Jakob Bro: Something Spacious in the State of Denmark

The Danish guitarist is pleasantly surprised during his Before & After listening session

Guitarist Jakob Bro (photo: Ryo Mitamura/ECM Records)

Jakob Bro is a bearded, bespectacled 40-year-old Danish guitarist with an easy laugh. His latest recording is Returnings, released last March on ECM and featuring his fellow Dane Palle Mikkelborg on trumpet, Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen, and California-born bassist Thomas Morgan. Bro’s previous ECM recording was with the Paul Motian Band (Garden of Eden), and he also performed on the late Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko’s 2009 ECM release Dark Eyes.

Besides the elders Mikkelborg and Stanko, and the ancestor Motian, Bro has also enjoyed affiliations with such peers as guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel; saxophonists Chris Cheek, Mark Turner, and Chris Speed; and pianist David Virelles. His previous recordings Gefion, BalladeeringSidetracked, Beautiful Day, and December Song were all honored with Danish music awards, including three of them for Danish Jazz Album of the Year.

This Before & After session was conducted before an appreciative audience on a splendid July afternoon in Copenhagen with Bro. It was the eve of the 40th anniversary of the massive annual Copenhagen Jazz Festival: 10 days, 100+ venues, 1300 performances, one of them Bro’s on July 14. The setting was Jazz Cup, the very lively jazz-centric record store-cum-coffee shop prominently located on one of Copenhagen’s busy thoroughfares, just across the street from the King’s Garden, which hosted twice-daily free lunchtime festival performances. In addition to being a festival performance venue, Jazz Cup presents live concerts every Friday and Saturday year-round.

(Note: The session was slightly hampered by a malfunctioning sound system; this explains Bro’s occasional comments on “the mix,” which were not intended as critiques of the respective mixing engineers involved.—Ed.)

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring the tracks below:

1. Bill Frisell
“It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine” (Beautiful Dreamer, Savoy). Frisell, guitar; Eyvind Kang, violin; Rudy Royston, drums. Recorded in 2010.

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BEFORE: I like it … that’s my first impression. The mix was a little bit strange to me. I have some ideas about who it is. I like the instrumentation, and the pretty sort of chaotic blues sound, but maybe that sounded chaotic because of the mix. I don’t know who it is, but I do hear some Frisell influences. But this sound is very unusual for Bill. 

AFTER: The [guitar] touch sounded like Frisell, but when the music started it could have been a lot of guitar players as well because it was a sort of traditional blues riff. But Bill has a lot of guitars, so his sound is the same even though he plays 20 different guitars in one week! The first 10 seconds I was like, “No, that’s not him.” But then the phrasing really reminded me of him. He’s also a master of making music happen with space.

2. Ernest Ranglin
“54/46 (Was My Number)” (Below the Baseline, Island). Ranglin, guitar. Released in 1996.

BEFORE: It’s a pretty different way of playing a bluesy tune. This is trickier for me to figure out [than Frisell]. The sound of the guitar was very good, with a lot of history somehow. This is a new sound to me; it was very skillfully played. Is this from the last five years, or is it an older recording? I really don’t know him well, but is that Julian Lage?

AFTER: I’ve never heard [Ernest Ranglin] before!

3. Fareed Haque
“Hymn of the Ancients” (Trance Hypothesis, Delmark). Haque, guitar. Released in 2013.

BEFORE: I really liked that; it had a nice vibe. The guitar player has a singing quality to his playing and way of approaching the instrument. Beautiful, I think.

AFTER: Yes, I am familiar with him. I haven’t heard this before, but it was really nice.

4. Aziza
“Aziza Dance” (Aziza, Dare2). Dave Holland, bass; Lionel Loueke, guitar; Eric Harland, drums; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone. Released in 2016.

BEFORE: I enjoyed the guitar playing, even though it was far from being a normal guitar sound. The opener was good; he was taking risks and the bass playing was very important to the overall sound. It was dirty… it wasn’t like… pretty [laughs]. I enjoyed that; I’ve never heard this group before.

AFTER: That makes sense. I was thinking about the saxophone player first of all, because there were so many different references to ’80s and ’90s things, but it wasn’t Michael Brecker or Bob Berg—that [saxophone] approach and sound could have reminded me of that era. Just the few times I’ve heard Lionel play, it was surprising! And also my impression of him is that there is no turning back once he starts going for certain ideas. It makes sense to me that was him, because that’s what I heard on that track in his guitar playing.

5. John Scofield
“Ninety Nine and a Half” (Piety Street, Emarcy). Scofield, guitar; Jon Cleary, voice and keyboard; George Porter Jr., bass; Ricky Fataar, drums; John Boutté, voice; Shannon Powell, percussion. Released in 2009. 

BEFORE: There were some things in the voice that referenced B.B. King for me. The guitar playing was tricky, but nice playing and nice vibe. I liked it, nice blues.

AFTER: [Asks to hear the guitar solo again.] Scofield was one of the big heroes when I first started playing the guitar. His phrasing is usually something that you can tell in any context; he’s quite prophetic in a positive way for me. He did play some things on that tune that, for me, was unusual for him; that was very fresh.

6. Mahavishnu Orchestra
“Sanctuary” (Birds of Fire, Columbia). John McLaughlin, guitar; Billy Cobham, drums; Jan Hammer, keyboards; Jerry Goodman, violin; Rick Laird, bass. Released in 1973.

BEFORE: That was nice, a beautiful composition that I really enjoyed. The sound balance between the instruments was very strong, very moody sound. This song I do recognize.

AFTER: Ah, okay… The mix was tricky, but I loved how the guitar and violin were playing with the drums.

7. Deep Blue Organ Trio
“Jesus Children of America” (Wonderful!, Origin). Bobby Broom, guitar; Chris Foreman, organ; Greg Rockingham, drums. Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: That’s a bit tricky! How old is this record? It was swinging and very traditional. It’s not so often that I listen to the organ, but I did start out in the traditional style.

AFTER: I don’t know Bobby Broom, but I’ve heard that [Stevie Wonder] song.

8. Return to Forever
“No Mystery” (Anthology, Concord). Chick Corea, piano; Al Di Meola, guitar; Stanley Clarke, bass; Lenny White, drums. Recorded in 1975.

BEFORE: That was more notes than I’ve played in my whole life [laughs]! It’s a long time since I’ve heard music that reminded me of this sound. It was interesting, there were many different worlds meeting there, so many different colors. I’m trying to work with… if I find one color I like, somehow I try to develop it slowly. Some of the melodies, I thought of Al Di Meola.

AFTER: I listened to that music and his playing often. It reminded me of a certain period in my life more than 20 years ago.

9. Mary Halvorson
“Ida Lupino” (Meltframe, Firehouse 12). Halvorson, guitar. Released in 2016.

BEFORE: I enjoyed that track a lot; it was soulful and sloppy… in a nice way. Many times when you hear guitar players playing solo, without effects, it’s kind of daring and virtuoso. But this was more organic, and it also had a singing quality. Using that sound on the instrument, and playing a song like that, it’s not really about the instrument, even though I loved the sound of that guitar. That was inspiring. It reminded me in a way of the sound of old blues players who may even be missing a string… simple, but still playing enough to touch us somehow. I have a guess who it is. Is it a man or a woman? I think it’s Mary Halvorson; the guitar sound reminded me of her.

AFTER: I went to the New School in 2000-2001 and Mary started there at the same time, and we had a few classes together. I heard her recently in Norway; we played on a double bill. This piece really made sense to me somehow.