Although Jaimie Branch has been playing music for a while now, having been part of the Chicago jazz scene before her recent move to Brooklyn, Fly or Die is her debut as a bandleader. The trumpeter’s band is made up of Jason Ajemian (bass), Chad Taylor (drums) and notably cellist Tomeka Reid, whose quartet had a standout release in 2015. The main quartet is occasionally joined by Matt Schneider (guitar) and two cornetists, Ben Lamar Gay and Josh Berman. Debut albums in jazz can be a tricky business. In the case of a musician like Branch, who has been a side-woman in past studio recordings, the goal should be to firmly plant a compelling and distinct compositional voice on the recording, and that is exactly what she has done in Fly or Die.
Even though Branch is a great trumpet player, the key to Fly or Die is how she uses the group as a whole. The first full tune, “theme 001”, is a great example of this – the track immediately draws the listener in, with the bass and drums locking into a great groove. In the first portion of the track, the cello’s pizzicato reacts to the bass, but eventually moves on to have and call and response with Branch, who at this point has already established the main motif of the song. The tune seamlessly transitions into the much more abstract “…meanwhile”, where Scheider’s guitar adds a nice texture to the rumbling combination of notes that open the track, which picks up the pace as it goes on thanks to some fine drumming by Taylor.
“theme 002” creates a very different atmosphere than the first “theme”. With a surprisingly upbeat and infectious bass-line, which is brilliantly mimicked and countered by Reid’s cello, it’s a tune that is hard to listen to without moving around to the rhythm. Branch, who favors passages of one to three notes and short phrases instead of bebop-esque attacks, solos over the band’s backing wonderfully and is eventually joined by Reid when the cellist switches from plucking to bowing. With tracks like “theme 002”, it’s clear that Branch is capable of writing compositions that have a happy atmosphere, however, part of the brilliance in Fly or Die is that she is equally as talented in writing more gloomy numbers.
“The Storm” opens up with sinister descending bowed phrases from the cello and the bass. Reid and Ajemian create an extremely ominous and creepy atmosphere to back Branch, who enters the fray with a chaotic burst of notes. Branch is quite aggressive during the first portion of the track, but eventually transitions into a beautifully reserved, forlorn style which sets the tone of the second half, which transitions into the beginning of “Waltzer”. “Waltzer” is a gorgeously subdued tune, with Branch’s expressive playing and Reid’s elegant cello being album highlights.
Despite the fact that some may feel that that the album, which only clocks in at 36 minutes, goes by a bit too quickly, there is so much creative quality in these 36 minutes that it gives the listener more than other projects twice its length. “Leaves of Glass”, even though its echo effects and almost exclusive focus on horns make it quite different from the rest of the album, could be used to describe Fly or Die. The song starts out relatively smooth with the horns and ends with an eerie combination of dark strings. Like “Leaves of Glass”, Fly or Die mixes the experimental and the more melodic to great effect, showing that there is ample range in Branch’s compositional style. From the abrasive trumpet scratches in the 15 second opener, to the final track, “…back at the ranch”, where Schneider provides a brief musical conclusion, Fly or Die is a fantastic record that demands the listener’s attention.
Jaimie Branch – trumpet
Tomeka Reid – cello
Jason Ajemian – bass
Chad Taylor – drums.
Matt Schneider – guitar
Ben Lamar Gay – cornet
Josh Berman – cornet
Fly or Die, the debut album from trumpeter Jaimie Branch, is out now on International Anthem Recording Company.