From Seeing to Playing with a Hero

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Jakob Bro in the studio

Born in 1978, Jakob Bro is one of Denmark’s most popular jazz guitarists; in my opinion, he is perhaps the best, and is known for stellar collaborations with artists such as Paul Motian, Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell (Berklee ’77), and George Garzone, to name a few. If you listen to his music, you will hear how he uses a lot of effect pedals and sounds. His music is neither straight nor swung. Bro has won many awards; he has claimed the Danish Music Award five times, has been accepted into JazzDanmark‘s Hall of Fame, and has been featured in the Top 10 list of Downbeat‘s rising stars. I met with Bro on a hot day at the old Meatpacking district during this year’s Copenhagen Jazz Festival a few hours before a concert of his to talk to him about his life in music.

Talk about your musical background.
“I come from a small town outside Aarhus, Denmark, called Risskov. I grew up listening to a lot of big band music with Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. I played trumpet as a kid and my dad had a big band; That was my way into music. I guess it was when I was around 12 that I picked up the guitar for the first time…I then played both instruments [trumpet and guitar] for a while. I slowly started playing more guitar and less of the trumpet, and eventually the trumpet faded out. Then I went to the Rhythmic Conservatory in Aarhus for a year and then quit and went to Berklee College of Music for a semester and then I think I went for about two semesters to New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York. I went to school, but never for a full degree.”

Did you come from a musical family?
“My father, as I said, conducted a big band and he also played the trumpet. He knew a little about many instruments. We had a music room in our house with many instruments, such as piano, trombone, saxophone, clarinet, flutes, and acoustic and electric guitars.”

Besides some of the musicians you mentioned you grew up with, who else was influential for you?
“Basie and Ellington were my father’s favorites. We also listened to a lot of other music like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, but also The Beatles; overall, a mix of everything.”

What are some of your favorite guitarists and albums with them?
“It came through blues and rock. I played a lot of jazz trumpet as mentioned. With the guitar, I started listening to Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and the guitar started being my main focus. I joined a few bands playing blues and rock. My dad then needed a guitarist for the big band he was leading and I thought maybe I should try that, so I did. When I came round to the jazz guitar, I listened to John Scofield (Berklee ’73) and Pat Martino. Martino’s language was something I was fascinated by but it was not something I could do. Scofield was even further away and just a sound. My dad bought music books I worked out of and I became fascinated by Jim Hall and also listened to Pat Metheny (Berklee alum) but Scofield was my my main influence.”

Game changing records?
“When I was at the conservatory, I was in a trio and learned a lot of vocabulary and transcribing artists such as Charlie Parker. It was great for me because I didn’t know how or what he was doing. I had a teacher who taught me scales but how to make that sound like jazz, I didn’t know. I listened to a lot of bebop recordings with Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Later I started listening to Oscar Peterson, but the first record that made a difference in my way of listening to music was Four and More with the Miles Davis Quintet. Then I listened to a lot of John Coltrane, [to] where I almost started to meditate and saw a whole other world when listening. I was very fascinated by these guys and also Thelonious Monk. I didn’t know how to put what these guys were playing to the guitar and for a while thought about quitting. When I went to Berklee, I bought records every day and I also found out how many opportunities I had with the guitar.”

Who were some of the teachers you had at Berklee?
“I had John Wilkins, Jon Damien, and Mick Goodrick. Damien was teaching a sort of guitar group thing.”

Who are some of the most important teachers you have had along the way?
“George Garzone! I met him at Berklee, a total sweetheart. I had good grades/ratings to get into the good ensembles, but I wasn’t first in line because I was a first-year student and I was little bummed out about this, so I went to Garzone’s office and he told me his ensembles were completely packed. I had a t-shirt with something about Copenhagen on it and when I walked down the street he calls me from his window and says: “Hey are you from Denmark?” I responded: “Yes” and he answered: “You got to be in my ensemble.” He taught me his harmonic approaches and I went to his concerts and brought my little mini-disc and recorded them and tried to transcribe his stuff. We later got to play together and he was on one of my records. He’s a teacher in many ways. At the New School, I had Armen Donelian, who is a great ear-training teacher and he taught me stuff that was groundbreaking. These are the two teachers who gave me the most.”

What made you go to the US to study?
“That’s actually a funny story. I went to a seminar called Summer Session in Vallekilde during the time I was at the conservatory. I was 17 at this time and just being accepted was not something I had expected; it’s meant to be for professional musicians. Suddenly I was just this kid from Aarhus who was in ensemble with some of the best players from Copenhagen who I looked up to. I met a lot of people and learned a lot. That year I attended, Michael Brecker, John Abercrombie (Berklee ’67), and Danilo Pérez (Berklee ’88) were there. On the last day we had a concert and it went really well. Someone told me that Abercrombie had said nice things about my playing. Abercrombie, Brecker and Danilo told me that I should come to the States and study at Berklee. They told me this on the last night, which was the party night, but it meant a lot to me. Three weeks later, I played a gig in Aarhus when Kurt Rosenwinkel (Berklee ‘90) was in town. I think we were playing Coltrane’s “26-2,” and he asked if he could borrow my guitar and play a solo on it. I was amazed! Afterwards he told me that I should come to New York and that he would love to hang out and play anytime I wanted. This was crazy and all happened in one summer. I dropped out of the conservatory and tried to aim to be going to Berklee and later New York.”

