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jaimie branch

Fly or Die II; bird dogs of paradise

by Ian Mann

November 11, 2019


Fuses brilliant jazz musicianship with a raw punk energy in a way that ends up sounding totally unique. “Fly or Die II” has the feeling of a major personal and political statement.

Jaimie Branch

“Fly or Die II; bird dogs of paradise

(International Anthem IARC0027)

Jaimie Branch – trumpet, voice, synths, sneaker squeaks, bells and whistles
Lester St. Louis – cello, Jason Ajemian- double bass, percussion, vocals, Chad Taylor – drums, mbira, xylophone

Ban Lamar Gay, Marvin Tate – voices (track 2) Matt Schneider – 12 string guitar (track 2), Dan Bitney – percussion, synthesiser (track 8), Scott McNiece – egg (track 8)

New York based trumpeter and composer Jaimie Branch made a big impression with her 2017 début album “Fly or Die”, a recording that found its way onto the ‘Best of Year’ lists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Now aged thirty six Branch has spent time in New York, Chicago and Baltimore and has been involved in the music scenes of all three cities, playing everything from free jazz to punk rock. She has performed with leading cutting edge jazz musicians in both New York and Chicago, among them saxophonists Matana Roberts and Ken Vandermark, bassists Tim Daisy and William Parker and drummers Jason Nazary (the duo Anteloper) and Hamid Drake. She has also led her own rock group, Bomb Shelter, and worked as a sidewoman with a number of alternative rock bands, among them Atlas Math.

The first “Fly or Die” album 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.

The success of Branch’s début led to extensive touring, including a first visit to Europe. Branch’s itinerary included a visit to London during the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival that included a residency at Café Oto. Much of the music for this new album was written on the tour and during her time in London Branch and her band entered the studios at Total Refreshment Centre where seven of the nine tracks on this recording were documented. The remaining two pieces were captured at Oto. Editing and overdubbing later took place in Chicago, and this is presumably where the guest musicians added their contributions.

“Fly or Die II” , released on the Chicago based label International Anthem, features a core quartet of Branch, Ajemian and Taylor, with Lester St. Louis taking over from Reid on cello. In addition to her trumpet playing Branch also adds synthesiser and other electronic effects and also makes her vocal début on record.

Branch, whose lineage is part Latino, is a politically informed musician with a healthy distaste for the current state of affairs in US politics and American society as a whole. There’s a punk like anger and intensity about much of the music here with Branch remarking;
“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”.

The album commences with “Birds of Paradise” and the strummed and plucked sounds of cello, bass and mbira, creating a series of hypnotic, interlocking rhythms. Branch eventually joins the proceedings, sketching woozy, fragile trumpet melodies above the minimalist patterns. Other elements are also added, including wispy flute like sounds, presumably generated by Branch’s synths and other electronic devices. This opening piece is credited to Branch/St. Louis/Ajemian/Taylor, suggesting that it was freely improvised. It’s one of two items recorded during the Café Oto sessions

The effective and atmospheric opener acts as a kind of overture for the incendiary “Prayer for AmeriKKKa Part 1 & 2”, a near twelve minute epic that arguably represents the album’s centre piece. Note the spelling as Branch, the vocalist, rails against the “bunch of wide eyed racists” at the heart of the American political system. Branch has also described her country’s political elite as “liars and thieves”, and this track pulls no punches about telling you exactly what she feels and where she stands. “This is not my America” she has said. Musically the piece is as powerful as the message, a slow, down- tuned blues that advances in the implacable manner of a funeral march. Guests LaMar Gay and Tate answer her vocal lines in the manner of Danny Richmond on Charles’ Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus”, and Branch’s piece can be seen as an updating of that message, and of that of Archie Shepp too. Branch’s trumpeting is a clarion call that cuts through the underpinning rhythms like a scythe, and her singing is as impassioned as her playing. She may not be a trained singer but her vocalising is extremely effective and conveys her message more than adequately. “This is a warning honey, they’re coming for you”.

The apocalyptic “Prayer” is followed by “Lesterlude”, a brief but intense passage of solo improvised cello from St. Louis that features both bowed and plucked sounds.

“Twenty- Three n me, Jupiter Redux” commences with the throb of a synthesiser, quickly joined by the sound of St. Louis’ cello. The rest of the band then jump in with Branch doubling on trumpet and synths. The buoyant,  propulsive grooves and the almost celebratory theme present a band positively fizzing with energy. This is subsequently waylaid by a squalling free jazz episode that itself shades off into atmospheric, electronically enhanced abstraction, before seguing into the jointly credited improvisation “Whales”, largely a feature for Ajemian’s pizzicato bass.

