November 1, 2023
The Danish guitarist and bandleader Jakob Bro has become a pivotal figure in jazz. At an early age he realized that listening is more important than soloing or dictating. He plays in Brussels and Ghent on Thursday and Friday.
The Danish guitarist and composer Jakob Bro (45) is at a pivotal moment in his jazz career: too old to be considered a promise and too young to go through life as a senior statesman. Yet Bro’s agenda is packed with releases and tours.
The main reason he gives is that he has done the opposite of what you expect from a band leader. He plays not his ego, but his listening skills as his greatest asset. Also important: his excellent relationship with ECM record boss Manfred Eicher.
The open dialogue he enters into with his musical partners is the core of the documentary ‘Music for Black Pigeons’, which was released last year. Jørgen Leth and Andreas Koefoed followed the guitarist and the musicians he worked with for 14 years. They not only captured the atmosphere during the studio recordings and performances, but also in the moments in between. You sometimes see awkward but amusing conversations with often good-natured but occasionally moody or swearing jazz musicians, such as drummer Paul Motian or alto saxophonist Lee Konitz. Together with the insights and reflections on their passion, they provide a fascinating insight into their lives outside of music.
The first scenes date from 2008, when Bro recorded the album ‘Balladeering’ in New York. “That’s where everything fell into place for me,” the guitarist tells us just before a film screening in De Bijloke. ‘When I saw the images of me counting down for Paul, I thought: how on earth did I find the courage to do that? I did my best and rehearsed like crazy, but 15 years ago I felt way too young to be part of such a renowned band.’
The fact that he now feels that he is ready has as much to do with the artistic steps he has taken since then as with life experience. ‘I became a father and lost my own father. Maturity has crept into my work, because it better suits my personality.’
The documentary highlights how Bro approaches his music as a way to put his musicians in the spotlight, while he tends to seek out the shadows. ‘The double bassist Larry Grenadier told me that the freedom I grant others is rare. As a band leader, I don’t have the urge to take everything to myself. I only care about the music. It doesn’t belong to anyone. You shouldn’t want to hold them. She’ll go her own way.’
‘I am a team player by nature. I got that from my father, who led a school big band in which I played the trumpet. I remember my nervousness before a performance, but also how I could disappear in the ensemble. Back then I was more concerned with others than with myself. In primary school I transcribed Nirvana songs for secondary school boys, the reason why I was never bullied (laughs).’
Bro started playing guitar at the age of thirteen. ‘It’s been a struggle for a long time, because I never really felt like a guitarist. I even wanted to switch instruments. Fortunately, I knew that if I committed myself to something, I could make a difference. That’s how I became a Danish badminton champion as a child. ‘
During his training, Bro intuitively took on the role of band leader and his guitar lines ended up being secondary. ‘After I signed for ECM, at first I didn’t even want to hear about the trio album that Eicher proposed. I thought: there are so many better guitarists.’ But due to his undeniable talent, collaborations followed in rapid succession, with great improvisers such as Joey Baron and Thomas Morgan, and with saxophonist Joe Lovano, with whom he created the Paul Motian tribute ‘Once Around The Room’. It can be seen on Thursday in Flagey and on Friday in the Bijloke.
Bro made his ECM debut in Motian’s band on his album ‘Garden of Eden’. ‘Paul Motian saw his musicians as a family that gave his music wings. I remember sessions at the Village Vanguard where he changed the line-up of his band, but not the songs. From the stage I heard how the musicians left their mark. Like Art Blakey, he could really plant a seed in your young mind.’
‘Once Around the Room’ was created ten years after Motian’s death. ‘We chose the line-up from different generations of musicians, not so much based on their instrument, but based on the people behind it. That’s why two drummers and three bassists are on stage. It’s not a cheap band, but I’m really looking forward to the tour. Hopefully we can maintain the intimacy of our concerts at the Village Vanguard in the larger venues.”
By listening intensively and attentively I came closer to the masters. When I focused completely on their music I felt like I was in the same room as Miles Davis or John Coltrane.
From his other mentor, the Polish jazz trumpeter Tomasz Stańko, Bro especially remembers the open-mindedness to experiment on stage. This seems to be at odds with his systematic way of working, with strict timetables. But that’s just an appearance.
‘It’s like Wayne Shorter said: you can’t practice the unknown, but you can make yourself ready for it. My way to get ready was to listen intensively and attentively. This is how I came closer to the masters. When I focused completely on their music I felt like I was in the same room as Miles Davis or John Coltrane. During the taxi ride here I listened to Arvo Pärt. It was like being in a church. On stage I try to achieve the same state of mind, like an exercise in meditation.’
‘A lot of preparation work preceded this tour, both logistically and mentally. But as soon as I’m on stage, I completely disconnect from it. I juggle between two lifestyles: that of a musician and a family man. Yesterday was family day. I cooked and went to the zoo with my children. But this morning I just dropped them off at the school. I need such a strict division, so that I can be 100 percent for the music at other times.’
This month Bro has another concert at Carnegie Hall in New York, but he says he is at least as much looking forward to jobs as a sideman with jazz celebrities Charles Lloyd and Ambrose Akinmusire. A lot of music is waiting for release. This interview was followed by a meeting about a composition project for the Brussels Philharmonic. ‘There is no note on paper yet, but it already feels like a milestone. Maybe my guitar will become completely redundant.’
The live recordings he made with the iconic Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg and drummer Marilyn Mazur will be released this month. ‘It is my dream to produce another solo album by Palle, with whom I have worked for ten years but who is now 82 and has kidney problems. Just like Paul and Tomasz, he taught me things over a glass of wine or a cup of tea that you don’t learn at school. In the documentary you hear that all older musicians have their own sound. The older, the purer and the closer you come to yourself. There is nothing left to disguise.’
Alto saxophonist Konitz admitted that he did not understand Bro’s music. He did something magical with it. ‘A month after he told me he didn’t know what he had played, a black dove landed on his window as he put on our record. Just after the last note she flew away again. He called me to say that he finally thought he knew: it’s music for black pigeons! After which he laughed and hung up.’
Jakob Bro & Joe Lovano on Thursday evening in Flagey in Brussels and on Friday in De Bijloke in Ghent. ‘Once Around The Room – A Tribute To Paul Motian’ is out on ECM.