Jakob Bro: Searching for Beauty Through Sound

Jakob Baekgaard By

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Writing a New Kind of Contemporary Music

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."

Creating Bro/Knak and Working with the Trio

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 time—he 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 before—for 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 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."

Selected Discography

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)

Photo Credit

All Photos: John Kelman
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