by Ian Mann
October 30, 2023
jaimie branch may be gone but the music and the message live on. One of the albums of the year “((world war))” represents essential listening.
“Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or die ((world war))
(International Anthem IARC0066)
jaimie branch – trumpet, voice, keyboard, percussion, happy apple, Lester St. Louis – cello, voice, flute, marimba, keyboard, Jason Ajemian – double bass, electric bass, voice, marimba, Chad Taylor – drums, timpani, mbira, bells, marimba
Nick Broste – trombone (5,6), Rob Frye flute (5), bass clarinet(5,6,7), Akenya Seymour – voice(5), Daniel Villareal – congas, percussion(2,5,6,7), Kuma Dog – voice (5)
The unexplained death of the musician and activist jaimie branch at the age of thirty nine on 22nd August 2022 came as a great shock to me and to the entire jazz and experimental music community. Even now it’s still hard to believe that she’s gone.
I was first alerted to branch and her music by former Jazzmann contributor Tim Owen, who sang the praises of the first “Fly or Die” album, which was released by the Chicago based International Anthem label in 2017. This featured branch leading a core quartet comprised of cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Chad Taylor, with cameo guest appearances by guitarist Matt Schneider and cornet players Ben Lamar Gay and Josh Berman. An all instrumental affair the album received considerable critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic.
I discovered branch’s music for myself in 2019 when I was forwarded a review copy of “Fly or Die II (bird dogs of paradise)” . This release saw Reid replaced by Lester St. Louis, who was already a member of branch’s touring band by that time. The Fly or Die group had accrued a considerable following in Europe and much of that second album was actually recorded in London at studio sessions at the Total Refreshment Centre and at live performances during a residency at Café Oto. Editing and overdubbing subsequently took place in Chicago, which saw a number of guest musicians (among them Gay and Schneider) making additional contributions.
The album was the first to feature branch singing as well as playing. She was a politically informed musician with a healthy distaste for the current state of affairs in US politics and American society as a whole, a viewpoint informed by her part Latino heritage. There was a punk like anger and intensity about much of her music with branch remarking at the time;
“So much beauty lies in the abstract of instrumental music, but being this ain’t a particularly beautiful time I’ve chosen a more literal path. The voice is good for that”.
Songs like the incendiary and epic “Prayer for AmeriKKKa Part 1 & 2” and the tongue in cheek “Love Song (for Assholes and Clowns)” more than proved her point.
“Fly or Die II” was my favourite album of 2019 and again received critical plaudits in both the US and Europe. My review of the album ca be found here;
Fly or Die, by now a band name as well as an album title, had begun to build a reputation as a highly exciting live act and had started to acquire a cult following that reached beyond the usual jazz demographic. A live show in Zurich, Switzerland in January 2020 was documented on the double album “Fly or Die Live”, which was released in 2022. This featured material from both Fly or Die studio albums and demonstrated what a potent live force the quartet was, with the Swiss audience together with the band all the way. The symbioses between band and crowd is palpable, the recording is a real statement of solidarity.
It’s a source of considerable personal regret that I never got to see branch and Fly or Die performing live. I did have a couple of opportunities at London Jazz Festival, but these were at rather inconvenient venues away from the city centre and I always thought I would get another chance, maybe at Cheltenham jazz Festival. Sadly that will never happen. As a London resident Tim was lucky enough to see Fly or Die on two or three occasions. I think he saw Anteloper, branch’s electro-jazz duo with drummer Jason Nazary too.
Despite my disappointment at never seeing branch play live I was absolutely delighted when I heard the news that a third Fly or Die album was going to be released. The music on ((world war)) was recorded in April 2022 and mixed in July. The album was therefore virtually completed before branch’s death and has been released with the blessing of jaimie’s younger sister Kate Branch and of jaimie’s band mates, Chad Taylor, Jason Ajemian and Lester St. Louis.
Taylor, Ajemian and St. Louis provide the album liner notes, which pay homage to their late bandmate and also explain the circumstances behind the recording of the album. They begin;
“jaimie never had small ideas. She always thought big. The minute you told her she couldn’t do something, or that something would be too difficult to accomplish, the more determined and focused she became. And this album is big. Far bigger and more demanding — for us, and for you — than any other Fly or Die record. For this, jaimie wanted to play with longer forms, more modulations, more noise, more singing, and as always, grooves and melodies. She was a dynamic melodicist. jaimie wanted this album to be lush, grand and full of life, just as she was. Every time we take a listen, we feel the deep imprint of her all over the music, and we see all of us making it together.”
Like the first two Fly or Die albums the material is presented as a kind of ‘suite’ and the new songs were ‘played in’ at a series of US tour dates before being recorded at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska, where Branch was the Artist-in-Residence. Following the recording sessions, which took place April 25-29 2022, the band played a hugely successful concert at Bemis. It proved to be the last ever Fly or Die show.
The final Fly or Die album commences with “aurora rising”, all branch’s titles are in lower case and in recent years she applied this dictum to her own name. The piece serves as a kind of ‘overture’ and features the sounds of branch on keyboards, deploying droning synth offset by reedy, high pitched, celebratory electric organ. Throw in the rumble of several timpani, loaned by the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and played by Chad Taylor, and you have a dramatic and attention grabbing album opener.
