|Jaimie Branch. Photo by Peter Gannushkin
It’s horrible news that trumpeter and composer Jaimie Branch has died in her home in Red Hook, Brooklyn. She was only 39 years old.
Branch, who was born in Huntington, Long Island, began playing the trumpet at the age of nine and later studied at the New England Conservatory of Music. In her teens, she moved with her family to Chicago and later returned to work there as a musician, promoter and sound engineer in the scene with Jason Ajemian, Tim Daisy and Ken Vandermark, among others. During those years, she formed the trio Princess, Princess (with bassist Toby Summerfield and drummer Frank Rosaly). With Jason Stein, Jeb Bishop and Jason Roebke, she played in Block and Tackle. In 2012, she moved to Baltimore, where she earned a master’s degree in jazz performance from Towson University. During this time, she also founded the record label Pionic Records, releasing her music in vinyl pressings, and performed with her formation Bomb Shelter. Back in New York City, she went on to work with Brandon Lopez, Fred Lonberg-Holm, and Mike Pride, among others. She also participated in recording sessions with independent rock groups but it took her until her thirties before she had her breakthrough with the globally acclaimed Fly Or Die Quartet, which included Chad Taylor (drums), Jason Ajemian (bass), and Lester St. Louis and Tomeka Reid (cello), respectively. “I attempted to put out a couple of records myself and they didn’t really come out, so I had that earlier failure,” Branch said in an interview with the Village Voice. She felt she needed to “live life,” soak up more experience. “So I waited, and I played music, and I got caught up in drugs, and dealt with that but just kept playing.” Her drug issues — precisely her heroin addiction — had been behind her, she said. With Fly Or Die Branch put together rawness and delicacy in such an artful and idiosyncratic way that one could not really find a comparison. The way this extraordinarily intense improviser was capable of spectacular flights of fancy when grounded to the max and handled her instrument was sensational and indeed never heard before. Her energy alternated between minimalist structures, HipHop and punk, song form and collective improvisation.
Anyone who has seen Branch live will never forget her electric presence. How she wandered across the stage and through the audience in her often flowing clothes, a mic in one hand, her trumpet in the other, joking with people. With Fly Or Die, she could rock every house. The band knew how to build up tension, loud passages were always followed by tender moments, sometimes Branch let the compositions implode, only to enter the next free sound field again. She managed to get the audience to sing along without being awkward - few can do that. During the set break at the Mars Williams Ayler Christmas Project concert in Weikersheim in December 2018, she chatted animatedly with a few of us about her dog, smoking like a chimney, possessed with a pure joy for life. Nothing is known about the circumstances of her death at the time of this writing. The news that she has passed away has hit me like a bolt of lightning in the middle of the night. Our thoughts are with her family. The jazz world is poorer today.
Watch her in concert here: