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jaimie branch

Fly or Die Live

by Ian Mann

May 26, 2022


Branch’s music embraces both anger and hope, protest and celebration. Defiantly left wing in political terms it also transcends musical boundaries as free jazz rubs shoulders with the punk aesthetic.

Jaimie Branch

“Fly or Die Live”

(International Anthem IARC 0041)

Jaimie Branch – trumpet, vocals, vibraslap, Lester St. Louis – cello, vocals, tiny cymbal, Jason Ajemian – bass, vocals, egg shakers, Chad Taylor – drums, mbira

One of my favourite releases of 2019 was “Fly or Die II (bird dogs of paradise)” the second album in the series of the same name from the American trumpeter, vocalist, composer and bandleader Jaimie Branch.

The album mixed jazz technique and aesthetics with a punk like energy to create a unique music that was also highly politically informed, a kind of 21st century updating of Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp and the Fire Music of the 1960s.

Fly or Die is a band name as well as an album title and this latest recording captures the current edition of the band performing live at the Moods venue in Zurich, Switzerland on 23rd January 2020, a couple of months before the global Covid lockdowns started to hit.

This live double album was actually released a year ago, in May 2021, but it took a while for it to get to me, and even longer for me to get round to writing about it. For all the delays the urgency of Branch’s mission remains undimmed, the time is still very much now.

The programme features material from both the previous “Fly or Die” albums, the first having released to great critical acclaim in 2017, finding its way onto the ‘Best of Year’ lists on both sides of the Atlantic.

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,  Keefe Jackson, James Brandon Lewis and Ken Vandermark, bassists Tim Daisy, Luke Stewart and William Parker,cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummers Jason Nazary (in the duo Anteloper), Mike Pride, Frank Rosaly 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.

“Fly or Die II” 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 has 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 is 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’s a punk like anger and intensity about much of her music 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 live album features Branch on voice as well as trumpet and she sings with a raw power and passion. She may not be a trained singer but her vocalising is extremely incisive and effective and conveys her message more than adequately.

The album commences with a sequence of tracks from “Fly or Die II”, beginning with the atmospheric “birds of paradise” (all Branch’s tune titles are in lower case) which features Taylor playing mbira and creating a hypnotic lattice of interlocking melody and rhythm. Branch subsequently adds trumpet to the proceedings, wispy and melodic, but also brooding and hinting at a hidden power.

This acts as kind of ‘overture’ for the epic “prayer for amerikkka pt. 1 & 2”. A smattering of audience applause marks the demarcation line between the two tracks as Ajemian and St. Louis enter the proceedings. Note the spelling of the title as in part one Branch rails against the “wide eyed racists” that have infiltrated the American political system. Part 2 tells the tale of a refugee from Central America who is separated from her family and terrorised by the US government. “This is a warning Honey, they’re coming for you” cautions Branch. Musically the piece is just as powerful as the message, a slow, down- tuned blues that advances in the implacable manner of a funeral march, with Branch’s brutally incisive trumpeting a banshee like wail. Ajemian and St. Louis act as her vocal foils, filling the roles occupied on the original recording by Gay and Marvin Tate. The vocal exchanges are reminiscent of those between Charles Mingus and Dannie Richmond on “Fables of Faubus”. It’s a magnificent musical updating, but sadly the political message remains just as relevant in the 2020s as it was in 1959. This performance of “prayer for amerikkka” was recorded just four months before the killing of George Floyd.

“prayer for amerikkka” segues into “lesterlude”, a solo feature for cellist St. Louis that finds him continuing the mood of the previous piece with his vigorous bowing, plucking and striking of the strings. Although always scheduled at the same point in the performance this is an episode that is primarily improvised and therefore subtly different every night.

St. Louis then sets up the groove for “twenty three n me jupiter redux”, at first distinguished by its buoyant propulsive grooves, but which subsequently mutates into a dizzying free jazz squall. This then segues into the previously unrecorded (and therefore presumably improvised) “reflections on a broken sea”, with the sounds of bowed cello and bass, plus the leader’s trumpet, weaving hypnotic melodic patterns above the patter of Taylor’s drums. There’s a suggestion of live looping techniques being deployed, but I wouldn’t be categorical about this. This section slides naturally into “whales”, a brief solo improvisation featuring Ajemian’s bowed bass. Taylor joins him in dialogue and then establishes the groove for “theme 001”, the first selection from the début “Fly or Die” album. The drummer displays a formidable energy as he powers a piece that features plucked bass and cello plus Branch’s incendiary trumpeting. It’s a rhythmic juggernaut of a piece that elicits whoops of approval from the Swiss crowd.