This first piece may only last two minutes but it has you hooked as a melodic keyboard motif cum hook cum riff provides the link into the album’s first big set piece, the seven minute “borealis dancing”. This adds branch’s trumpet to the sound of swirling keyboards as conguero / percussionist Daniel Villarreal is added to the group. The music is vibrant and rhythmic and similarly vivid in terms of instrumental colour with branch doubling on trumpet and keyboards and with St. Louis’ cello also playing a significant role. The leader’s trumpet solo is powerful and fluent, cutting a swathe through the music. Her playing has been likened to that of a ‘pied piper’, inviting listeners to follow her. It’s also tempting to think of it as ‘shamanistic’, irresistible in its directness and sheer power, with branch cast in the role of a modern day Joshua..
It’s the clarion call of branch’s trumpet that introduces the first song of the album, “burning grey”, a spirited call to arms fuelled by Taylor’s implacable, shuffling drum grooves. There’s a punk like energy about the performance with branch’s lead vocals accompanied by the wolf like howls of Ajemian and St. Louis. The deployment of the three voices recalls “Prayer for AmeriKKKa” from the second Fly or Die album, and their effect is equally spooky and chilling. branch rails against the ills and evils of modern society, sample lyric “everything feels broken, crippling or token, you wonder why the world slips away, burning grey”. But her words express hope and defiance too, “trust me/ just for a moment/ believe me/ the future lives/ inside us / don’t forget to fight! / don’t forget”. Musically the piece incorporates a near free jazz episode and some terrific instrumental interplay between branch and St. Louis
There are more vocals on “the mountain”, a remarkable re-interpretation of the Meat Puppets song “Comin’ Down”. It’s introduced by the sounds of Ajemian’s bowed bass and he also handles the lead vocal, with branch providing vocal harmonies. Written by Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets the song was originally released in 1994 and in its original incarnation was an invigorating blend of punk and country. Fly or Die slow the tune down, and despite changing the title remain faithful to Kirkwood’s lyrics. Despite the jazz instrumentation the song retains its air of ‘Americana’, helped in this regard by the highly effective vocalising of both Ajemian and branch as they make this song very much their own. The performance also includes a concise muted trumpet solo from the leader.
The nine minute “baba louie”, another of the album’s major statements adds all of the band’s guests to the core line up to create an expanded sound. The music is joyous and celebratory, drawing on Latin and New Orleans influences. Exotic percussion underscores St. Louis’ cello solo and branch’s trumpeting is positively ebullient. There’s a darker hued episode featuring guest vocalist Akenya Seymour and trombonist Nick Broste that draws on elements of dub reggae. branch may have been nominally a jazz musician but her influences were wide and varied.
“baba louie” eventually segues into “bolinko bass”, which continues the mood of celebration. Driven by Ajemian and Taylor it features St. Louis’ cello and finds branch’s trumpet jousting with Broste’s trombone. It’s a rousing and energetic performance that eventually concludes on a more sombre note.
The brief “and kuma walks” is credited to the four core members of Fly or Die and is presumably entirely improvised. branch’s trumpet meditations are shadowed by the sounds of strings both bowed and plucked on one of the album’s true free jazz moments.
Next we’re into the ferocious punk jazz of “take over the world” with its mantra-like “we’re gonna take over the world and give it back to the land” refrain. The leader’s urgent lead vocals are again augmented by wolf like howls and the instrumental playing reflects the fury of the vocals and the lyrics. There’s also a kind of psychedelic episode featuring the sounds of the leader’s treated vocals.
The album concludes with “world war”, not the musical conflagration that one might expect but instead an atmospheric valedictory featuring branch’s long, mournful trumpet lines, keyboard drones and the ethereal chimes of the happy apple, a 1980s children’s toy. There’s also a wistful vocal from Branch, “what the world could be, if you could only see”. In the light of what was to follow some four months later it’s a painfully poignant farewell.
I’m often wary of posthumous albums, in the rock world in particular they are often cynical industry ‘cash ins’ that add little to the artist’s legacy.
“Fly or Die 3” is different. It’s a complete work that was virtually ready for release before branch’s sad passing and artistically its a continuation of her previous recordings with Fly or Die and ranks right up there with her best work. It’s music that deserves to be heard and I’m pleased that her family and her former bandmates have agreed for it to be released.
“((world war))” is a hugely impressive statement in its own right but also forms part of a Fly or Die trilogy that represents a remarkable body of work by anybody’s standards. All three albums are of a consistently high standard and contain some astonishing writing and playing that defies musical categorisation. The Fly or Die catalogue also includes the very welcome bonus of that barnstorming live album.
branch’s music is inseparable from her political beliefs and her left leaning, anti-establishment stance informs both the songs and the instrumentals. Ajemian, Taylor and St. Louis are totally attuned to her vision, this is a band of brothers, led by one sister, that plays with a fierce urgency and with total conviction. Instrumentally each member is a virtuoso, but this is music that is about more than mere technique.
“((world war))” sees branch and Fly or Die exploring new musical territory and despite the fact that none of the band members is a trained singer these are the best vocal performances that the group has recorded. branch and Ajemian sing with an increased assuredness, an improved technical facility, and, again, with total conviction.
Despite branch’s passing “((world war))” feels like an important statement much as the second Fly or Die record did. branch’s message of dissatisfaction with the political status quo allied to her humanitarian concerns and her rallying call for the solidarity of the dispossessed remains as pertinent as ever. But branch’s anger was tempered by a spirit of celebration and a conviction that given the chance humanity could do so much better.
jaimie branch may be gone but the music and the message live on. One of the albums of the year “((world war)) represents essential listening.
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