Strumming jazz softly

MahraJazz is one the country’s best kept musical secrets. The event, which also goes by the self-explanatory moniker of Haifa Alternative Jazz Festival, is currently up and running at our northern port city for the second year running. The program takes place over two weekends, with the second installment happening later this week (September 20-22).

The organizers have done an excellent job with putting together a tantalizing lineup of acts that feed off a broad swathe of styles, subgenres and ethnic baggage. Last weekend, for example, Copenhagen-based Japanese pianist Makiko Hirabayashi and her trio wowed their audience at the Karabeet venue, while the Wildflower threesome of reed player Idris Rahman, bassist Leon Brichard and drummer Tom Skinner took their listeners for a spiritually uplifting ride at there on Thursday and, on the morrow, at the Al-Ma’mal Foundation.

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The forthcoming Thursday-Saturday lineup looks equally inviting, with British trumpeter Yazz Ahmed feeding off her Bahraini roots when she fronts a quartet at the Fattoush Bar & Gallery (September 22), while Palestinian pianist Faraj Suleiman will perform with his own foursome at the same venue on Thursday, mixing Arabic rhythms and melodies with jazz and tango. The best known foreign act in the two-weeker is stellar Danish guitarist Jakob Bro. Bro will be making his professional foray to these shores, in the company of seasoned drummer Joey Baron and bassist Thomas Morgan.

The 40-year-old Dane has been an established, sought-after act in the global jazz arena for over a decade and a half, and has built up a numerically and qualitatively impressive discography in the past 15 years, latterly on the prestigious German-based ECM label. Legendary record company founder Manfred Eicher clearly has faith in Bro. Eicher, in his time, has kept releases on hold, after the recording, editing and mixing stages are complete, for quite a while. With that in mind, it is even more surmising that Bro’s second record of 2018, Bay of Rainbows, will be out in a couple weeks’ time. His previous effort, Returnings, came out in March. Interestingly, Morgan contributed to that one too.

Bro says he feels blessed with his current sidemen. “Joey and Thomas and I play something like 60 gigs a year.” Indeed, Bro is in the privileged and pretty rarefied position, for the world of jazz, to have something like a working band. Jazz musicians generally tend to flit between projects, and it is unusual to find a group that performs unchanged on a regular basis. The Standards threesome led by iconic pianist Keith Jarrett, a mainstay of the ECM stable that has been doing robust creative business for three-and-a-half decades, is the only other working band that springs to mind.

The guitarist says that Bay of Rainbows is the result of a naturally evolving organic continuum. “The music [on the album] has been developing so much that I thought it would be a nice thing to capture some of that on a record,” he notes. Capturing the dynamic of a live jazz show is a very different matter compared with the results of a studio session or two when, sometimes, the musicians are not even in the same place at the same time. Bro was keen to impart the immediacy and vibrancy of the music the trio produced in front of audiences, fueled by a personal and artistic closeness borne of time spent on stage and on the road together.

Eicher was equally enthused. “I took to Manfred about it,” Bro continues. “He listened to us live a few as well, and he said he was into the idea of presenting the group on a CD, in a live concept context. It’s a bit special for us because, of course, the music is played differently compared with what we would have done in a studio.”

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Bro started out on his musical road when he was but a wee nipper, and on a very different instrument. He also had the required genetic launching pad and environment. “My dad conducted a big band, so I was playing trumpet when I was five or six years old. That was Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. That was the music I was mostly listening to at home.” More contemporary sounds and energies did make their way into the youngster’s consciousness, albeit music created in an earlier generation. “I was also listening, at home, to Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles, so there was a lot of music around me when I was a kid.”
Still, it’s one thing to spin a disc, and quite another to try to reproduce the songs yourself on an instrument, regardless of the accuracy of the rendition. “I started getting a little more serious about music, on guitar, around ’93, I think.” Bro would have been around 15 at the time, and had already split his time between trumpet and guitar, before eventually deciding on the latter. And we’re not talking Charlie Christian or Wes Montgomery, or any of the other jazz guitar greats of yesteryear. “The music I was listening to at the time was more for the guitar. I was really inspired by John Lee Hooker – more blues-oriented music. I’d also listened to rock.” That is an enduring pleasure. “I am a huge fan of Neil Young, and Nick Drake. And I’ve also listened a lot to Nina Simone. That’s a big part of my [musical] baggage as well.”

It was the late wizard of blues-inflected rock who tipped the Bro balance in favor of the string instrument. “It was when I heard Hendrix that I was inspired to take up the guitar,” he recalls. “By the time I was 12 I was only on guitar.”

While it is a rare matter for guitarists, of various genre and stylistic stripes, to mention Hendrix as their initial muse, while the rock star wowed his audiences with his lightning finger-work and amp output, Bro tends to the far quieter and gentler end of the decibel spectrum. It seems one of the legends of jazz drumming is “to blame” for that.

As Bro delved ever deeper into jazzy climes he realized he needed to get himself over to the art form’s global epicenter, and see and hear some of the established stars of the jazz firmament for himself, in particular Paul Motian. “I was a huge fan of Paul’s music, basically since I started playing jazz music. I moved to New York because I wanted to get close to him, hear him play live.” A little further down the line, Bro went one enormous step further by actually sharing the stage with the great man. “I saw him play many times and then I got invited to play in his group, which was like a really big thing for me,” says Bro with more than a touch of understatement.

Bro was able to get a handle on Motian’s peerless musicianship from just about the closest quarters possible. “I played right next to Paul, because I played the guitar softly,” Bro laughs. Motian, who died in 2011 at the age of 80, was known for his deftly tender touch on the skins and cymbals. “No one else in the band wanted to play next to Paul because they didn’t want to turn down their volume. But I was like I’d love to play next to Paul, and I’d love to turn down my sound.” But lowering the volume doesn’t necessarily mean reducing the vibe factor. “I was so blessed to get the energy he used on the cymbals, at many many concerts. That will stay with me forever.”

While that formative experience continues to inform Bro’s output, he says it is very much a matter of marrying personal and musical growth. “It seems my instrument, and my writing, and the way I play and what I produce, will sort of develop with me. That’s a nice feeling.”

For tickets and more information about MahraJazz is: , https://www.mahrajazz/ and mahrajazzfestival

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