Trumpeter Jaimie Branch was raised in Wilmette and moved to Chicago in summer 2001, just before moving to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory of Music—but she didn’t make her debut on the jazz scene here till she took a semester off after her third year to recover from a gallbladder issue. The 21-year-old spent the last half of 2004 in Chicago, and in short order she established herself as a force to be reckoned with, her knowledge and chops impressing musicians many years her senior.
“She struck me as very energetic and interested in all of the right music,” says reedist Keefe Jackson. “She always had a quick opinion on the free jazz and improvised music we were all checking out, and many earlier styles as swell. She was listening like crazy, it seemed, and she was a real sponge.”
While at NEC, Branch had discovered recordings by German trumpeter Axel Dörner, who transforms his instrument into an abstract sound generator using a variety of extended techniques. In September 2004 she leaped at a chance to see him at the Empty Bottle, and after the show she convinced him to give her a private lesson before he left town. Dörner was staying with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and the lesson was in his basement.
“I went to my room, I heard a trumpet, but it wasn’t Axel,” Lonberg-Holm recalls. “But it sounded really good. As the son of a trumpet player and a bad trumpet player myself, I know how hard it is, and I am pretty picky anyway. So I asked her to play the next opportunity I had.” He invited Branch to join his Lightbox Orchestra a few weeks later at the Phrenology Festival, an improvised-music gathering at the Hungry Brain.
At that gig many of the rising stars of the Chicago scene—including Jackson, cornetist Josh Berman, drummer Frank Rosaly, and vibraphone player Jason Adasiewicz—heard Branch play. They all worked day jobs at Jazz Record Mart, where she’d applied to work, and they made sure she got hired before she returned to Boston in January 2005. Suddenly she was a part of a vigorous musical community—though it’d be nearly a year before she finished her studies and moved back to Chicago.
After Branch settled here, her prospects seemed bright. In fall 2007 trumpeter Dave Douglas, who’s practically an institution in his own right, invited her to perform at his prestigious Festival of New Trumpet Music in New York. At just 24, she was sharing a bill with stars and veterans such as Butch Morris, Jeremy Pelt, and Wadada Leo Smith. Back home Branch played frequently in other people’s ensembles, among them Keefe Jackson’s Project Project and Tim Daisy’s New Fracture Quartet, as well as a slew of ad hoc configurations. Her own working bands included free-improvising collective Princess, Princess (with Rosaly and bassist Toby Summerfield) and noisy rock group Musket.
Branch’s promise has taken a long time to manifest itself in an album, though—in the intervening years, she’s relocated a couple more times, and since 2015 she’s lived in New York. But the wait was worth it, not least because she couldn’t have made her debut under her own name, Fly or Die, ten years ago—though she had the talent back then, it takes more than talent to see such a project through.
Released next Friday, May 5, by Chicago label International Anthem, Fly or Die is a stunning quartet recording that knits together several threads in Branch’s music—laser-sharp improvisatory exploration, ebullient melodies, and a deep feeling for groove. She made it with a band of high-level players, all of them current or former Chicagoans: bassist Jason Ajemian, cellist Tomeka Reid, and drummer Chad Taylor. They conclude their first U.S. tour at the Hideout on Wednesday, May 10.
Branch, now 33, spent her early childhood in Long Island, New York, and her family moved to Wilmette when she was nine. She’d been studying piano for years, and when elementary school gave her a chance to play a band instrument, she almost accidentally followed in the footsteps of two older brothers who’d played trumpet. “I was deciding between saxophone and trumpet, and I had these sign-up sheets from school for both,” says Branch. “My family went out to Dave’s Italian Kitchen that night, and I spilled my dad’s red wine all over the saxophone sheet and all over his white shirt. And so I played the trumpet.”
Within a couple years, Branch got into jazz, in part because she enjoyed showing off. “I really liked playing solos in front of the band,” she says. “I liked the adrenaline rush.” She picked up the Miles Davis album ’58 Sessions Featuring Stella by Starlight and transcribed his solo on “Green Dolphin Street.” As a sophomore at New Trier, she began private lessons with Matthew Lee, a classical trumpeter who now teaches at DePaul.
Music became an obsession for Branch—not just jazz but also punk and ska. She eventually joined Chicago punk-ska band Tusker, where she’d play trumpet and keyboards and “scream” (her word). In high school she failed several times to talk her way into Lounge Ax to see that kind of show. At the Velvet Lounge, a jazz bar run by brilliant tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson, she encountered a different attitude toward underage fans. “He would let me in and say, ‘Just don’t drink,'” she says.
