Jakob Bro: Uma Elmo (ECM 2702)

Jakob Bro
Uma Elmo

Jakob Bro guitar
Arve Henriksen trumpet, piccolo trumpet
Jorge Rossy drums
Recorded September/October 2020, Auditorio Stelio Molo, RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Jean-Marc Dellac
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 12, 2021

When Jakob Bro lays his hands on an electric guitar, the guitar lays its hands on us. This chain reaction of touch was already apparent when the Dane painted the shadows of early appearances on Paul Motian’s Garden of Eden and Tomasz Stanko’s Dark Eyes. Since then, after a flight of leader dates on Loveland and a welcome home away from home on ECM since 2015’s Gefion, Bro has varnished a personal altar, placing upon it a family of melodic proportions. Indeed, the title of the present disc is derived from his children’s middle names, each a cypher of lives yet to be lived yet already full beyond delineation. Having written much of this material while his second, still a newborn at the time, was napping, Bro offers eight tunes that flow like scenes of video. Not knowing its biological origins, however, Uma Elmo evokes for me an uninhabited island that flourishes in sound, each tree the bearer of fruit that can only be discovered through listening.

The trio convened here is so new that it had never played as such before entering the studio for this session. Nonetheless, trumpeter Arve Henriksen and drummer Jorge Rossy, each of whom has charted separate paths through the label, are natural companions. Through names and motifs alike, Bro reaches out to other allies, whether living or non. Inspired by his collaborative transversal with Motian, “Reconstructing A Dream” funnels the drummer’s pliant architectural sensibility with reverence. Henriksen’s fluted playing widens the landscape with its breath and Rossy’s brushing opens its heart as Bro’s enhancements glisten in downward prayer.

“To Stanko” is a poignant reminder of how intersections can yield paths in their own right. Its mournful qualities shapeshift beyond the confines of a mere dedication, wandering through the Great In-Between as might a song in search of lyrics. “Beautiful Day,” like the album as a whole, is patient in its exposition. Bro is just as content providing liquid texture (as also in the later “Housework”) as he is providing a solid backbone. And though Henriksen grazes the clouds without releasing a single drop of rain, climatic changes abound in tracks like “Music For Black Pigeons” (in memory of Lee Konitz, who gave the piece its title) and “Slaraffenland,” ebbing and flowing to diurnal rhythms. 

High points of the set are to be found in “Morning Song” and “Sound Flower.” In the latter especially, Bro’s manipulations glow against the backdrop Rossy’s poetry and Henriksen’s siren song. Bro takes the hand offered by the dawn, shakes it in welcome, and pulls its possibilities into frame. The effect is so restrained that whenever the guitar voices itself more overtly, it feels like a momentary embrace before release. Despite often moving at a crawl’s space, this music is quick to locate its spiritual heart. Like the last star of night hanging on to its light in the face of the rising sun, it continues to shine even when it fades from view.

Jakob Bro: Streams (ECM 2499)

2499 X

Jakob Bro

Jakob Bro guitar
Thomas Morgan double bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded November 2015, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 23, 2016

The title of Streams, guitarist Jakob Bro’s second leader date for ECM, could hardly be more appropriate to describe music that flows with the quiet charm of a forest creek, bubbling all the way from childhood to whatever here and now you happen to inhabit when encountering it.

“Opal” touchingly opens the album’s inner sanctum: a sacred gift for profane times. As the first of seven layers, it peels back just enough of life’s opacity to sense a shared humanity deeper within. Bro zooms in on filaments of memory, each a wire drawn from one biographical telephone pole to another. Bassist Thomas Morgan is so attuned to these electrical impulses that the possibility of a power outage seems a distant fantasy. Drummer Joey Baron marks their trail with care, ending with raindrops on a silo.

“Heroines” is one of Bro’s most patient confections. Morgan shuttles through the composer’s loom, soloing with restraint and focus, while the guitar folds itself in layers of cosmic radiation until the night itself begins to glow. This tune is further recast in a solo guitar version later in the set. Like a plant regressing to seed, it has all the world in its mouth before it opens to sing.

“PM Dream” is a free improvisation dedicated to Paul Motian. As in the music of its namesake, its heart beats somewhere between veiled ambience and solid ground. Morgan and Baron dot its continent with runes of memory, as they do in “Full Moon Europa,” which through its quiet substructure yields achingly dramatic elicitations from Bro. “Shell Pink” is another stunner, tracing its nautilus spiral into origins. Morgan is wonderous and sincere, enhancing that locomotive quality, inherent to all of Bro’s finest, along a parabola of ice to fire to ice.

