Jakob Bro Lifts a Candle at the Vanguard

The Danish jazz guitarist offers a salve after American gun violence

| 08 Jul 2022 | 01:35

At the Village Vanguard last night, Jakob Bro raised a candle. The forty-four-year-old Danish jazz guitarist may not have known it but, in the low light of the hallowed club, he offered a salve for the tumultuous July 4 weekend.

After taking the stage and introducing his bandmates, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Joey Baron, Bro greeted the audience and began his mesmerizing set. Still, the events in Highland Park, Illinois were fresh in the mind.

Remarkably, however, Bro’s guitar curls and hushed tones, the way the musician stood calmly throughout the performance, delivered a measure of solace that was palpable and undeniable. Bro hails from Copenhagen, not Illinois or New York, but a musician as intuitive and deft as him almost certainly feels any city’s pain.

There is, in fact, a sometimes tense, and always searching, quality to his music. Since the early 2000s, shortly after a foundational education at the New School, Bro has released sixteen albums and his past three are particularly intriguing. Unlike his louder early work, his recent releases are dramatic and questing. “Streams” (ECM, 2016), for instance, unspools its songs like rivulets, the opener “Opal” sounding like a lolling bell on a wide river. “Sisimiut” from the same record, conversely, is ominous and tinny, the sound of an apparently distressed man.

But at a café just off Union Square, Bro seemed at ease and smiled as he sipped from a cup of black coffee. After mentioning that he began playing the trumpet at age four and heard such jazz legends as Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday in his youth, the musician revealed his beginnings as one of the most striking guitarists-composers around.

“I changed to guitar at age eleven,” he says. “And the reason for my change in instrument was Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and some of the blues players. Pretty quickly, I wanted to go back to jazz, and the music that I grew up with was still there somehow. I kind of felt like I needed to go back to an improvised setting.”

The next night at the Vanguard, Bro took the stage with the setlist on a small slip of paper but appeared to do away with it. Along with Morgan and Baron, he opted for a loose jazz that blended elements of rock, noise and even electronica. The result was transporting, Bro’s guitar sounding like the ocean in all its glittering fury.

Singing Stories

Like the finest jazz guitarists, whether the late Jim Hall or the contemporary Mary Halvorson, Bro sings stories through his instrument. His compositions are so rich and vast that their meanings are open to interpretation. The night’s first piece, however, with Bro’s florid guitar lines, wistfully yet warmly evoked the passage of time. The following song, “Untitled II,” wasn’t a Bro original but rather a previously unreleased track by Paul Motian, the revered late drummer and one of Bro’s mentors. Still, Bro conveyed the piece’s freneticism as his guitar fuzz and electronic squawks echoed the frenzy of the modern city.

Bro, however, with his mellow demeanor and floral snapback hat, is not a cynic. His songs, including the periodically tense “Full Moon Europa” from Streams and the autumnal “Oktober” from his recent album Returnings (ECM, 2018), suggest as much but he is almost enviably calm. After a long time away, he is especially happy to be in New York.

“New York was always a mythic place for me,” he says. Particularly drawn to the city due to its rich music history and because many of his heroes lived here, Bro reflects fondly on his first years in the city in the late ‘90s. Having met future jazz luminaries including bassist Ben Street, and fellow guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, Bro says, “All of my heroes were opening their arms to me and saying, ‘Welcome.’...In many ways, New York was really good to me.”

Since his first New York years, Bro has mostly lived in Copenhagen where he’s conceived jazz records including, most recently, “Uma Elmo” (ECM, 2021), and a forthcoming release which he’s currently composing and will record in early September. Speaking of the process behind his daring compositions, Bro says, “It’s always sort of in motion somehow. I still compose, although I often do play concerts without any composition at all. It’s like one-hundred percent improvised.”

Bro was particularly keen on demonstrating his process at the Vanguard, a venue that he hasn’t headlined since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 and one that he reveres. “The whole history of the place,” he says, aware that such jazz legends as John Coltrane and Miles Davis played there, “is very, very unique ...For me, there’s no other place. Also, of course, due to the history of the recordings that have been made down there, I still have to pinch my arm to really believe that I’m playing in that room.”

The following night, Bro ended his set with a nocturne. As his guitar washed over the crimson room and his pedal whooshed over the audience members, he held a balm to the darkness.

“New York was always a mythic place for me...All of my heroes were opening their arms to me and saying, ‘Welcome.’...In many ways, New York was really good to me.” Jazz guitarist Jakob Bro