Jaimie Branch is not the type of musician to talk about in the past tense.
A child of Chicago’s boundless improvisational music scene, the trumpet player brought an impressive, fearless voice to every project he touched. He was popular for the horn, but he was very successful in electronic environment in Anteloper, which was his duo with drummer Jason Nazary. His quartet Fly or Die was an instrumental piece. power demonstrationuntil it wasn’t: She sang on the band’s second album: burning verses It tells the true story of a 19-year-old El Salvadoran teenager who condemned racism and was detained at the US-Mexico border. (Branch’s mother, who was a social worker at the time, worked with the woman’s relatives in Chicago.)
For Branch, who preferred to write his name in lowercase, perhaps the only small thing about him, music was a vital, urgent, matter of life and death. Because isn’t it?
One year after Branch died on August 22, 2022, at the age of 39, the past tense still feels wrong. To his loved ones, he was “Breezy”; It was a nickname for his obsession with birds and flying, but actually mutated because of the weirder riffs in his last name. (Branch. Brizznizzle. Brizz. Breeze. Breezy.) To Kate Branch she was an “amazing, protective” older sister and loving aunt, but Branch never met Kate’s second child, born in July: Benjamin Riis Yakowicz, also “Breezy.”
Last year, this close circle worked tirelessly to break Branch’s final record with their quartet “Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))”. — On August 25 – towards the finish line. Bold, farewell, and stubborn, with an unmistakable branching intensity, the album was mostly complete at the time of his death. Much of this was recorded during the branch’s sojourn at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha, Nebraska in April 2022, with the overdubs and some mixing completed that summer. Later, the branch’s Fly or Die bandmates Kate and her record label, Chicago-based International Anthem, collaborated on the finishing touches.
“He delivered everything he wanted. He was really pushing himself,” says bandmate Lester St. Louis. “I keep telling people this is my favorite Fly or Die album.”
Branch spent his early years in the New York suburb of Long Island before his family moved to Kenilworth when he was 9 years old. He picked up the trumpet in the same year. When his family went out to dinner at Dave’s Italian Kitchen in Evanston, Branch said he was oscillating between trumpet and saxophone. Branch spilled his father’s red wine all over the saxophone registration form, and so did he. It was the trumpet.
The instrument was already a Branch family tradition: Both older brothers played the trumpet, and Kate, who wanted to follow in Jaimie’s footsteps, played the trumpet. But Branch’s bond with the horn went far beyond the family’s expectations. Even at a young age, Branch improvised with the confidence of a much older musician and encouraged by a mariachi trumpeter, a primary teacher who encouraged him to play.
“He used to bring his trumpet with him everywhere,” Kate recalls. “He would sit with me to work on something and would get very angry if I didn’t practice. It was really serious.”
Despite the branch’s reputation as a joker at New Trier High, his classmates never doubted this seriousness. “There are musicians you see and you know immediately who they are. Jaimie experienced this when she was in high school. You’ll know it’s him when he plays a few notes,” says classmate Aaron Koppel.
The branch gravitated towards a handful of ska-punk bands outside the classroom, and these experiences were reflected in his later work. Bassist Greg Geary, who plays in one of these bands, Danny and the Ketch-Ups, says that the branch is the “glue” that binds a colorful crew together, as if from “The Breakfast Club.”
“Even at that young age he was saying: ‘No matter where you come from, you are here right now. We’ll play, let’s do this.’ And everybody lined up.”
When young bands such as Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Evan Parker opened their ears to free jazz, they realized that they were already living in a crucible for the type of music they wanted to make. He attended the prestigious New England Conservatory in Boston, but returned to Chicago for a semester’s medical leave. During this time, he worked at Jazz Record Mart during the day and visited venues such as the Apartment Lounge and Lounge Ax at night, becoming an on-call collaborator of musicians such as cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and reedist Keefe Jackson. Branch has been a fixture in the improvisational music scene here for over a decade, forming the trio. Princess, Princess along with drummer Frank Rosaly and bassist Toby Summerfield, as well as with the noise rock band Musket.
However, this branch emerged in the international jazz scene with Fly or Die. Although he traveled from Chicago to New York via Baltimore, where he lived from 2012 to 2015, the branch brought together improvisers he met for the quartet here: drummer Chad Taylor, bassist Jason Ajemian, and cellist Tomeka Reid. (Later Reid was replaced by St. Louis on the cello.) The band was almost a one-off, opening the New York show of Chicago saxophonist Nick Mazzarella in 2016. But International Anthem president Scottie McNiece was so impressed with what he heard that he applied to the branch for a record deal. Two albums followed: the self-titled “Fly or Die” in 2017 and “Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise” in 2019.
