On “Fly Or Die II,” Jaimie Branch Throws Herself Into Her Art

Jaimie Branch

Photos by Peter Gannushkin

“The concept is music,” says avant-garde jazz trumpeter Jaimie Branch of Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise. “It’s not a concept album, like a Rush album or something.”

Yet conceptual trappings hang all over Branch’s second album with her Fly or Die quartet: cellist Lester St. Louis, bassist Jason Ajemian, and drummer Chad Taylor. The ragged, hypnotic opener “Birds of Paradise” is answered with the back-end title track. The main event (“Prayer for Amerikka”) is a two-part, 11-and-a-half-minute blues and political epic, which segues into another track (“Twenty-Three n Me, Jupiter Redux”) by way of an improvised passage from St. Louis.

“I try to write all my music like a suite,” acknowledges Branch in her distinct Chicago twang (she’s now based in Brooklyn). Even so, her newfound ambition on Fly or Die II is unquestionable.

The impetus for it is simple. When the first Fly or Die dropped in May 2017, Branch was doing what most of New York’s experimental jazz musicians do: making the scene in the off-hours from her day job. She worked the counter at a café, wrapping sandwiches and pouring coffee. Then Fly or Die made her the darling of the jazz avant-garde. Bookings went through the roof, enabling her to tour the country and even hit Europe. She also saw a bump in work for her other projects, and was invited to collaborate with other artists.

By the summer of 2018, Branch quit the café gig and devoted herself to music. “It’s what I’m doing 24/7, and that’s the difference,” she says. “Once you’re able to throw yourself fully into your art, it really takes a different shape.”

The quartet has also taken a different shape, because of another busy schedule. Branch originally formed Fly or Die as a showcase for players from Chicago; like the leader, however, original cellist Tomeka Reid has found herself increasingly in demand, including membership in the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago. St. Louis stepped in to take her place, a New Yorker among Chicagoans. (That said, none of the members are currently based in Chicago; Branch and St. Louis are in Brooklyn, Taylor is in Philadelphia, and Ajemian lives in Alaska.)

“It wasn’t a big, heavy decision,” Branch says of his entry into the group. “It was, ‘Lester is a motherfucker, he wants to play with us, we all like him, let’s do it!’ The sound has changed with him in the band, but the vibe, I think, is still very much Fly or Die.”

It all added up to new energy, new imaginings, and more free time to develop them.

Jaimie Branch

“More free time,” on the other hand, is relative. Fly or Die was touring Europe in the late summer/early fall of 2018, and Branch made arrangements with her label, International Anthem, to record the second album at the tour’s conclusion in London. It was only then, though, that the music started coming together.

“I’m what you call a very deadline-based composer,” she says with a chuckle. “I made time on the tour to go out and compose. I spent a couple of days in Novara, Italy, and I found this place at a river, under a bridge—total troll vibes—and spent the day playing trumpet and recording myself on voice memo.”

She would then take them to the band to be developed; they used the encore slot at their concerts to work out new material. As such, several tracks on Fly or Die II are credited to the whole band. “[When I write] I’m not so much like, ‘This is exactly what I need,’ because I’ve learned over the years that the thing I envision is only one version,” Branch says. “There could be another version that’s even more incredible than what I’m imagining, and I try to leave room for that to happen.”

Yet there’s one vision on the album that Branch completely owns: It’s her debut as a vocalist. She sings on “Prayer for Amerikkka”’s Trump-era protest, which grew out of an onstage rant she delivered the night of the U.S.’s 2018 midterm elections, and on “Love Song” (whose extended title is “Love Song for the Assholes and Clowns”). Like the two “Bird” tunes, the vocal ones bracket the album, with “Prayer” as the second track and “Love Song” as the last.

As to whether they’re related, Branch is mysterious. “I mean, there’s lots of assholes in America, and lots of clowns,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s directly related, but at the same time, of course it’s directly related.”

It may not be a concept album per se, but Fly or Die II is certainly bursting with ideas.

-Michael J. West

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