Branch or Die

The trumpeter Jaimie Branch follows the path marked out on her first album, but adds new horizons to the picture. Her sophomore work is a fascinating collection of vivid and spontaneous reactions to the surrounding reality: whether encountered in the rehearsal room, in a concert situation, or on the geopolitical scene.

Translation: Aleksandra Szkudłapska

Jaimie Branch spent a few years playing as a side musician in a number of jazz and improvised projects. She entered the scene with a bang in 2017 with Fly or Die – her first album as a frontwoman released by the Chicago-based International Anthem label, keen to fish out the most original and fresh young talent. The trumpeter’s debut stood out on account of its lightness and composition method: the material spanned concert recordings, studio sessions, spontaneous improvisations and compositions polished and finetuned in postproduction. Branch instantly caused a stir on the jazz scene. Her album was listed in ‘best of 2017’ compilations, and the characteristic swinging, urban style combining jazz and hip-hop immediately attracted a number of fans, including myself. Luckily, this early success did not go to her head – I had a chance to talk with her about it.

Two years later, the same imprint releases another album with a rather non-revolutionary title: FLY or DIE II: bird dogs of paradise. It features nine tracks that share the same method as the debut, but the trumpeter goes a step further, and actually sings. In just a couple of tracks, true, but that’s poignant enough: in “prayer for amerikkka” (accompanied by a choir of her wailing bandmates) she lashes out at the right-wing side of America, shouting “we’ve got a bunch of wide-eyed racists”, only to pitifully – or perhaps lovingly – call “a love song for assholes & clowns” in the finale, because you can’t banish or exile all of them. In the meantime, she really puts the boundaries of jazz to the test: the swinging “prayer for amerikka” seems to be headed for the blues, but ends up with folk or even western overtones, with Branch’s piercing trumpet reminding me of Chuck Mangione. In-between these song-like forms, the quartet (this time featuring Lester St. Louis on cello, Jason Ajemian on double bass and Chad Taylor on drums) really gets carried away: “twenty-three n me, jupiter redux” is a concise, wailing narrative with doubled trumpets interlaced with orchestral drumming and a synthesizer in the background; the title track is a free-jazz tour de force of dog howling recorded at a live show, concluded with the dynamic, effervescent “nuevo roquero estéreo” with a Latino feel. “lesterlude”, on the other hand, features an amazing cello solo, while the whole album begins with Smith’s oneiric, ambientesque display on mbira and a trippy cello. This is music of the in-between, and Branch’s quartet sounds like a roadside band of musical gringos who wander about the town, juxtaposing various ideas and concepts into an evocative and politically anchored statement. FLY or DIE II combines the freedom of the debut album with a new array of ideas. Branch and company break conventions instead of becoming established within them. The trumpeter follows the path marked out on her first album, but adds new horizons to the picture. Her sophomore work is a fascinating collection of vivid and spontaneous reactions to the surrounding reality: whether encountered in the rehearsal room, in a concert situation, or on the geopolitical scene. Branch is like your next-door friend, simultaneously astute and original in shaping her musical language.

Jaimie Branch, FLY or DIE II: bird dogs of paradise, International Anthem