Jaime Branch's FLY or DIE II: bird dogs of paradise

Avant-garde trumpeter Jaimie Branch has a lot on her mind; racism, love, compassion and the state of our union. Tackling these issues is not an easy task, especially for someone who plays instrumental music. On FLY or DIE II: bird dogs of paradise, her second album—recorded live over a few nights at London’s Total Refreshment Center—the New York based musician delivers a passionate, searing set of tunes.

Instrumental music has limits when you are trying to express personal feelings. The intent of the composer can be an unknown quantity. While touring Branch experienced a myriad of highs and a few hostile assaults to the soul. Witnessing racism directed at two of her band members, Branch realized how broken our country remains. She felt the only way to express her feelings would be through singing. A lot of the passion Branch brings to the music is a direct result of the punk rock shows she witnessed as a youth. Punk has an immediacy and energy, an energy that Branch seems to capture in her own music.

The quartet of Branch, Lester St. Louis on cello, Jason Ajemian on double bass and Chad Taylor on drums, began piecing the album together during her previous tour. In the past Branch charted out most of the parts. The goal this time was to leave space for improvisation and collaboration. Perhaps, she figured, other, incredible version might flow from an open, less structured exchange of ideas. The group delivers a rawness and ecstasy missing from much contemporary jazz. The dreamy and meditative opener “Birds Of Paradise” owes a bit to pioneering “Fourth World” trumpeter Jon Hassell, whose music combines disparate elements to produce a hypnotic, musical experience. Branch’s quartet creates this same atmosphere using plucked cello, mbira, xylophone and muted trumpet. It has a trance-inducing effect on the listener.

The next track, the 11 minute “Prayer For Amerikkka Pt 1 & 2”, produces the opposite emotional outcome. When Branch yells out “We got a bunch of wild-eyed racists”, the aggressive and searing nature of her music becomes clear. You could easily see Branch fronting a punk rock band. If you need a reference, this track would have fit nicely on the 80’s Dischord Records compilation State Of The Union. However, Cassandra Wilson she’s not! The next track, “Twenty-Three N Me, Jupiter Redux”, does nothing to lighten the mood. The churning, impending doom eventually falls apart in a frenzied cacophony of cymbal crashes, horn blast, and bass drones.

Side two of Fly or Die II focuses a little more on rhythm and attitude. Using a cello in this setting works very well throughout the album but no better than on this track. It’s brilliant the way Ajemian’s thick, fat bass tone plays off St. Louis’ cello. A very inspired choice that pays dividends.

By the time we get to the penultimate track, “Nuevo Toquero Estereo”, you feel some optimism peeking through the dark clouds. Taylor’s drums lock into a propelling figure urging the rest of the band to surge forward; trumpet blasts and cello swells. It is one of the more accessible tracks on a challenging album, but I don’t want to imply the challenge isn’t worth the reward. As phonographers, we specialize in the art of matching music to mood. In “The Recording Angel” writer Evan Eisenberg theorizes, when we are melancholy, we listen to jazz ballads, with their poignant seventh chords: when anxious, antsy or angry we listen to bebop. In each case we choose music that will confront our mood, contend with it, force it out and express it. But Platonic voices protest such music is too mournful, too sensuous, or too frantic. Instead of exorcising our demons, it exercises them. Branch’s music seems to do a little of both.

The sound on my vinyl pressing has a very strong central image. I would prefer a little bigger soundstage. To put it in cinematic terms I would love a little more Cinemascope and less “pan and scan”. Recording live gives the album a lot of room ambience. The bass is well-recorded, sounding big and full. The rest of the instruments lack a little bit of punch. The drums are missing a little bit of snap and the trumpet would benefit from a slightly more aggressive tone in the mix. In the liner notes, Branch says this album is about “Our voice, your voice, my voice”. Fly or Die II definitely has politics and the state of our union at its core, but whatever one thinks of Branch’s politics the music speaks for itself as a cry for the ever-distant prize of true freedom.

(The album is available for purchase on International Anthem’s bandcamp page.

skronksonic's picture

Jaime's the real deal. And International Anthem is doing great stuff. Glad to see both getting some love here. Not sure if she's doing it now, obviously, with COVID, etc., but she was doing some loose live sessions at the Red Hook Record Shop (best spot in Brooklyn). As a onetime Stereophile jazz critic, I hope Analog Planet will be spilling more digital ink on the new generation of musicians setting the city on fire.

Michael Fremer's picture
This is why I'm so excited to have more contributors!
mcrushing's picture

Very psyched to see Jaimie's record in this space, Jeff. She's phenomenally talented and a wonderful human being. I had the chance to meet her when she played LA back in December (which now seems a lifetime ago) and agree she's the real deal - young artist, important perspective, mad chops - worthy of a much larger audience.

One note on the review, Jaimie is currently NY-based but spent most of her professional career in Chicago and is still very much a part of its contemporary jazz scene, which is intertwined with its electronic, experimental and post-rock communities as well. I definitely encourage anyone reading this to check out International Anthem's catalog to get a feel for what's happening in Chicago right now, as well as to research Jaimie's bandmates. A ton of great music to discover.

Jazz has many female vocalists but can always use more female voices as composers, instrumentalists and bandleaders. This record was mastered by a female engineer as well. Love seeing it, so keep this great stuff coming, Michael!

AlienRendel's picture

Excellent album, Branch’s 2nd in a row. Good to see it covered here!