One sign of good fortune is having friends who recommend good music. They share links. They loan LPs. They call out across the store when you’re digging through the crates and they find that record you have to hear. My friends James and Steve go above and beyond. A promoter and club owner, they have set up countless shows for the musicians they most admire. They’re well versed in the jazz classics, but it’s the contemporary scene they celebrate most eagerly. They’ll tell you we live in a golden age of jazz, and they back it up. And whenever they ask, “You don’t know her/him/them?”, it’s not a judgment. It’s an invitation. There was an extra charge in their voices when they first told me about trumpet player jaimie branch.
“Steve and I saw her at Real Art Ways in Hartford in 2015. She was part of Joe Morris’ Improvisations series. It was his semi-annual Spectacle bringing a large ensemble together with smaller sub-ensembles doing separate improvisations. jaimie stood out so brilliantly—Steve and I were completely blown away. I ran into her not long afterward at the Vision Festival, where we really began our friendship, however limited.” -James Keepnews
“James will probably remember the name of the show, but it was a RAW event that involved at least a dozen musicians, including jaimie and Ken Vandermark among several others, arranged in different small and large ensembles with constructions by Joe Morris as I recall. All of the musicians were ace, very impressive, but jaimie just soared above the rest with loads of alt technique, head clearing slurs, and a wild but deep-seated lyricism. James and I were both blown away and we may have even talked to her about performing at Quinns before we left. From the first time to the last time I saw her, she was just so uniquely, profoundly talented. She took some of the secrets of the world’s soul with her when she died.” -Steve Ventura
Surfer Maya Gabeira is being towed out to sea off the coast of Portugal while a member of her support team looks on from shore. They’re waiting for a storm to pass, scanning the horizon for the perfect wave, weighing risk and reward. Gabeira is about to surf a world record 73-foot wave, roughly thirteen times her height. The wave towers above, curving, curling, breaking. Gabeira decides to go for it, leaving a narrow wake, the faintest of chalk marks, as she slices across the surface.
I first saw jaimie branch when James and Steve booked her at Quinn’s in 2016. Out of the gate she made it evident what they were raving about. Seeing her perform was like staring into a starry sky, especially the quieter second set, catching a glimpse of the infinite. That sound of hers. branch exuded a unique confidence on the bandstand, too. In lesser hands it’d come across like I got this shit. You know, fine, but not uncommon. There was something about branch’s attitude that was, among other things, broader, more expansive. We got this shit—the band, me, you, everyone in the room who wants to sign on.
I’d been going to shows at Quinn’s for about a year. Week after week James and Steve delivered a succession of head spinning musical adventures. Many of the musicians were decades into storied careers. They had deep pools of experience to draw on and offered vast discographies to explore. branch was in her early thirties, charging into the surf, yet to release her first album as a bandleader.
She lit up a room off the bandstand, too. She seemed to size up people and situations quickly. I know she’d heard comments like my initial compliments countless times before—You sounded great!—but she was witty and generous when I finally got to the questions I had for a piece I was writing. She had a creative intensity I’d not encountered before. It was exciting to see up close. Plus, I’d read she had connections to punk rock and she wore a White Sox cap that night. (A couple of years later I’d see her wearing a Kansas City Monarchs jersey.) Jazz, punk, baseball. I didn’t know where to start. jaimie branch wasn’t easy to suss out.
Gabeira had nearly died on the same beach a few years before. A similar wave had knocked her unconscious. She almost quit because of the pain and trauma. “When I looked inside (the wave), it looked like hell.” The same forces that lifted her up and propelled her forward were also reaching for her, pulling her down. I wondered about the forces pushing and pulling branch.
branch’s debut album, Fly or Die, came out on International Anthem in 2017. Her tone was radiant, as it had been on stage, but her compositions were more astonishing than expected. I included the album on playlists for months. I played the record for my students, and it became a class favorite, developing several scratches from frequent play.
When Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise came out in early 2020, I bought two copies. That way my partner, Joh, could have a copy at her house and I’d have one at mine. The record matched branch’s debut in some regards, deviated in others, and left me wondering what else was branch capable of. If these albums marked her starting points as a bandleader, how much higher would she take us? In many ways jaimie branch was just starting out. It felt like the future was in good hands and we’d be along for the ride.
Next came Fly or Die Live (2021). She used the previous albums as fodder for a revamped suite. She resequenced the running order. She stretched some songs, while cutting and adding others. Recorded on tour in Switzerland in January 2020, branch was backed by her Fly or Die flight crew: Jason Ajemian (bass), Lester St. Louis (cello), and Chad Taylor (drums, mbira), all returning from the second record. I liked it straight away, but didn’t make the deep dive initially. In hindsight I viewed Fly or Die Live as a holding pattern, a lateral move before the next evolutionary leap forward.