Eventually the storm that is “theme 001” blows itself out and segues into the brief “...meanwhile”, a short improvised episode from Taylor, with the drummer revealing a different side to his playing, now playing the role of colourist as he develops his solo. Eventually he’s joined by Ajemian to set up the double pronged rhythmic attack that characterises “theme 002”, also from the début album. The propulsive lattice of rhythms gives room for Branch to soar and fly, before the whole band come back to earth with the brief “sun tines”, which concludes the first disc. Mbira is featured again and there’s a passage of mournful solo trumpet from Branch that acts as a kind of “Last Post”.  At first I thought this may have ended the first set in Zurich, but now I’m less sure as Disc Two seems to pretty much pick up where this leaves off.

The second disc commences with the atmospherics of “leaves of glass”, a piece from the début album. Branch’s introductory trumpet passage is subjected to echo effects, which help to enhance the drama of the music.  Bowed strings and Taylor’s drums and cymbals are subsequently added to a piece that continues to develop in terms of power and grandeur, before subtly subsiding once more, only to erupt again as the music segues into “the storm”, also from the first album. This features some extraordinary arco sounds from bass and cello while Branch’s trumpet is subjected subtle elements of electronic manipulation. This segues into “waltzer”, the final tune in this sequence of three from “Fly or Die 1”. A languid bass pulse heralds a gentler piece with Taylor providing a soft but colourful drum commentary as Branch plays long melody lines on atmospheric muted trumpet. The music gradually gathers momentum in terms of both power and drama, the band’s command of dynamics is exceptional throughout the album as they effortlessly move between louder and quieter moments.

The mbira returns on “slip tider”, a short improvised section featuring Ajemian’s virtuoso bass plucking that introduces another segue of songs from “Fly or Die II”. As its title suggests it provides the intro for “simple silver surfer”, one of Branch’s most upbeat, celebratory tunes with its New Orleans inspired rolling grooves, above which Branch’s trumpet cuts a joyous swathe. St. Louis also impresses on plucked cello and again there are shouts of enthusiasm from both band and audience. This segues into “bird dogs of paradise”, which is introduced by a free jazz episode featuring the exchanges of trumpet, drums and bowed strings, these becoming ever more animated before evolving into a drum feature for Taylor. Again the enthusiasm of both the band and audience is palpable, with Taylor’s feature metamorphosing into the similarly joyous “nuevo roquero estereo”, with its infectious grooves and bravura trumpeting, with Branch’s horn again subject to some judicious echo effects. Taylor’s drumming is positively thunderous and one section features him at the kit while the other band members wield various items of percussion. It’s a vibrant,  highly energetic performance that once again evokes a vociferous response from the crowd.

Branch introduces the band before launching into “love song” from “Fly or Die II”. Subtitled “assholes and clowns” the piece finds Branch doubling on trumpet and vocals and also features the remarkable pizzicato cello playing of St. Louis. Branch even manages to get the Swiss audience to sing along, they even carry on after the band stop playing, prompting Fly or Die to erupt into “theme nothing” from their first album. An infectious bass and drum groove forms the basis for a series of exchanges between St. Louis’ bowed cello and Branch’s trumpet, the latter again treated to a little sonic manipulation. It’s a dazzling, high energy way to round off an incendiary performance that has been both a condemnation of the powers that be and a celebration of the alternative lifestyle. Branch’s music embraces both anger and hope, protest and celebration. Defiantly left wing in political terms it also transcends musical boundaries as free jazz rubs shoulders with the punk aesthetic. Fly or Die’s music is capable of appealing to a broad fan base and has won her a strong following, particularly in Europe.

Branch considers the music of the two Fly or Die albums to constitute a suite, hence the largely unbroken nature of her live performances, as documented here. It’s an approach that also finds it way onto the studio albums.

I’d only heard “Fly or Die II” so I was delighted to acquaint myself with the material from the début, especially with the added frisson of live performance. I’ve missed out on seeing Branch performing live on her occasional visits to London, one day I hope to put that right. In the meantime there is this magnificent live recording to enjoy, the energy is palpable and one can only envy the good people of Zurich who were there on the night.  “I think this is like the best that we’ve ever played”,  says Branch. She’ll get no argument from me. The “Fly or Die” series represents essential listening.

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