Shortly before leaving for college in Boston, Branch worked up the nerve to participate in the Velvet’s famous Sunday jam sessions. She credits a younger classmate at New Trier, Jacob Wick, with introducing her to free jazz (specifically the music of Ornette Coleman), which would soon become her focus. She and Wick would improvise freely before and after music classes, though neither of them knew back then that free improvisation was a practice in and of itself. “We would call it ‘making modern music,'” Branch says with a laugh.
At the New England Conservatory, Branch studied with classical trumpeter Charles Schlueter, idiosyncratic postbop trumpeter John McNeil, singular guitarist Joe Morris, and even legendary soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. But as much as she learned at NEC, she says her semester off in Chicago in changed her life in a way that formal schooling couldn’t.
“A lot the dudes in Chicago were older than me, but they were really open and really nice,” Branch says. “I felt like it was an older-brother situation with a lot of those guys—Frankie, Toby, [Jason] Stein, [Jason] Roebke, Fred. There’s nothing like the free-jazz community in Chicago anywhere else. Boston has a lot of good players, but everyone is trying to measure up to a certain scale. People in Chicago are different. It was the first time I was playing this stuff with musicians on such a high level who then could kick back and just drink.”
Branch was torn about returning to Boston to finish her degree. “Right before I went back, I saw that Malachi Favors was playing every Thursday at the Velvet,” she says, and she went to a couple of those concerts before she had to leave. “I thought, ‘This is the real education.'” But she’s glad she returned. One requirement for graduation was to lead two bands for a recital. “One of the things I learned was to have an air of confidence,” she says. “When shit wasn’t working out at first, I would almost apologize. It helps if you at least appear that you believe in yourself and can lay out some clear ideas.”
Branch finished at NEC in December 2005 and came straight to Chicago. Things went well at first. She soon moved out of a cold-water flat in Pilsen (the pipes had frozen and burst) to room with bassist Anton Hatwich, who’d been living in a converted church with Ajemian. They were roommates for a couple years, and Hatwich remembers her manic energy. “Jaimie was pretty wild and going in a million directions at once,” he says. “She had a bunch of great bands playing around town that were stylistically all over the map.”
In addition to playing her own gigs, Branch curated shows at Heaven Gallery and the Skylark and worked with her friend Joe Jeffers to found artists’ residency Harold Arts in the tiny village of Chesterhill, Ohio. “She was a young woman with many pots on many flames, and she was going for it in a way that only people in their 20s can,” Hatwich says. “She was also, at her core, an extremely troubled soul who had demons that she was choosing to run from rather than confront. Those demons eventually caught up with her, and that really slowed her down as an artist.”
“I started using heroin in January of 2008, and nobody knew for almost a year,” says Branch. “I got totally called out amongst my friends, and then news travels fast.” To pay for her habit, she played less and worked more. She left town several times, including a couple stretches with friends in Colorado, to try to kick. Though she’s generally reluctant to discuss her history with addiction, she stresses that none of her Chicago colleagues blacklisted her. She singles out Ajemian—who booked the Protest Heaven series with her and worked with her at Harold Arts—for being willing to take her on tour with his bands while she was using. After she began methadone treatments, he made time to find clinics for her along the route.
It was on a tour with Ajemian’s group the High Life in January 2012 that she met superb trumpeter Dave Ballou, who taught at Towson University in Baltimore. He encouraged her to apply for the school’s graduate program. She was accepted and landed an assistantship in Towson’s recording studio, and she left Chicago in August 2012. But as she wryly notes, “Baltimore is a hard town to live in if you want to quit doing heroin.”
Branch dropped out of Towson after two years, still struggling with her addiction, and six months later she reached a breaking point. With guidance from Chicago saxophonist Mars Williams and funding from MusiCares, she enrolled in a treatment program in Hampton Bays, Long Island, in March 2015.
Upon completing the 28-day program, Branch moved to the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, and she says she’s been off the drug ever since. She quickly immersed herself in the New York scene, building on contacts she’d made on earlier tours. One such contact was drummer Mike Pride, and she continues to play with him in a regular trio that also includes bassist Brandon Lopez, a younger player she bonded with after arriving. She also returned to curating music series, programming a weekly event at the now defunct Manhattan Inn in Brooklyn for most of 2016.