The opening of Fly or Die Live, “birds of paradise,” is peaceful and cleansing. Chad Taylor plucks a mbira, a thumb piano with two rows of tines. The mood matches the original version, but Taylor enters much earlier and has the stage to himself, so the experience is more immersive. The chill sounds of a mid-summer sun shower. Three minutes pass before jaimie branch’s trumpet breaks over the horizon. I’m not sure when I noticed the string section, Ajemian and St. Louis, float across the landscape. The band could ride this mesmerizing vibe for the entire side and the song would still feel too short. Instead “prayer for amerikkka Pt. 1 & 2” staggers in. The band slowly sways and branch takes to the pulpit.
“We wrote this one about a year ago. Shit was real fucked up at home, and it’s still real fucked up. In fact, it might be much, much worse. But don’t get it twisted, Switzerland. It’s a song about America, but it’s a song about a whole lot of places because it’s not just America where shit’s fucked up. And it’s not always time to be neutral, you know what I mean?”
Everything about the song is tense and unnerving. branch cuts to the upper register while the band plays sparsely. Something looms, ready to spring from the shadows. The change is jarring. I wasn’t ready to leave the comforting world of “birds of paradise.” branch eyes her target from above and circles. Then she breaks into song.
“It’s a prayer for Amerikka
For the good, the bad, and the rest of us”
branch alternates between testifying from the mic and blasting on the horn, while the band remains eerily steady through the first pass.
“She was only 19
They crossed over at dawn
Now her mother and brothers are safe in Chicago and she’s all alone
What is distance?
What is time?
What is fear?
What is family?
What is love when it’s all just memory?
This is a warning, honey
They’re coming for you!”
branch returns to the verse two more times, shouting as she keeps pulling us back into the narrative. She’s got us by the collar and she’s not letting go. Her voice cracks as she reaches for the final line, the strings sawing dissonantly and the drums lurching.
In How the Word Is Passed, Clint Smith writes, “Don’t believe anything if it makes you comfortable.” branch wasn’t one for letting listeners stay comfortable for long. I’m so enamored with branch the trumpet player that I’m not always ready for branch the activist. She’s a commanding singer and provocative lyricist, needing just a few lines to establish the story of an immigrant family forced to separate. Yet later in the song the punches don’t land with the same power when she sings of politicians coming for our wallets and digging in our paychecks.
branch can soothe. She can excite, and when it’s time to delve into painful topics, her approach is equally no holds barred. For all of the expertise branch displays throughout the album, I’m fascinated by her willingness to stretch into areas in which she was still seeking. I’m sure that’s also true of her trumpet playing, but it’s more evident in her singing.
“prayer for amerikkka pt. 1 & 2” reminds me of when Joh and I saw Alfredo Jaar’s video installation 06.01.2020. Combining wall-sized video, stadium speakers, and massive overhead fans, Jaar simulates the night protesters outside the White House were subjected to a pair of low flying helicopters by the Washington DC National Guard. The aircraft flew so low the force of their propellers broke tree branches. The experience shook us up.
“There was something about the darkness of the space and the reverberations and the sense that the helicopters were landing on you,” Joh later said. “It was the difference between reading in the news that we’re veering into fascism and feeling it in my gut. It wasn’t intellectual. It was very visceral.”
Then it’s time for “lesterlude,” originally a 40-second piece on Fly or Die II extended here by two minutes. In part, St. Louis gives us a chance to let “prayer for amerikkka” sink in. But as with the rest of the album, there’s more beneath the surface as St. Louis shifts tones and tempos, restless and reflective.
Throughout Charles Burnett’s 1981 film My Brother’s Wedding there are periodic bursts of brighter-than-you’d expect lighting. A woman stands in front of a living room window while the sunlight blazes waist high washing out the window frame. When customers stand in the doorway of the Mundy family dry cleaning shop, daylight flows over their shoulders virtually erasing the passing traffic in the background. Later, the overhead light in the family kitchen is bright enough to do surgery. It verges on being too much, flowing outside the lines, super saturating the scenes, but radiates such warmth.
branch’s tone can be like that, so inviting, so insistent, filling the frame with such passion. “reflections on a broken sea,” new for the live album, opens side two. branch uses a delay and echoes of her trumpet fill the space, catching warm air currents and rising.
Midway through the next cut, “whales,” Taylor erupts, building and blending patterns that flow into “theme 001.” On a more basic level, he plays a slow strut by alternating quarter notes on the snare and kick drums. On top of that, he layers a hailstorm of rim shots. The result is simultaneous tension and release. In some ways, Taylor’s beats are like Morse code, but these are not signs of distress. More like signals of resistance and celebration, rhythms with the power to unite and incite. The strings stir up an intense conversation and branch takes off again.
The band slaloms through eight pieces on side two culminating with “leaves of glass.” There are momentary interjections from her bandmates, but St. Louis, Ajemian, and Taylor mostly lay out on this song. Meanwhile, the audience is quiet. Everyone looks on as branch defies gravity once more, her playing restrained and transcendent, so much time and space between the notes. She can be at her most expressive when playing quietly and stretching fewer notes.