Alexi Tuomarila, Tomasz Stanko and Jakob Bro in action


After your studies you have worked with Paul Motian, Bill Frisell and Tomasz Stanko. How did you meet them?
“It basically all started with Paul Motian. He was the reason I went to New York because I loved his music. I didn’t know him yet. I got to know Chris Cheek, Steve Cardenas, and Kurt Rosenwinkel, who I mentioned earlier. It actually all started from a Danish angle with saxophonist Jakob Dinesen (Berklee alum), who was supposed to be on a recording with Brian Blade, Anders Christensen (also known as AC by most people), and Kurt Rosenwinkel, who Dinesen studied with at Berklee. A week before the recording, Blade cancelled…at the time Rosenwinkel was playing with Motian in the Electric Bebop Band and asked Motian if he would do the recording. Motian’s response: ‘Yeah, let’s do it as long as it’s in a studio near me cause I don’t want to have to carry my drums.’ My friend AC played the upright bass and Motian asked if he also played the electric bass ’cause he needed a bass player for a tour with the Electric Bebop Band two weeks later. AC played both of the basses equally [well], so he went on to tour with Motian. Later Motian needed a guitarist for his tour ’cause Ben Monder couldn’t make it, so AC suggested me to him and Steve Cardenas put in another good word. Chris Cheek was there as well. It was all recommendations. AC told me to call Motian and, at that time, I was at my parents’ place just thinking ‘what?’ [expresses disbelief]. It was the call of my life but also the gig of my life. This all led to meeting Bill Frisell and Lee Konitz. I met Konitz on a tour with Motian in Brazil; we did a recording for ECM called Garden of Eden and Manfred Eicher produced it. I was then introduced to Tomasz Stanko later and it all came together.”

What other musical memories do you recall being highlights during your career?
“The first note I played with the Bebop Band was in some rehearsal space in Italy. I recall playing at the Village Vanguard with Motian. He had asked me earlier on a tour in Europe if I would be interested in playing with him at the Vanguard. Knowing that Coltrane and Bill Evans had recorded groundbreaking albums there, getting to play there was a dream come true. That to me is the biggest venue as a jazz musician to get to play at, and we did for about four weeks. In Europe we played wine castles in France, which was also great. With Stanko, I also played many places and I think we toured for about three years. We did some dates in the US and Australia that I recall as great memories, and then we played at Birdland, which also was special. A lot of nice memories!”

During the recording session for Balladeering in Avatar Studios in New York City


Going back to your time during studies, how did you approach learning standards?
“I still use that as my main field of studying. Again lots of transcribing and at some point it seemed a bit empty. Why am I playing these songs? Then I dug deeper into them and started writing my own stuff and then found 15 standards I really liked and listened to several versions of those to find the right ones for me. It takes time. I also listened a lot to Danish music aside from jazz. I also learned a lot of Motian’s music. There has to be a reason. Tell a story through your piece or a beautiful standard…I mean anything. Go from learning the changes to singing them and really know the piece. Lately I have been listening to some great young Norwegian musicians who don’t seem to be dealing with traditions at all. I work on my own stuff during practice time, but I am also working on “All the Things You Are”. Standards have a certain place in me, and they help me during my own writing. Motian would be in the same universe playing originals and standards. The same goes for so many of the giants in jazz. I really love that and would of course like to be able to do the same”

Jakob Bro and Thomas Morgan in action


So you have played a few concerts during this year’s festival and have some to come?
“I will be going to a lot of places and am constantly traveling. At first I have the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, where I played with Damo Suzuki last night. Today I am playing with Thomas Morgan and Thomas Knak here at KB18. I have an exciting gig coming up this weekened with Palle Mikkelborg and Jon Christensen. Next week, I will be going to Aarhus for this year’s Aarhus Jazz Festival, where I am playing with Marilyn Mazur. I have dates planned in Mexico with Rodrigo Dominguez (Berklee alum), AC, and Hernan Hecht. I also have dates planned with Stanko in South Africa and an interesting tour to Iceland and Greenland with Konitz. Bringing Konitz to Greenland should be quite an interesting experience. I also have dates with Thomas Morgan and Joey Baron in Holland. All very exciting things that are constantly happening for me and I am fortunate to be playing with these guys.”

I highly recommend visiting Jakob’s website and follow his music. He will be releasing a new album for ECM around February 2015 with Thomas Morgan and Jon Christensen.


          February 10, 2018