Nowhere is geologic force so thoroughly studied as in “Sisimiut.” Where normally Bro is more interested in following a burning fuse than chronicling the explosion it foreshadows, this time he allows a little of that fire to spill over. But because destruction would be antithetical to the loving atmosphere he has so painstakingly created, we never encounter a bang, going out instead with a hush.

Jakob Bro: Bay Of Rainbows (ECM 2618)

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Jakob Bro
Bay Of Rainbows

Jakob Bro guitar
Thomas Morgan double bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded lived July 2017 at Jazz Standard, New York
Recording engineers: James A. Farber and Paul Zinman
Assistant: Jeanne Velonis
SoundByte Productions Inc., NY
Mixed July 2018 at Studios La Buissonne by Manfred Eicher, Jakob Bro, and Gérard de Haro (engineer)
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 5, 2018

Recorded live over two nights of performances at New York City’s Jazz Standard in July of 2017, Bay Of Rainbows presents the trio of guitarist Jakob Bro, bassist Thomas Morgan, and drummer Joey Baron in a state of deep communication. Although the album’s title refers to Sinus Iridum (i.e., Bay of Rainbows), an impact crater on the moon for which a land deed was jokingly gifted to the bandleader’s daughter, the music is as terrestrial as it does lunar. The contemplative tone for which Bro always strives is thus something of a philosophical paradox, reaching beyond home while being grounded in its streets. “Red Hook,” for example, refers to the section of Brooklyn where he lived with Ben Street and Mark Turner while cutting his teeth on the New York jazz scene, but has taken on much of the travels that have washed over him between then and now. In it the trio works in gossamer tandem, leaving behind a trail of fond associations so as to keep all the heartaches away from vulnerable hands.

“Copenhagen,” too, is a dream of home. Its slightly urban surface is reflective enough to see ourselves across an ocean of possibility in places we might never know firsthand. The cohesive delicacy with which Bro threads this vision, in combination with the lag-free responsiveness of his rhythm section, weaves a romantic tapestry indeed. “Dug” splits the guitar in two, layering a starry background with meteor showers of melody. Morgan and Baron make audible every tremor of dark matter between them as Bro crashes into dust in slow motion. Then, “Evening Song.” Despite being a tune this trio has played hundreds of times, it burns like coals, embedded in the moment, with promises of dawn. Bro’s echoing waves are enough to propel Morgan’s vessel forward, hollowed out to make room for one more song.

The album is embraced by two different versions of “Mild.” In both, although to slightly offset effect, a touching arpeggio works its flesh around the bone of a memory. To this, Morgan and Baron add land for that emerging body to walk along, tracking with the precision of a movie camera between lessons learned on the way to those yet to come. From that core is unraveled a sound so complete that it’s a wonder the listener finds any room to be present within it. But find that room the listener does, welcomed as an honored guest for the story being told.

Jakob Bro: Returnings (ECM 2546)

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Jakob Bro

Jakob Bro guitar
Palle Mikkelborg trumpet, flugelhorn
Thomas Morgan bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded July 2016 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineers: Peter Espen Ursfjord and Jan Erik Kongshaug (mixing)
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 23, 2018

Danish guitarist Jakob Bro was born for ECM. Not only because he shares a certain balance of sound and space, but also because he isn’t afraid to let the music travel wherever it may until a destination becomes clear to everyone involved. In this album, perhaps more than any other he has recorded for the label, he unwraps a gift so cosmic it’s a wonder anything so secular as a CD could contain it.

If the opening bleed of “Oktober” is any indication (and it is), we should prepare ourselves for a practically weightless journey, so that when the tesseract of “Strands” seeks purchase in our floating minds, we are ready to be tethered to something otherworldly. This feeling of spirit over flesh prevails throughout the set, especially in two pieces written for the dead: “Song For Nicolai” (dedicated to late Danish bassist Nicolai Munch-Hansen) and “Lyskaster” (in memory of Bro’s father). In both of these, we feel the redolence of Palle Mikkelborg’s flugelhorn, the chalky substance of Jon Christensen’s drumming, and the close-eyed pointillism of bassist Thomas Morgan. Bro generally keeps himself aligned to the background, content in listening as layer upon layer is applied by his sensitive bandmates, taking gentle initiative only in the transcendent “Hamsun.”

