Jaimie Branch’s Fearless Jazz Debut

An overdue debut album from the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Chicago trumpeter delivers challenges and thrills


Jaimie Branch, the 33-year-old trumpet player out of Chicago, isn’t new on the jazz scene here — she’s called Red Hook home since 2015 — but with her debut album just out, she has made her arrival official, and belatedly triumphant. Even before the music hits you, there’s that title: Fly or Die. Words, in short, that many Americans, jazz musicians in particular, have had to live by in an indifferent country where the safety net is increasingly in tatters.

Branch’s ten eerily beautiful compositions on Fly or Die bleed into one another like a suite, though three are drawn from a live gig last year at Le Poisson Rouge. This is free jazz, in that it’s free of constraints. But there are elements of post-bop (Branch calls Booker Little “by far my favorite trumpet player”), third stream, chamber jazz, the avant-garde lyricism of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, even noise (Branch claims the German experimental trumpet player Axel Dörner, whom she came across while studying at the New England Conservatory, as an influence).

The music is brazenly executed by a quartet made up of a few of Chicago’s finest: Jason Ajemian on bass; cellist Tomeka Reid; and drummer Chad Taylor, known for his work alongside cornetist Rob Mazurek in the highly regarded Chicago Underground Duo, a group Branch says she was “in awe of” in her late teens. The interplay between the strings creates a riveting drama, with Reid and Ajemian using both arco and pizzicato; Reid (who can be heard on another exhilarating new release, Not Living in Fear, with the trio Hear In Now) also shifts between rhythm section and soloist, often becoming, in effect, a second horn. The group is enhanced in spots by guitarist Matt Schneider, cornet players Ben Lamar Gay and Josh Berman, and some inventive postproduction that makes tracks like “The Storm” sound like the work of a large ensemble. It’s a beguiling and challenging set that washes over you in a tidy thirty-five minutes.

Branch’s melodic lines are concise and to the point, without bluster. Even “Jump Off,” a kind of prologue where she shows off a breathing technique and makes use of the plunger to create a sound like a distorted guitar, is just fifteen seconds.

“There was something about her playing,” Taylor says, “that was very familiar to me and at the same time totally original.” As a leader, he says, she’s “not shy about letting us know when she has a new idea or new direction she wants to take the music.” Mazurek calls her “a complete player that takes chances and is not afraid,” adding that “the noise she projects is as powerful as her lyrical sensibility.”

There is a fearlessness to her approach — fly or die, right? So why did it take her until her thirties to release her first album? “I attempted to put out a couple of records myself and they didn’t really come out, so I had that earlier failure,” Branch says. 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.”

Prior to her move to Brooklyn, Branch was immersed in the rich free-jazz scene that has been rooted in Chicago since the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians was founded there in 1965. She misses it, especially the camaraderie and lower rents, and she often takes the bandstand wearing one of her many White Sox caps. But she’s happy here. “Now that the record has come out, I have this new life that I’ve started, and I’m pretty excited,” she says. “I’m gonna hang in New York for a while.”

Those drug issues — and she was dealing with heroin addiction — are behind her. “I’ll just say the storm is over,” she says. “I’m not a religious person, but thank god.” The cover of Fly or Die — illustrated by Branch with her tattoo artist, John Herndon, also known as the drummer for Tortoise — could be a depiction of a new dawn: Four birds perch atop a cityscape. The colors are bright, but there’s a sense that the buildings underneath them might be crumbling.

Doesn’t matter if they do. That’s what the gift of flight is for. And at the moment, Jaimie Branch is soaring.

Branch will play The Stone on Avenue C tonight, Wednesday May 30. Tickets are $20.