“The community in Chicago has been very welcoming. I wanted New York to hear what Chicago was like. Because Chicago sounds great, sounds great, sounds different,” branch said in a promotional video for the first “Fly or Die”.
Branch’s family confirmed that the initially secret cause of death was an accidental overdose. “Although he’s not as open about it as everything else in his life,” McNiece spoke of his past struggles with opioid use.
Creatively, the branch could be more outspoken. McNiece says the straight, parallel lines used in his first “Fly or Die” jacket design came from a meditation technique he learned in rehab. Now, after Branch’s death, “The Mountain” is a bittersweet rechristened cover of “Comin’ Down” by the Meat Puppets, “Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world)” hard to hear, perhaps impossible. war))” with a zoom out. Branch and Ajemian interpret the melody as a sparse Appalachian blues and sing together around one microphone: “I’m coming down from the mountain / I’ve seen the great and mighty / One day I’ll go again / But for now I’m going down.”
After his death, the branch was praised by publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian. But many thought it was too little and too late. Despite having more than 20 years of experience in the creative music scenes of Chicago, New York, Boston, and Baltimore, Branch had the white-knuckled moxie of a beginner artist. McNiece and Fly or Die bandmates have forgotten the number of times they’ve opposed plans that seemed too big, too expensive, and too crazy. Just like Branch’s insistence that International Anthem waive the clear vinyl rule to run the special edition of the first Fly or Die album. it looked like pigeon droppings. (McNiece says it’s a memorable call to the producer.) Or the band and the label sent all their equipment to Omaha to record “Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))”.
But Branch was not the kind of artist or person to take no for an answer. His sister, Kate, remembers one year when the principal deferred to signing the permit for Kate’s summer group camp. Branch, who was in 8th grade, raided the principal’s office.
“’I heard you didn’t sign my sister’s band camp form.’ said. The manager waved at him and said ‘leave it on my desk and I’ll sign it’. And Jamie said, ‘No, you’ll sign Right now,” Kate recalls.
He even found his way beyond the grave. McNiece says that amid the uncertainty of the “Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))” album being completed without him, the International Anthem team has experienced many “cosmic confirmations” that the record is developing exactly as the branch intended. In a rare example of his plans meeting pragmatism, Branch’s initial vision for the album’s silver foil sleeve design became the most relevant for the producer after pulling back several other options. Later, the blue moon program allowed Ajemian, who lives in Alaska, to attend an album listening party in New York.
“It’s Jaimie that connects us,” says McNiece. “You feel his presence, you make the decisions, and you get what you want.”
One of the few musical details left unaddressed after Branch’s death in “Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))” was what to do with the final track, “world war ((reprise))”. Dave Vettraino, who engineered all three Fly or Die albums, decided to combine the sound of that song’s Omaha shot with a studio version where the lyrics were sung over the branch’s repeated four-chord organ progression.
“This is so closely involved in her singing. And that’s the last thing you’ll hear,” says Vettraino.
To culminate his residency at the Bemis Center, Branch enlisted the help of the group to help him decorate the auditorium area with bright, multicolored streamers and coasters. They then played the album live from start to finish to a sold-out crowd—45 minutes of flame-licking intensity. Fly or Die regularly performed sets twice as long. However, Ajemian, Taylor, and St. Louis says Bemi’s show was the most grueling show they’ve ever done.
“When we played this music, I thought, ‘I can’t see us playing this lively again,'” Taylor says, as her bandmates nod in a daze.
They don’t. April 29, 2022 would be the last Fly or Die show. Branch noted that the quartet ended the night by eating pizza on the floor of the Bemis Center, like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was a comparison he liked, but the reference was mostly lost on his bandmates. To him, Taylor was the experienced leader Leonardo. The Ajemian party animal was Michelangelo. st. Louis was the clever Donatello.
“He would sing the theme song every now and then with little adjectives about them. And Raphael” – branch – “’he was cool but rude’”, says St. Louis burst into laughter as the group recalled this memory. “I said, ‘Yes, that’s absolutely true.’”
A week before he died, the branch visited Ajemian in Alaska. Ajemian, who is also a pilot and mechanic, took it with him one day while repairing an airplane. They worked side by side as they blasted the “Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))” demo in the hangar – they painted the branches before reassembling the plane parts. He then boarded his plane and showed him what it was like to experience mid-flight weightlessness: The nose of the plane plunges downward and the negative G force makes passengers float above their seats. For a fleeting, glorious moment, branches flew away, as did his music.
“She was crying laughing; “His entire face was red,” says Ajemian. “I will always carry his image. It was pure bliss.”
Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.
The Rubin Institute for Music Criticism helps finance our classical music publication. The Chicago Tribune retains editorial control over assignments and content.