“Turkey vultures are what I would call my spark bird. For a birder, a spark bird is the one you see, usually in some kind of unexpected situation, that grabs you in a way that you haven’t been grabbed before by birds, and turns you on to a wavelength that you haven’t been turned on to before.” –Noah Strycker, This American Life episode #754
When I think about the peak years of a great label—Blue Note or Impulse in the ’60s, SST in the ’80s—I wonder what it would be like to know of those records as they were being released, all those dispatches from the decks of Rudy Van Gelder and Spot. That’s the vibe I get from International Anthem Records, my favorite label of the era. branch led me to International Anthem and turned me onto a whole substream of musicians I’d never heard before.
branch returned to Beacon in May 2017 to play St. Christopher’s Church. This time in support of her debut album. Again, James and Steve put on the show. I volunteered to help out. I remember going backstage before the show on an errand. There was no one else in the room and branch’s trumpet was on the counter. Not in a case or on a towel, just sitting on the marble next to a stack of plastic cups. Later Steve invited the band back to his house. He broke out the good stuff and it was an HQ hang with the heroically talented, only more fun than a night at the Justice League Watchtower,
I left that night with a copy of the first Fly or Die album. I couldn’t believe I’d be hearing branch’s first record from the outset, upon its release rather than reading about it years later. Was this like picking up Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch or the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime from the “New Releases” rack?
A few weeks later I attended Vision Fest in New York. Fly or Die, glowed on the International Anthem merch table. Next to it was Jeff Parker’s The New Breed. The photo on the cover—a Poloroid of Parker’s father and a friend—was faded and cracked. They dressed much like my dad did circa the Carter years. Under other circumstances I’d have questioned the warm feelings of nostalgia generated by the cover. But instinct told me any label wise enough to work with jaimie branch could be trusted to steer clear of cheap sentiment. I started exploring International Anthem’s releases and found countless examples of jazz’s latest golden age (of which branch’s Fly or Die albums are prime examples). Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings. Junius Paul’s Ism. Irreversible Entanglements’ Open the Gates. Damon Locks’ Black Monument Ensemble NOW. Ben Lamar Gay’s Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun. Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brotherhood’s Live. Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger’s Force Majeure. At times I look at that section on my record shelves and think, Why are you still buying albums from other labels?
I’d been planning to write about some of the recent International Anthems albums when branch died suddenly at age 39 in August 2021. But I couldn’t get any traction with those pieces. branch kept coming up. In the numerous remembrances written by fellow musicians and friends. On the guest appearances on albums by Rob Mazurek and Heroes Are Gang Leaders that I heard posthumously. People were wiped out by her passing, even folks like me who didn’t know her well. branch brought out something unique in people, some combination of moving, affirming, and joy. Even my friend Mike, more into punk but aware of branch, texted to ask if I was all right. I kept flashing back to the image of branch’s trumpet on the backstage counter.
My initial notes for side three included the phrase, “brisk pace.” Indeed, there are six songs, and many are shorter than their studio predecessors, but the tones are largely understated and there are often only one or two voices at a time. I think I let the fast part of “the storm” color my thinking. Still, even after dozens of listens, the scratches and crackles starting to pop up, there are passages that still seem new, make me wonder Have I been here before?
I know when “the storm” appears, however. That track brings me to a similar place each time. Ominous frequencies surfacing from the low end. Enormous, impenetrable slabs of sound. I’m fairly certain this is branch employing effects, but you could convince me it’s a bass synthesizer. Were “the storm” part of a sci-fi soundtrack, this would cue the entrance of the big bad, now on the scene and exponentially bigger and badder than we could have expected, though also breathtaking. About half as long as the original version, this version of “the storm” feels more impactful.
“Nuevo Roquero Estereo” starts the final side with blasts of air escaping Taylor’s hi-hat cymbals each time they close. He must be applying tremendous force yet the subsequent exhale is so soft. The contrast is remarkable. It reminds me of McCoy Tyner’s playing on Enlightenment, such thunder entwined with such grace. I picture Tyner’s piano reduced to a heap of scraps and splinters. Likewise for Taylor’s drum kit. After Taylor’s ninth hi-hat blast, St. Louis and Ajemian start a hypnotic call and response exchange while branch takes flight once more, incorporating the delay and echoes that opened side two.
Again, the band glides on vibes I could ride all day before branch redirects the flow, and starts singing “love song.”
“It’s a love song
for assholes and clowns”
I’m torn. Sometimes I think, Don’t change lanes now. Other times I think, Go! Preach! Push! The band waltzes as branch encourages the audience to join her. “Let’s see if you can catch it.”
branch’s voice frays as she leans into the lyrics while the strings sway and Taylor churns. She’s implicitly recalling the themes from side one, but with a much different tone, imploring us to be aware and active, better. “I swear it’ll make you feel better, Switzerland. Let’s go.” The crowd returns the favor as the song fades out, continuing to sing on their own, serenading the band.
Time and time again on Fly or Die Live, jaimie branch rises to the peak of her powers as a trumpet player, composer, and bandleader, while other passages find her seeking, further developing a voice that was already the stuff of legend, a remarkable balance of seasoned performer, fearless explorer, and righteous voice. branch took a lot with her when she died. Fly or Die Live is a stirring example of the gifts she left behind.