Jakob Bro: Searching for Beauty Through Sound

Jakob Baekgaard By

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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.

Chapter Index
    Beginnings: Big Band and Breaking out of School to Learn Music

    The New York Jazz Scene and Paul Motian

    Making Records and Working as a Sideman

    Writing a New Kind of Contemporary Music

    Creating Bro/Knak and Working with the Trio

Beginnings: Big Band and Breaking out of School to Learn Music

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 situation—being 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 parents—especially his mother—weren'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.

Jakob Bro—Bro/KnakBro 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.

The New York Jazz Scene and Paul Motian

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."

Making Records and Working as a Sideman

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, incredible—it became more than music. When Lee plays, it is something bigger. It is some kind of sound you become witness to."

Jakob Bro—BalladeeringElaborating 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 records—simply create a kind of beauty—and 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."
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