The first concert she booked for that series turned out to be a fortuitous one. Chicago saxophonist Nick Mazzarella was touring with his trio (which included her old friends Hatwich and Rosaly) in support of a new album on International Anthem. She decided to share the bill with him, putting together a quartet with Taylor and Ajemian, who both lived in New York at the time, as well as Reid, who was passing through. (Taylor is now in Philadelphia and Ajemian in Alaska.) They played an improvised set on that night in January 2016.
Scott McNiece and David Allen, who run International Anthem, had traveled to catch the show. McNiece had seen Branch play during her Chicago years. “We both damn near jumped out of our seats,” he says. “It was kind of a no-brainer for us, and from that moment we knew we wanted to do a record with her.”
A few months later the label reached out to Branch. “Our initial idea was that we’d return to New York to record a few free-improvising sessions with Jaimie’s quartet—we were also excited about the entire group, since everyone involved has deep ties to Chicago and our existing label family, which is important to us—to be postcomposed into more structured music, similar conceptually to Makaya McCraven‘s In the Moment,” says McNiece. Chicago drummer McCraven had created In the Moment for the label by editing free improvisations recorded in early 2013 during four months of a weekly residency at the Bedford in Wicker Park. “But we wanted to take the production of this one farther out, in the direction of Teo Macero’s work on [the Miles Davis album] Bitches Brew. We were particularly excited about this concept, because I’d had a conversation about it with Jeff Parker, and he said he was a fan of Jaimie’s music, and he would love to do the Teo Macero postproduction/postcomposition portion of her record, if we were to go that route.”
Branch was intrigued by the proposal, but she had her own plan for her long-overdue debut as a bandleader. “It’s not that I was super against that idea, but there’s a certain amount of gravity when you wait this long,” she says. “So I thought, ‘If I’m going to make a record, I’m going to write some music.'”
Branch composed five groove-driven themes for the same quartet McNiece and Allen had seen five months before, and the album includes a mix of studio takes and live material. She organized two gigs in June 2016 at Le Poisson Rouge and Bar Below Rye, followed by a recording session at a loft apartment her sister Kate had in Red Hook. In the following weeks she also enlisted extra players whose contributions were edited or overdubbed onto the record: cornetists Berman and Ben Lamar Gay, who helped her add a lovely brass-trio passage, and Chicago guitarist Matthew Schneider (of Moon Bros. fame). A melody Branch improvised at the end of “Theme 002” (taken from a show at LPR) becomes the kernel for the next piece, a composed tune called “Leaves of Glass” that she opens with multitracked layers of her horn. On “The Storm,” where Gay takes a solo, you can hear the two cornets pitched down an octave, sounding almost like trombones.
Fly or Die is a beautifully recorded knockout. It opens with a brief abstract flourish that demonstrates Branch’s mastery of extended technique—an unpitched column of abraded wind titled “Jump Off”—and quickly opens up into a wonderfully loose, irresistible groove from Taylor, longtime partner of cornetist Rob Mazurek in the Chicago Underground Duo. Reid shadows Ajemian’s sturdy bass lines with piquant accents and driving arco patterns that recall the simpatico accompaniment fellow cellist Abdul Wadud provided alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill. But the album is all about Branch, who leaps back and forth between pithy composed melodies and improvisations distinguished by tonal richness, rhythmic agility, lyrical imagination, and timbral variety. She’s had those gifts for a long time, but they’ve never been put together so convincingly.
“Her playing has always been a force of nature, and I think she’s been settling into her voice in a way that feels like there’s a new level of focus,” says Hatwich. “She seems to be relaxing into it and putting herself into the work in a really good way. I think her new record is so purely Jaimie—from the sounds on the record to the album artwork that she helped create with Johnny [Herndon] and Damon [Locks] to the special-edition splattered ‘pigeon shit’ vinyl. It’s just an amazing record, and I’m really happy for her.”
Lonberg-Holm is also happy to see the results of Branch’s growth. “Chops and sense as a musician were already there a long time ago, but getting good with herself, that was another challenge,” he says. “All I can say is that I think she’s grown up a lot since those days, and I’m glad she survived. Now—it’s an unwritten book.”
Branch’s quartet will return to Chicago for a concert in September, and later in the fall she’ll tour Europe on her own, hoping to lay the groundwork for 2018 festival appearances by the group. Branch is thinking about the future in a way she hasn’t before. “I’ve played a lot and some people know who I am, but this record is going to reach more people,” she says. “If I play my cards right, it will facilitate more of a career, for lack of a better term—I don’t like using ‘free jazz’ and ‘career’ in the same sentence.” v