Mikkelborg offers two tunes of his own design. Where “View” finds Morgan and Christensen offering a protracted introduction before the composer and Bro separate each melodic line into its filament components, “Youth” pairs guitar and trumpet in a chemically separating farewell. Mikkelborg also cowrote the nebular title track with Bro, constructing a theme around the letters ECM and Manfred Eicher’s name. A fitting tribute to one who is indeed music itself.

Jakob Bro: Gefion (ECM 2381)


Jakob Bro

Jakob Bro guitar
Thomas Morgan double bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded November 2013 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After playing with Tomasz Stanko on Dark Eyes and, before that, less conspicuously a part of the Paul Motian Band on Garden of Eden, Danish guitarist Jakob Bro reaches a milestone with his first ECM leader date. For this auspicious recording event, one could hardly ask for finer support than Thomas Morgan and Jon Christensen. Morgan stands as one of the most versatile bassists of his time, as borne out on a number of diverse projects for the label, whose fans will of course need no introduction to Christensen. Bro cites the drummer’s sound as a formative inspiration, and one can hear the joy of sharing the art of jazz with someone whose contributions to the same he so adores. After premiering at the 2012 Copenhagen Jazz Festival, this intergenerational trio stepped into Oslo’s Rainbow Studio to document after only a year’s worth of refinement. The end result sounds like 10.

Bro Trio

At nearly 11 minutes in duration, the title opener may be the longest of the set, but it is neither longwinded nor overwhelming. Rather, its spacy guitar is a fire in winter you don’t want to leave. Christensen’s cymbals awaken in the light of dawn, eyes still carrying afterimages of the night. Beyond this, Bro takes his first steps from the cabin into the open forest. Morgan’s bass follows suit, leading us to belief we are in for a long hike. But then something magical happens as the view now goes aerial. A clear Bill Frisell influence reigns in this transition, mellifluous and spun from open sky. The band traces a spectral parabola from one glade to the next, until every animal trap along the way has been disabled and burned to ash. And it is to ash we return at the album’s straightforwardly titled “Ending,” which at just under three minutes is its shortest. Still, looping arpeggios and tactile strums give it a fullness of structure, fading out on the moonwalk with which the album began.

As if to stretch this metaphor, “And They All Came Marching Out Of The Woods” finds Bro opening up a little more in tandem with Morgan’s flexible backbone. His guitar shines like a prism at a laser’s touch, until individual notes split into spectrums, but not before we dive into the streets of “Copenhagen.” Or is it into the water gently lapping the city’s harbors? This would seem to be the image evoked by Bro’s understated motifs. Or might it also be the sky above? For is it not the realm from which Bro drops a rope ladder for his bandmates to climb?

In thinking of the sky over Copenhagen, I find my thoughts turning to Gefion herself, a Norse goddess of land and plowing immortalized in the famous fountain I photographed during a trip in March of 2015:

Gefion Fountain

With her whip in hand she pushes her oxen through the land, but does so without need for virtuosity or flourish. Rather, like Bro, she sees music in the work itself.

Other references point to the heavily arpeggiated solo compositions of guitarist Jeff Pearce, a prime example being the ghostly nocturne of “Oktober,” and in “White” to the slow-motion streamers of a Motian ballad. Bro navigates both with the surety of a hiker in his favorite woods, one who knows every tree so well that he needn’t bother trying to account for them all. He leaves—no pun intended—that task to his sensitive support team, a rhythm section that foregoes rhythm toward an environmental approach. But urbanity, we soon realize, is never far behind, as we squint into the glare of “Lyskaster” (Searchlight). This can only be an ode to travel, for it embodies the constant balance, known to any itinerant, between missing what you love and craving what you have yet to love. “Airport Poem,” on the other hand, is an exercise in capture, of layover and tedium, Christensen’s barest presence only adding to that feeling of suspension.

Bro is a breath of fresh air for eschewing the trappings of technical virtuosity and instead plowing the far more challenging field of atmospheric integrity. His playing is so rich, in fact, that Gefion at times feels more like a solo album. This is not to insult the contributions of Morgan and Christensen, but to praise them for understanding that every white square needs a black one to keep it company, and that in the cosmos of any one of them exists far too many pieces to fit on one chessboard anyway.

In closing, it’s worth noting that Gefion bears dedication to Ib Skovgaard. The late jazz journalist and radio producer, who died in early January at the age of 67, was a tireless champion of improvised music in his native Denmark and a particularly stalwart supporter of Bro and his generation. With this knowledge in mind, we do well to see the album as the closing of one circle of appreciation by way of opening many others in its place. Here’s hoping you’ll be one of them.

(To hear samples of Gefion, click here.)