Remembering jaimie branch
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 bassist Jason Ajemian on a version of the Meat Puppets’ “Comin’ Down” (from 1994’s Too High To Die, and 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.
Kurt Rosenwinkel - "The Past Intact"
I confess to ambivalence about Kurt Rosenwinkel’s music. He’s an incredible player, swift and fluid, and he’s made albums with incredible collaborators, from saxophonists Mark Turner and Joshua Redman to Q-Tip (Rosenwinkel played on The Renaissance and Kamaal The Abstract, and Q-Tip co-produced the guitarist’s 2003 album Heartcore). But he makes a lot of terrible decisions, too, like singing, or like playing his guitar through this one particular effect that makes it sound like an electric slide whistle. When he’s on, though, he can be amazing.
Back in 2012, he released Star Of Jupiter, a two-disc studio set featuring pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Justin Faulkner. This album is something of a sequel to that one; it too features Parks and Revis, though Gregory Hutchinson is now occupying the drum chair. The band played a week at the Village Vanguard and went on a brief US tour, playing a new set of music — all seven pieces here are new Rosenwinkel compositions. “The Past Intact” starts with the drummer laying down a crackling swing beat, and when Parks and Revis come in the mood is instantly both light and intense. Rosenwinkel is playing through a pedal that makes his guitar sound a little synthy, but what he’s playing is killer, so it doesn’t matter. This is a fantastic blend of old and new, jazz verities and 21st century rhythmic concepts all bouncing and swirling together. (From Undercover – Live At The Village Vanguard, out now via Heartcore.)
Zoh Amba/Chris Corsano/Bill Orcutt - "What Emptiness Do You Gaze Upon!"
Zoh Amba is the free jazz saxophonist of the moment. She’s from Tennessee and grew up playing saxophone barefoot in the woods, or so the press narrative goes. She also studied with David Murray, and is currently based in New York, making a name for herself on the free jazz scene. She’s recorded with Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Tyshawn Sorey, Ivo Perelman, and John Zorn, and has performed with Luke Stewart and Tcheser Holmes, the bassist and drummer from Irreversible Entanglements. Her sound is that of a young person who hasn’t developed a truly individual voice yet — I can hear echoes of Albert Ayler, of Murray, of Charles Gayle and of David S. Ware. But there’s enough originality in her playing, and more than enough adventure in her choices, to keep me listening. This album is a collaboration between Amba, drummer Chris Corsano (with whom she’d been touring when it was recorded), and guitarist Bill Orcutt. It’s not a total blowout; there are lots of sensitive moments (Amba plays acoustic guitar and flute on it, in addition to tenor sax), though the first track , “What Emptiness Do You Gaze Upon!”, is a high-volume eruption that sounds like the late David S. Ware jamming with Earth. (From The Flower School, out now via Palilalia.)
Jorma Tapio & Bread For Soul - "Saxigon"
I can’t believe it’s been seven years since I traveled to Helsinki for the annual We Jazz festival. In that time, We Jazz has become a truly excellent, adventurous record label — I’ll be reviewing two of their releases in next month’s column — and started putting out an incredible quarterly magazine. Anyway, one of the artists I saw there that year was saxophonist Jorma Tapio, who blends free jazz with Finnish folk music and also spends a lot of time interpreting the music of drummer/composer Edward Vesala. This album, a digital-only release, contains versions of six Vesala compositions, plus one piece by Tapio. “Saxigon” features the saxophonist blowing a long, mantralike line that could have come from Albert Ayler or David S. Ware, as the rest of the band — electric guitarist Jukka Orma, upright bassist Ulf Krokfors, and drummer Ilmari Heikinheimo — roll out a rumbling series of power-chord crescendos. This is absolutely thunderous music, an ideal free jazz/noise-rock combination. (From Jorma Tapio & Bread For Soul, out now via 577 Records.)
