Listening In: Jakob Bro, A Dream Reconstructed
Reconstructing a dream: a tantalizing prospect, filled with frustration. In the first raw moments after awakening, how to grasp that rapidly receding phantasm? Later, how to recall the urgency, conveyed through suddenly looming incidents and images, colors and emotions taking awkward but seemingly inevitable shape?
“Reconstructing a Dream” is the oneiric opening track on guitarist Jakob Bro’s recent release, Uma Elmo (ECM), and it is up to the challenge of its title. Recorded with drummer Jorge Rossy and winds player Arve Henriksen, the music has the spacious, specifically ethereal sound associated with the venerable ECM label (one thinks of the album Crystal Silence by Gary Burton and the recently passed Chick Corea as an exemplar of the ECM style). The ensemble explores the pianissimo end of the sonic spectrum, Bro plays the guitar in a mesmerizing and gentle way, totally distinct from the loudest-and-fastest-in-the-room effect that many strive for. “I was sort of at war with my instrument for a time, thinking maybe I picked the wrong one somehow,” he says. “I really wanted to sound like Miles or like Coltrane. But I figured I’d better stick with guitar, or the time I spent studying it would be time wasted.”
Bro was thrilled that this recording session even came together at all, coming as it did mid-pandemic, when countries were opening, then closing again, making everything seem tenuous. Yet everyone who needed to managed to arrive at the studio in Lugano in mid-summer, 2020. “Even though I couldn't count on this thing happening, I did prepare for it. And then, luckily enough, everything was cool during that week. In the studio, there was a sort of a release of tension, from all of us. All of a sudden, being in the right room with the right people felt so liberating.”
The founder of ECM and, astonishingly, producer of nearly all of the label’s some 1,600 recordings, Manfred Eicher, was there and eager to get going after a protracted period of closure: “Manfred was like a tiger in a cage. ‘I wanna record, record, record’ … He was just so hungry, he wanted to start putting sound in the room so he could get ideas. He was just so in love with the process of creating music. It was amazing to watch from a person who has made so many records.”
Bro started out as a member of Paul Motian’s band, and the great percussionist and great spirit remains a seminal influence. Motian first made an indelible mark as the drummer with the Bill Evans Trio in the early 1960s, and his explorations continued in diverse directions for decades after. “He was a hero to me way before I even started playing with him. His whole approach to playing, putting bands together—he was bridging all these things, and somehow always turning it into something unique and original.
It was like a shock, getting to play with him, like nothing will ever be the same again. I was really young, about 23, when he invited me. I’m walking around with my friends in Copenhagen, and all of a sudden, you know, I get a phone call from him asking, “Can you do a gig at the Vanguard?” It was like, “What the fuck!” I was thrilled to get invited into the world of someone who'd been doing what he'd been doing for so long.
Bro adds, “I remember preparing for that gig and for my first tour. It was one of the most challenging times of my musical life because I spent six months just diving into everything Paul had ever done. By the time I met him, I had learned so much.” About playing together, Bro describes how Motian “grabbed me and put me in a different place, somehow both as a person and as a musician. It was a wild experience for me and I’m still trying to understand it.”
The drummer showed Bro “how to take the life of being a musician seriously. Even though he's not here anymore”—Motian died in 2011—“you still have to live up to that standard, to show him that he picked the right person for this, that his decision was good, and that I deserve to be a part of his musical family. “
Bro counts the other two players from Motian’s mid-’90s trio—guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano—as major influences. He has since recorded with both. “In a situation like that, you wonder how you can help and at the same time not fuck it up.” With Frisell, “He's just a beautiful human being. You know, I write a little song, and then when Bill is playing, it really just opens up and becomes much more than I could have ever expected.” As for Lovano, “I just love him. I've played with him on a number of occasions, and I’ve actually been in a dialogue with him about a future project. I can’t wait to do another recording with him.”
After his stint with Motian, Bro played with the Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko’s band Dark Eyes for five years. Stańko, who died in 2018, is another deeply soulful player who is honored with a gorgeous tribute composition on the record. “People like him, you get so much from their life and their experiences. He was the kind of guy who, when they pick up their instrument and play, they tell you their story. It’s like, wow, that's magic right there. I don't know how the hell they do it, but their way of expressing themselves just moves me.”
Bro says the current record is rooted in his daily life. He lives in Copenhagen with his two very young kids. The album’s title is made up of their two middle names. He’s happy to be part of a thriving jazz community in Denmark, playing and recording with that stalwart of the scene, composer and trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, whose work made a major splash in 1989 with the final recording by Miles Davis, the rapturously received Aura. (Miles himself said to Mikkelborg, when he first heard the compositions created for him, “You’ve been listening.”) “Palle and I are close friends,” says Bro. “We see each other pretty regularly, just go out for wine and talk. At the moment we have a trio with Marilyn Mazur. He's another person that means a lot to me. He's turning 80 years old very soon, and his whole approach to music is just very inspiring; he has more of a humanistic approach, he's interested in some larger question, like why are we here? He’s content to just be walking around his garden, wondering how the birds are feeling today.”
These trio dates in Copenhagen are some of the few shows Bro anticipates playing in the immediate future. There is one international gig Bro is looking forward to fervently, though. “I'm playing the Vanguard in November,” he says. “That one is with Andrew Cyrille, Mark Turner, and Thomas Morgan. It’s a live recording for ECM. That's been my main dream basically since I can remember.” Now, despite the frustrations of the past year, the dream has been reconstructed.