Trumpeter jaimie branch died one year ago this week, on August 22, 2022. The news hit the younger, hipper quarters of the jazz scene like a sledgehammer to the sternum. She’d already been on the scene for 15 years or more, but had really started to make an impact with the 2017 release of her first album under her own name, Fly Or Die. The album, which laid clarion-call trumpet lines atop thick grooves courtesy of bassist cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Jason Ajemian, and drummer Chad Taylor, was old and new at once. The band’s playing reminded me of the work of Julius Hemphill, and Branch herself had some of the abstraction of Bill Dixon, but she was much more in-your-face than he ever was. I chose Fly Or Die as the best jazz album of 2017, and I stand by that.
She kept the Fly Or Die band together, with just one change — Tomeka Reid left, and was replaced by Lester St. Louis — and released a second album, Fly Or Die II: Bird Dogs Of Paradise, in October 2019. They began touring the world to ecstatic response from jazz fans, indie rock fans, and people who simply didn’t place boundaries around their tastes. She also launched a second project, the electronic duo Anteloper. The quartet recorded a live album in Switzerland on January 23, 2020, but the tour was ultimately abbreviated thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eventually, the world began to return to life, and Branch got back to work. She got a grant that allowed the band to go back on the road, and then a residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska, where the band convened for a week at the end of April 2022 to record new material. In late July, she went to Chicago to edit and mix the record and add some additional instruments. And then in August, she was gone. But the record was almost complete, so her family, led by her sister Kate, in whose Brooklyn apartment the first Fly Or Die album was recorded, and the other three band members got together to put the finishing touches on it. Now it’s here.
Fly Or Die Fly Or Die Fly Or Die ((World War)) is an amazing record. Bird Dogs Of Paradise expanded the group’s boundaries, with Branch emerging as a compelling and poetic vocalist and lyricist while remaining a powerhouse trumpeter. This time, her singing is even better; she harmonizes with herself on a version of the Meat Puppets’ “Comin’ Down” (from 1994’s Too High To Die, retitled “The Mountain” here) that will seriously bring tears to your eyes, while the album’s next-to-last track, “Take Over The World,” is a churning folk-punk eruption, with Branch repeating the phrases “gonna take over the world” and “give it back to the land” like mantras as St. Louis and Ajemian bow and slap their instruments and whoop with righteous fury behind her. But this is far from a stripped-down set of music. The arrangements are lush and carefully constructed, with additional instruments (flute, trombone, bass clarinet, marimba, timpani, conga and other percussion), some played by the group members and others by guests filling out the sound and making it the biggest, most colorful canvas Branch and her collaborators ever got to play with.
Jason Ajemian knew Branch for two decades. They collaborated in many projects before Fly Or Die, some of which were recorded and many of which weren’t. These days, he lives in Alaska and works as a bush pilot (no, really). I called him up to talk about this music and his memories of his friend.
“I kind of met Jamie when she was getting out of high school, essentially,” he recalled. “Then she went to the New England Conservatory, but we hit it off…we were pretty tight from the get-go and just kind of kindred spirits. My thing in Chicago, when I lived there, I had weekly gigs. I had a weekly gig at an artist residence or an art gallery that I curated. I started a weekly gig with Jeff Parker and this drummer Noritaka Tanaka…I just constantly went through weekly gigs. When they’d fall apart, I’d get different ones at different bars because it was like rehearsal, you know, and a handful of them were successful. And when I left, moved in 2008 to New York, I pretty much handed all that off to Jamie because she was she was the hustler, you know.”
Beginning in the mid-2000s, they played on numerous records together, including Ajemian’s own 2008 album The Art Of Dying, released on Delmark. “That [arose out of] a weekly gig that me, the drummer Noritaka Tanaka and a sax player [Tim Haldeman], did a weekly coffee shop gig on Sunday mornings, and Jaimie played on that. Not all the time, but if the sax player was gone, she subbed.” She joined his band Who Cares How Long You Sink; they played together in composer Toby Summerfield’s large ensemble Never Enough Hope; she formed the band Musket, with Ajemian on bass, Summerfield on guitar, and two drummers. “And then we had a weekly gig at this bar called the Skylark with her, guitar player Matt Schneider, Frank Rosaly was on drums and [bassist] Matthew Lux…I feel like I’m probably missing a lot and I’m probably missing the ones that neither of us led.”
