Jaimie Branch – Fly or Die (2017)

Fly or Die is a bold announcement — a variation of the battle cry ‘go big or go home’ — and the exciting up-and-coming trumpet player/composer Jaimie Branch flat out flies for her audacious debut album now out on International Anthem Recording Co.

Branch spends time in New York now but the music presented here bears all the hallmarks of the finest from Chicago’s progressive jazz scene she’s long been a part of, such as Ken Vandermark, Nicole Mitchell, Rob Mazurek and Fred Anderson. More than anything, Fly or Die feels like a Harrison Bankhead record with its eccentric blend of free jazz, RnB, and calypso, but with more wrinkles that come largely from Branch’s classical and indie rock backgrounds.

Branch does not announce herself in any way conventional: the “Jump Off” is her salutation, a sixteen second noteless blow into the horn à la Natsuki Tamura. “Theme 001” unveils the rest of the band, all connected to the unconventional Chicago scene: Tomeka Reid (cello), Jason Ajemian (bass) and Chad Taylor (drums). “001” is the perhaps the funkiest groove that ever involved a cello but the other immediately noticeable thing is Branch’s piercing trumpet; it slices right through the rhythm section and takes charge. Things settles down into the free form segue “…meanwhile,” enjoined by Matt Schneider’s acoustic guitar (which sounds a bit odd but really cool in this setting).

“Theme 002” also sports a tidy groove but in an Afro-Caribbean way and Branch mutters her way through her plunged brass that seems to evoke Bubber Miley and Miles Davis at once, then dispensing with the plunger and diving into the pocket with abandon. Ajemian and Reid harmonize together on the thematic line, giving the song a distinctively tropical flavor.

“Leaves of Glass” begins with the same vamp that ended “Theme 002” and turned it into a majestic, classical motif whereby Branch is joined by the cornets of Ben Lamar Gray and Josh Berman, an astonishing display of both the breadth and depth of Branch’s artistic reach. “The Storm” is created by the bowed, dropping chords of Reid and Ajemian and the rolling thunder of Taylor’s toms. Branch ekes out a lonely melody amidst all this dissonance. But midway through, the storm turns into an eerie calm, one that continues straight into “Waltzer,” where a waltz does eventually emerge and Reid’s cello converses wistfully with Ajemian. Branch jumps in and takes flight on a sublime soliloquy (“Fly or Die”).

The energy returns on the frenetic “Theme Nothing,” where Reid and Taylor seem to egg Branch on to elevated heights and Schneider returns for the brief solo acoustic guitar performance “…back at the ranch” that serves as the album’s coda.

In thirty-five short minutes, Jaimie Branch said a lot about what she’s offering to the realm of outward-bound jazz. If Fly or Die is only her Chapter One, I can hardly wait to hear the rest of this book.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron