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Friday, September 10, 2021

Jaimie Branch - Fly Or Die Live (International Anthem, 2021) *****

By Martin Schray

When someone does something unusual, critics immediately try to pigeonhole it and hardly anywhere are unfamiliar sounds so quickly and crudely labeled as in jazz, a genre which is actually based on improvisation and freedom. Jaimie Branch’s band Fly Or Die has been one of the most talked-about projects in recent years and very quickly the media called their music punk-jazz. That’s okay for Branch, in an interview with the German weekly “ZEIT“ she said that she used to be a punk rocker and that she appreciated the love in this kind of music. However, some people envied her immediate success. After her first appearance in Germany, at Jazzfest Berlin, she entered the stage in a tracksuit in November 2018, only to thoroughly rouse the more contemplative part of the audience with her trumpet. Thereupon, some critics - all male, by the way - nagged about her scruffy, sloppy tone. It didn’t occur to them that this might be intentional.

Her latest album Fly Or Die Live breathes this exact Berlin gig spirit. It’s a concert recording, one-and-a-half hours, from the Moods jazz club in Zurich, recorded on January 23, 2020, shortly before the music world shut down due to Covid. When she hit the stage like a rapper, she nervously rearranged her base cap, announced that the band was going to play just one 90-minute set instead of two shorter ones, and encouraged the audience to yell, shout, applaud or get drinks because they were "not one of those quiet bands." The Fly Or Die band of the Zurich evening are Branch (trumpet, vocals, vibraslap), Lester St. Louis (cello, vocals, tiny cymbal), Jason Ajemian (bass, vocals, egg-shakers) and Chad Taylor (drums, vocals, mbira).

Fly or Die Live is like a summary of the band’s two studio albums, dipped into the intensity of a live show. At the beginning, the musicians takes their time. Chad Taylor plays a long intro on the mbira, the sub-Saharan thumb piano that originally was used to help connect with ancestors during ceremonies. It’s like the evocation of a paradisiacal state from which one has been expelled. The sound is bouncy and soft, multi-layered; it opens the ears. It takes three minutes for the trumpet to appear. Branch’s sounds is warm and full. She plays brightly and fast, the restrained reverberation almost reminds me of Miles and Chet Baker. Yes, she can play like this as well, but she also has her signature sound. And this becomes clear in the next piece, when the whole thing tips over. “Prayer for Amerikkka Parts 1&2“ certainly is Branch's most important piece, an angry blues in which she screams out all her anger, as on the studio version, sometimes her voice even flipped that night. The trumpet riffs here range from heart-felt blues melodies to improvisations over Phrygian chords, bridging the gap to Mexican mariachis. And, of course, this is a musical commentary on the situation in the U.S.A. under Donald Trump. How could you play that with a clinically pure, nice and beautiful trumpet sound? This has to be dirty, and that’s the Jaimie Branch style. Then again, to bring her playing to the one point is difficult. Sometimes it’s wide-meshed, sometimes snappy, her compositions sound always up-to-date. “To have a good sound, you always have to sound good,“ she says in the ZEIT interview. "I spent a lot of time playing long tones, and I still do. I love resonance and fullness. But there can't be 2500 John Coltranes. To me, that sounds hollow. If someone plays like Albert Ayler, it doesn't mean they sound like Albert Ayler." That's why it has been important to her to find her own voice, to formulate her vocabulary - and she’s definitely done that. Moreover, she benefits from her band, which colors her sketches. They provide an elastic-drifting rhythm carpet on which Branch’s melodies can fly, whether it’s on more contemplative pieces like “Waltzer“ or tightly knit numbers like “Leaves of Glass“.

The set closes with three longer pieces around the seven-minute-mark. Here they simply rock the house and once again keep the promise from the beginning that they are not a quiet band. The audience even sings along at the end in "Love Song" - all that feels very natural, it’s not embarrassing at all. And for a last time Branch’s trumpet is delightfully unclean, she enjoys being very slightly off-key.

Coming back to labels: Her approach might be a bit punk-like, but it also draws a lot of hiphop’s energy. But why categorizing her? She’s just a great musician. One of jazz’s rising stars, that’s for sure.

Fly Or Die Live is available on vinyl (it’ll be released soon), as a CD and a download. You can listen to the album and buy it here: