Jaimie Branch Adds to a Brilliant Legacy With Fly or Die’s Final LP08/25/2023
Jaimie Branch was a real one. That’s the consensus among anyone who really knew her, and it’s what the record shows. The Guardian once quoted her as saying that “playing the trumpet is like singing your soul,” and somehow her music backs that up completely.
A year ago this week, Branch died unexpectedly, at 39; the tragedy took the air out of creative music communities in Brooklyn, Chicago and well beyond. Branch hadn’t released her first LP as a bandleader until 2017, but she’d made up for lost time. With her two groups — Fly or Die, an unorthodox trumpet-cello-bass-drums quartet, and Anteloper, an analog-synth-splashed duo with the drummer Jason Nazary — she put out five albums in as many years. It’s an uncommonly good and unruly set of records: Each is devilishly fun but also musically serious and, as time went on, increasingly razor-sharp politically.
Beyond its odd instrumental lineup, what immediately distinguished Fly or Die was the clarity of the melodies Branch was writing, and the pummeling force the band could build around them. Her trumpet lines — both written and improvised — had an irresistible terseness, with the direct power of mariachi trumpeting infused into ideas taken from Midwestern free-jazz players like Baikida Carroll and Lester Bowie, and from electric-era Miles Davis. She delivered it all via extended trumpet techniques borrowed from Axel Dörner, a German avant-gardist, and wreathed that crisp, purposeful sound in the quartet’s earthy timbres: bass, cello and the drummer Chad Taylor’s low, skulking beats, encompassing the samba-adjacent and odd-metered jazz funk.
In the wake of her passing, those Fly or Die albums now represent Branch’s biggest legacy — and something of a challenge to the rest of the jazz world. Who else is here to sing their soul, in her absence? Who are the real ones that remain? Who else wants to fly?
As it turns out, Branch had one last gauntlet to throw down. On Friday, International Anthem will release “Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((World War)),” the quartet’s third and final studio LP, recorded in April 2022 during her residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha. It is just as electrifying as the group’s first two LPs, but with a wider sonic horizon and more parts in motion. And there’s a triumphant streak running through it that only heightens the pain of Branch’s demise. She was moving fast and riding high when we lost her.
Synths, mixed percussion, guest horn players and extra vocalists flood in at the edges. The nine-minute centerpiece “Baba Louie” starts out as a spiked punch of Caribbean carnival rhythm and South African-inflected horns, introduces a short flirtation between marimba and flute, blossoms into an anthemic trumpet solo section, and finally veers into a dragging, almost dublike stretch of groove.
There is more space on “((World War))” than any previous album for Branch’s disarming, half-sung vocals, which she had started using on “Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise” from 2019. “We’re gonna gonna gonna take over the world, and give it give it back back back back to the la-la-la-land,” she chants on “Take Over the World,” from the new album, stuttering rhythmically over Taylor’s deceptively complex drum beat, Jason Ajemian’s centering acoustic bass and Lester St. Louis’s furious scrub on cello.
Stripped down to just two voices and a bass, she and Ajemian harmonize on a cover of the Meat Puppets’ “Comin’ Down,” a satirical inspirational country ditty, here retitled “The Mountain.” On the closer, “World War ((Reprise)),” she jangles a Fisher-Price musical toy and sings in an even, intimate tone, almost like Patty Waters:
Publicize, televise, capitalize
on revolution’s eyes
What the world could be
If only you could see
Their wings are false flags
On our wings, they all rise.
Branch began her career on the Chicago scene, internalizing the city’s pulpy, blues-based brand of free jazz. She made her way to music school in Boston and Baltimore, then on to New York, where many of the musicians she played with (including all of Fly or Die’s original members) were Chicago transplants. Part of what delayed her in stepping forward as a bandleader was, sadly, an addiction that she would battle off and on for over a decade.
But during periods of recovery, she found that she could get a natural high from “putting it all out on the table” as a performer, she told the audio journal Aquarium Drunkard in 2019. “Playing a simple melody is probably not something I would have done in 2007 or 2008,” she said, but the “vulnerability” of making a strong, clear statement gave Branch the “chemical reaction that I wanted.”
She puts a lot on the line on “Burning Grey,” from the new album. Entreating the listener to stay vigilant, she sings: “Believe me/The future lives inside us/Don’t forget to fight.”
If we’re lucky, Branch’s impact will be felt for years. Not just in the sound of improvised music, but in the fervor and hope — the all-on-the-table abandon — that improvisers put into attacking their craft.
“Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((World War))”
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