It’s Ajemian that introduces “Simple Silver Surfer”, his plucked bass subsequently joined by St. Louis’ plucked cello, the pair later joined by Taylor’s rolling drum grooves. Again there’s a veritable forest of interlocking rhythms through which Branch’s trumpet cuts a bravura swathe. Once more there’s a feeling of joyousness about this music, alongside her righteous anger Branch’s music is also a celebration of alternative life styles. The track is also something of a showcase for bassist Ajemian, who features strongly as a soloist and is a commanding presence throughout.

“Bird Dogs of Paradise” is another improvised episode, this time featuring the grainy, droning arco sounds of cello and bass, eventually joined by the rolling thunder of drums. Taylor’s contribution evolves into a full on drum feature, augmented by the vocal howls of Branch and Ajemian, the “Bird Dogs of Paradise”.

This segues into the exuberant “Nuevo Roquero Estereo”, the title presumably a nod to Branch’s Colombian roots.  This is the second piece that was recorded at Oto, but in this case a degree of post production was added in Chicago. Again there’s a dense rhythmic backdrop, a veritable forest of sound enhanced by additional percussion, synth, the mysterious egg and excited vocal whoops. The post production techniques impart a certain ‘dubbiness’ to the music, with Branch’s horn soaring above it all, surfing the wave with her punchy, incantatory trumpeting.

The closing “Love Song” is subtitled “for Assholes and Clowns”. Apparently it was written more than a decade ago, but suddenly seems to have acquired a contemporary relevance and resonance, I can’t think why, can you? Branch sings the lyric with her tongue firmly in her cheek, but hers’ is a savage humour, and this is reflected in both the singing and the playing, which becomes more intense and unhinged as the piece progresses. Branch overdubs herself on trumpet and vocals and there’s a degree of electronic manipulation, but there are still traces of Mingus and Shepp in the music here.

I’ve yet hear the first “Fly or Die” album, but I have to say that I love this new recording. Of course the fact that it was recorded in London gives it an extra resonance to British listeners, but it’s a stunning work in any event.

“Fly or Die II” fuses brilliant jazz musicianship with a raw punk energy in a way that ends up sounding totally unique. Branch has stated that she places more importance on ‘sound’ as opposed to technique, but there’s some stunning playing here, not least from the leader. Crucially it doesn’t sound gratuitous or forced, the players deploying their formidable chops in the service of the music. And for all the skill involved there’s still an agreeable edge and roughness to the sound, with the leader’s trumpet playing exhibiting a rare attacking intensity. Branch herself is a force of nature, whether vocally or on the trumpet, and there’s a real sense of danger about her music, a frisson that is rarely applicable to jazz these days. Her political sentiments will chime with left leaning people all over the globe; here in the UK we have our own “wide eyed racists” and “assholes and clowns”.

But this album is not just about anger, when Branch isn’t venting her spleen the music takes on an irrepressible joyousness, albeit one still underpinned by a sense of injustice and ‘otherness’. “Fly or Die II” has the feeling of a major personal and political statement.

Vivid and angry Branch’s music has a real punk spirit about it and her music deserves to be heard by a wide audience, not just hard core jazz and improv fans. This is music with enough bite and crackle to appeal adventurous rock listeners and Branch’s previous excursions into this world may help to encourage this. She has also worked with DJs and MCs as she endeavours to get her message across to a contemporary audience.

I was sorry to have missed Branch’s Oto residency but have heard great things about it from those that were there, among them one time Jazzmann contributor Tim Owen.

The success of the Oto shows has led to the return of Branch for the 2019 EFG London Jazz Festival. This time she, together with St. Louis, Ajemian and Taylor, will be playing a single date at the Church of Sound in Clapton on Friday November 22nd 2019 as part of a European tour. Although its been scheduled for some time it represents a late addition to the Festival programme and once again I will have to miss out as I am already committed to covering another event elsewhere. Having enjoyed this album so much I have to say that this does come as something of a disappointment. Still, I hope one day to see Jaimie Branch performing her music live. The UK clearly holds a special place in her heart and her band would be a natural fit for the Parabola Arts Centre programme at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, hint, hint.

Details of Jaimie Branch’s European tour dates including the London show can be found at

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