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A Wing And A Prayer: Jaimie Branch Of Fly Or Die Interviewed
Stewart Smith , November 16th, 2021 10:58

Ahead of Fly Or Die's EFG London Jazz Festival gig, