The contemporary jazz world was stunned by the untimely death of avant-garde trumpeter and composer Jaimie Branch when she passed away last August at the age of 39. Branch was fierce and thrilling, a trailblazer known for her uncompromising, politically infused jazz and distinct style of composition. Her work deftly occupied a zone of creative music that could just as easily be termed punk-jazz. She was a busy collaborator too, leaving her uniquely dynamic mark on a swath of albums in a variety of settings, most notably in the experimental electro-jazz duo Anteloper. But it’s her music with the Fly Or Die band that really propelled her to the position of one of contemporary jazz’s most compelling artists. Now, her final album with her main ensemble is ready to be heard by the rest of the world.
Fly Or Die Fly Or Die Fly Or Die ((World War)) consists of nine songs composed by Branch and then recorded in April 2022 with Fly Or Die (cellist Lester St Louis, bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Chad Taylor) during her residency at the Bemis Centre for Contemporary Art in Omaha, Nebraska. When Branch died, the album was in a nearly completed state. Her family members, bandmates and other collaborators convened to make the final tweaks and add the finishing touches. What should have been the next step in Branch’s innovative career became a tragically beautiful final document that captured an artist cresting a peak.
Surprisingly lush and melodically expansive, the album opens with the electro-gospel “Aurora Rising”, clocking in just under two minutes before resolving precisely into the instantly catchy groove of “Borealis Dancing”, a track that sounds just like its title feels. With steady rhythmic grooves augmented by the sweet melancholy of strings, this song would be right at home on Joe Henderson’s 1974 album The Elements.
She may have been known most for her fiery trumpet, but Branch’s voice was just as vital to her composition and performance. She leaned into it on this album, bringing it front and centre on the incendiary “Burning Grey”. Her perceptive gaze is turned to our crumbling world, the words an exhortation not to forget to fight and urgent reminder that the future lives inside us. The music grooves and swings, tipping towards the sublime tension of cacophony that marks the best free jazz. “Burning Grey” is potent and electrifying, furiously reflective of the depth of love that powers a revolutionary spirit.
That mix of anger and love is just as clearly present on “Take Back The World”, a song that exemplifies Branch’s political point of view. Her voice is front and centre here too, a passionate howl that proves she could have easily led a hardcore band. But she takes the song in a different direction, manipulating her voice to create a psychedelic effect that feels like time dilating, stressing the urgency of her message.
One of the more unexpected (if you never saw Fly Or Die perform, that is) choices is “The Mountain”, a sparse reimagining of the Meat Puppets’ “Comin’ Down”. The original song is country-inflected grunge and the cover here preserves the country influence, stripping the music down even further to Ajemian’s upright bass paired with his and Branch’s voices, concluding with a trumpet solo.
The fun-loving side of Branch is present too, not just in the communal vibes that animate her music but also in the literal components. Look at the credits and you’ll notice she has one for “happy apple”, the Fisher Price toy with an apple face and chimes inside. You hear them most clearly at the end of the album on “World War ((Reprise))”, a sonic coda that sparkles and cries, drawing from all the elements that made Branch’s music soar, down to the playful possibility found within a child’s toy.
Fly Or Die… is many things, but above all it seems to be about the simple act of paying attention. In a political sense, sure, but also to the pleasure of connection, drawing a direct link between empowerment and enjoyment, action and emotion. It’s entirely fitting, then, that the album is dedicated to the lovers and the fighters who live to make the world a more compassionate and generous place. In a world without Branch, her voice reaches us from beyond with a simple but powerful plea to take care of the planet and each other.