Ember - "Angular Saxon"
There aren’t that many musicians who switch back and forth between trumpet and saxophone. Ornette Coleman famously did it, pissing off Miles Davis in the process. These days, Daniel Carter and Joe McPhee do it, but they’re rare exceptions to the norm. Caleb Wheeler Curtis is another player who doubles up in this way; he’s one-third of Ember, a group that also includes bassist Noah Garabedian and drummer Vincent (he’s no longer going by Vinnie, apparently) Sperrazza. Their last album, 2021’s No One Is Any One, featured Orrin Evans on piano, and this one is on Evans’ Imani label. Curtis normally plays alto sax, but here he’s playing the stritch, which is a straight alto that looks more like a soprano; Rahsaan Roland Kirk and David S. Ware played them, but they’re not common instruments. In his hands, it has a warm sound with just a slight Middle Eastern reedy edge, and on “Angular Saxon,” he absolutely goes off, with the bassist and drummer rattling and thumping behind him. This song — not the album as a whole, but this one track — reminds me of Branford Marsalis’s trio disc The Dark Keys, which seems forbidding at first but opens up once you listen to it a few times. The same thing happens here. (From August In March, out now via Imani Records.)
Mad Myth Science - "We Instruments"
Mad Myth Science are a very interesting new quartet from Chicago. The group features Molly Jones on saxophone and flute, Wilson Tanner Smith on cello and harmonica, Ben Zucker on vibes and percussion (and occasional cornet), and Julian Otis on vocals and electronics. They have an AACM-ish quality in that their music is improvised but with a lot of compositional thought behind it — they consider space and dynamics and never just come roaring at you. On “We Instruments,” which kicks off their self-titled debut album, the first thing you hear is Otis laughing, loud and unbothered. Then, as Jones and Zucker and Smith create a droning, rippling, exploratory world of sound, he slips in and out between and around them, softly reciting lines of poetry in an almost Cecil Taylor-ish fashion and then suddenly rising to an operatic height before dropping back into the music again. It’s striking, and unlike anything else you’ll hear this year. Jazz as theatrical art music, without the slightest tinge of preciousness. (From Mad Myth Science, out now via Infrequent Seams.)
Oiro Pena - "Kaiju Kaiju"
Oiro Pena is a spiritual jazz quartet led by drummer Antti Vauhkonen, who started out playing saxophone, then transitioned to electronic music, then became interested in spiritual jazz via krautrock. This group features Johannes Sarjastro on saxophone and flute, Philip Holm on bass, and Staffan Södergård on piano, and vocalist Merikukka Kiviharju sings on four of the album’s seven tracks. “Kaiju Kaiju” (pronounced “kai-oo,” not “kai-joo” like the giant Japanese monsters) is a vamp of the type John Coltrane’s quartet used to play, offering plenty of room for Sarjastro to squawk and wail, and for Kiviharju to sing the incantatory lyrics, which the liner notes claim are sourced from Finnish folk songs. In some ways this music has the same deceptively simple quality as what Don Cherry was doing in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when he was in Sweden living in a disused schoolhouse or a geodesic dome and making music with local players and their kids. It’s jazz, but with a somewhat hippie-ish, dreamlike quality. (From Puna, out now via We Are Busy Bodies.)
Mat Maneri Quartet - "Glimmer"
Viola player Mat Maneri has carved out a unique position within jazz and improvised music since the ’90s. His playing often explores microtonal frequencies which sound just slightly off, like the innately wavering quality of bowed strings has been amped up just a little. But his sense of melody and his feel for collaboration are always extraordinarily strong. Here, he’s working with pianist Lucian Ban, with whom he’s made several duo records, and bassist John Hébert and drummer Randy Peterson, with whom he’s recorded and performed for decades. This is the second disc in a planned trilogy, following 2019’s Dust. It’s soft, gentle music that brings a hush to the room it’s played in; on “Glimmer,” Maneri sounds like he’s feeling his way around, learning the song (and possibly the viola) as he goes, while Ban takes off on his own journey and the bassist and drummer create a rumble and rattle that supports both men at once. (From Ash, out now via Sunnyside.)
