Jakob Bro’s trio with two kindred-spirit Americans, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Joey Baron, follows its 2016 album Streams with an album recorded live in New York City over two nights at the Jazz Standard. Bay of Rainbows rolls on waves of contemplative emotion, with a gradually enveloping lyricism the lodestar. The three musicians explore five pieces from the guitarist’s catalog, including “Copenhagen” a favorite reprised from Gefion, Bro’s 2015 ECM album with Morgan and drummer Jon Christensen. Bookending the new recording are two versions of the richly melodic “Mild,” the abstracted second rendering illustrative of Bro and company’s ability to push and pull the music into mesmerizing new shapes, onstage and in the moment.
The 40-year-old Bro – whose initial ECM appearances were on Paul Motian’s Garden of Eden and Tomasz Stanko’s Dark Eyes – just this past spring released his third studio album on the label as a leader: Returnings, which featured the guitarist in league with Morgan, Christensen and trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg. In its review of that disc, DownBeat praised Bro for creating “sound paintings of depth, warmth and beauty.” These words apply just as well to Bay of Rainbows, along with an added degree of spontaneous dynamism – as Bro’s partnership with Morgan and Baron has only deepened after five years of touring far and wide. The guitarist says: “This trio has played ‘Evening Song’ – an older tune of mine that I’ve done multiple ways already – hundreds of times, night after night, city after city, in different kinds of rooms in front of different sorts of audiences. So, the piece keeps evolving, and surprising me.”
A prime example of how Bro, Morgan and Baron can morph a song from night to night comes with the two disparate versions of “Mild” on Bay of Rainbows. “It may sound strange to people, but the three of us never talk about the music, not even discussion of intros or outros, or where solos should be,” the guitarist explains. “It all happens on the bandstand. We have this shared desire to really listen to each other, to let the music breathe as we see where we can go moment to moment. Thomas might start something off, and Joey will react – and then when I come in, I have to adapt the way I play the song in order to respond to what they’re doing. Sometimes, the nights feel like one long improvisation.”
The title of Bay of Rainbows refers to a humorous gift given to Bro’s baby daughter by his brother-in-law: a deed for a plot of land called Sinus Iridum (Bay of Rainbows), which is on the moon. “It’s a poetic phrase and one I thought was evocative”, the guitarist explains. One track on the album, “Red Hook,” comes from Bro’s past life, as a young striver trying to learn the jazz ropes in New York City. “It was originally titled ‘Red Hook Railroad,’ because I was living in a ‘railroad’ apartment in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn at the time, sharing the place with bassist Ben Street and, sometimes, saxophonist Mark Turner. That was such an intense period for me, learning so much from these great New York musicians. To record a live album all these years later in the place where so many artists I admire live, a city with such a rich musical history, is very special for me.”
Thomas Morgan has become an increasingly frequent ECM name, appearing on albums led by Stanko, John Abercrombie, Masabumi Kikuchi, Craig Taborn, Giovanni Guidi, David Virelles and, mostly recently, Bill Frisell (the duo disc Small Town). Bro likes to call the bassist his “musical soulmate.” He adds: “I loved his playing the first time I heard it. Thomas has a gift for supporting the song while also adding tension to it. He’s such a searching player.” Baron has been a pivotal presence in ECM sessions since the late 1980s, including albums led by Frisell, Abercrombie, John Taylor, Gary Peacock, Steve Kuhn and Marc Johnson & Eliane Elias. “Joey’s ears are all over the bandstand,” Bro says. “He isn’t a drummer just keeping time and adding color – he has as many ideas about where the songs should go as Thomas and I do. He has so much imagination, along with this joyful approach to music-making that I love.”
As for his own playing, Bro says live performance enables him “get to the bottom of what I can really do on my instrument,” as he takes more room for himself than he might in the studio. The more kinetic side of Bro’s playing can be heard on Bay of Rainbows via the darkly atmospheric “Dug,” with its climactic guitar lines seeming to howl at the moon.
Beyond such keening passages, Bay of Rainbows has the strongly contemplative aura that Bro says he’s “always striving for in my music, consciously and unconsciously, I suppose. I’ve always wanted to make the kind of music that I would want to listen to myself, and I can be drawn toward a certain meditative quality. I love albums that sustain a mood, whether it’s Brian Eno or John Coltrane, and I realize now that it’s a real challenge to do that live, to establish a vibe and keep hold of it, especially as you explore – you don’t want to lose the essence of a song. And that essence always derives from an emotion for me, something that I hope reaches the listener.”