainbows makes clear that even in the context of live performance—where ensembles more often than not open up to more expansive dynamics, considerably greater energy and innate virtuosity—Bro and his trio mates may well bring a different kind of energy to the music, but still within the more controlled context that has long defined his work—and even more so since his move ECM where he has, in Manfred Eicher, a simpatico producer who clearly knows how to draw the best from Bro and his groups. This 47-minute set, as astutely sequenced as ever, stands well on its own as a constructed document from Bro's trio in live performance, with Bay of Rainbow's only unfortunate leftover being the wish that there were more of it. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, is it?

Track Listing

Mild; Red Hook; Copenhagen; Dug; Evening Song; Mild (Var.).


Jakob Bro: guitar; Thomas Morgan: double bass; Joey Baron: drums.

Album information

Title: Bay of Rainbows | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: ECM Records

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