In 2021, Branch got a $40,000 grant from South Arts’ Jazz Road program to fund the making of her third album, and a residency at the Bemis Center. The money enabled Fly Or Die to tour the US and Europe in early 2022; according to Ajemian, “We ended [the US tour] in Big Ears, and then we went to Europe like a few days later and toured for a week and a half or two weeks in Europe. And then we had like a week before we met down in Omaha.” They had spent two days rehearsing before the US tour launched, and played two nights in New York at the beginning of the trip. “So we kind of went over all the new material and, you know, workshopped it for a couple of days and then just played it, you know. Went on the road and developed it and we kind of got all the kinks worked out.”
“We had a week, I believe, or five days in the studio in Omaha,” he recalled. “Most of the tracks were kind of one take. ‘The Mountain’ was, I know ‘Burning Gray’ was, the whole beginning [‘Aurora Rising’ and ‘Borealis Dancing’] and all that, that was something we didn’t play on the tour. She kind of had that and sort of wrote it while we were there. I mean, I guess it tends to be that way with the jazz music or…when you’re tracking live, it’s like, we don’t do too many takes. If the energy is there, you know it’s there, you know?” Branch wasn’t satisfied with just laying down hot band performances, though. “We did, you know, a lot of overdubbing. Jaimie had the Omaha Symphony gave us timpanis and mbiras, and we learned that Lester plays flute, but we should know he plays every instrument,” Ajemian said with a laugh.
I asked him what he thought her intentions and goals were with the record. He replied, “Well, she definitely wanted things to hit. She wanted the energy heavier and…you know, Jaimie kind of wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s a very passionate, very expressive person. I guess the best thing I can say [is] she was out here last August and she was asking me all these questions about the record and what to do and blah, blah, blah and all this stuff. And I was just like, J, you — she embodied herself on this record, to me. Like, one, her interests are all over the map. There’s no music she doesn’t like — didn’t like, you know. And would go at that like, kind of like a chameleon. You know, she could get in with a country band. She could get in with any band that is dealing with music and walk in there and make those people feel good about what they’re doing and elevate whatever situation she’s in. That’s just who she was and to me, it’s hard to think about, but like, [I remember] sitting by the river with her here and just being like, ‘Yo, you are you now. Like, this album, you can do whatever the hell you want to do with it because you’re you — like, you’ve stepped into your voice.’”
He shifted between past and present tense repeatedly during our conversation, and his voice broke more than once. It was clear to me that for him, she was very much still a presence in his life, and as our conversation wound down, he said as much. “I miss her all the time, and I miss just…the…like, as a friend of hers who’s been in it with her, you know, through all the struggles of 20 years. Like, I started running the merch table, you know, so that she could talk to people and…people adored her, you know? We would play and people were like, What the fuck just happened to us? And who the hell is this person?
“And so for me, I was kinda like a little bit of a big brother in a way. Like, you see your family getting that recognition and…I can’t express the amount of how much joy that brought me, just to see people look at her in a way that was incredible, and so there’s that. But then the missing part, that part makes me overwhelmingly sad sometimes. And to hear the record and know this record’s coming out and that isn’t going to happen again, it’s like, you know, it’s tragic, it’s depressing. Like, life is a motherfucker, no doubt. But then the majority of the time I just am…it’s like, she’s not gone. She’s just not here right now, you know?
“I have moments. I mean today I was flying a bunch of people from Spain, and they didn’t really speak English, and it’s loud in the plane…and I go past the spot that me and Jaimie flew past, and I think about her. I’m not talking to anybody, so I’m sort of having a conversation with her…I don’t know. I guess in certain ways it’s different because she was young and there was so much she had to do and that we had to do together. But it’s almost like…my father’s passed. But I think about him all the time, [and] I’m still sharing my life with him, even though he doesn’t get to see it, you know.”
Fly Or Die Fly Or Die Fly Or Die ((World War)) is coming out under tragic circumstances. Hearing jaimie branch talk about this music and what it meant to her, and seeing her perform it with her brilliant collaborators, would have been fantastic. But it’s much more than a memorial to her. It’s the capstone of a phenomenal body of work (including all three studio discs and the fierce and high-flying live album), which brought avant-garde jazz to new listeners and vice versa. More than anything else it’s an album filled with joy, even exultation. Fly Or Die II: Bird Dogs Of Paradise was a dark record; this one is a celebratory blast of punk jazz energy, one of the most vibrantly alive collections of music I’ve heard all year. Listen to it, and remember jaimie branch as a shooting star who passed by too quickly.