Johnathan Blake - "Passage"
Drummer Johnathan Blake’s father was a violinist who played with McCoy Tyner, Archie Shepp, Grover Washington, Jr. and others. Watching his dad, the younger Blake learned music, but also how to become part of a community and make a life as an artist. This album’s cover is a photo of father and son, and the title track was written by Blake senior. It’s performed by the drummer’s band Pentad, featuring some of today’s most interesting players: alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, vibraphonist Joel Ross, keyboardist David Virelles, and bassist Dezron Douglas. Blake is a great, light-on-his-feet drummer who can deliver anything a leader needs — I’ve seen him with organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, and with saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, as well as leading his own band, and he’s always right where he needs to be. On “Passage,” he’s playing with tremendous energy for nearly 10 minutes. No matter whether Wilkins is heading for the sky or Virelles is throwing in a sudden burst of Cecil Taylor-ish dissonance, Blake supports them, and then brings the rhythm home when it’s time to play the melody again. (From Passage, out now via Blue Note.)
Blankfor.ms/Jason Moran/Marcus Gilmore - "Inward, Curve"
This three-way studio collaboration between pianist Jason Moran, electronic musician Blankfor.ms, and drummer Marcus Gilmore is a fascinating experiment that will confound almost every expectation a listener might bring to it. Most of the tracks are simply called “Tape Loop” A, B, C or D (with three variations each of B and C), and they chop up the music into collages with all the edges visible. Some others, like “Affectionate, Painful,” are suspenseful ambient interludes featuring Moran’s piano floating in a sea of electronic hums and whistles. “Inward, Curve” is one of the more straightforward pieces, with Moran exploring a nice, romantic melody and Gilmore laying down a crisp, thumping beat. But Blankfor.ms is always at work disrupting and sidetracking the music, letting shimmering waves of electronic tone waft through. This will challenge your notion of what jazz is, of how composition works, and much more. In some ways it reminds me of the beat-driven experiments Matthew Shipp undertook on his early-2000s albums for the Thirsty Ear label’s Blue Series, but newer technology allows these three to go even farther out. (From Refract, out now via Red Hook.)
Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band - "Until We Meet Again"
Drummer Brian Blade has been leading his Fellowship Band for 25 years; their debut album came out in 1998. The lineup included saxophonists Myron Walden and Melvin Butler, pianist Jon Cowherd, bassist Christopher Thomas, and guitarist Jeff Parker. Everyone but Parker is still with the group today — on Kings Highway, which is their sixth studio album and their first since 2017, Kurt Rosenwinkel is on guitar. (They’ve also recently released a live album, recorded in June 2000.)
Blade is a fantastic drummer, originally from New Orleans and very capable of mustering that city’s parade rhythms and sidewalk-cracking funk as easily as he can lay down a gentle jazz groove or take off on wild flights of improvisation. I’ve heard him on record with Joshua Redman (he’s on all of my favorite Redman albums, in fact), with Chick Corea, in a beautiful trio with cornet player Ron Miles and guitarist Bill Frisell that expanded to a quintet with the addition of pianist Jason Moran and bassist Thomas Morgan, with Mark Turner, and with Kenny Garrett, and he’s recorded with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell as well. I saw him live with Wayne Shorter in about 2010 and was stunned by his willingness to go into full-on abstraction, and at the same time call the band to order with a single snare hit so loud it was like the ceiling caving in.
The music on Kings Highway blends jazz improvisation with folk-rooted songwriting and a rock band’s sense of dynamics. “Until We Meet Again” starts slow, drifting in on a pillow of gentle piano and guitar, with just the occasional feathered kick drum hit, but then, just around the two-minute mark, Blade lets the beat roll out and Cowherd adds a dash of organ, Rosenwinkel’s guitar asserts itself slightly, and the horns begin to harmonize, and now we’ve got ourselves a song, dammit. Nobody’s soloing, they’re just floating around each other, sustaining the mood. (From Kings Highway, out now via Stoner Hill.)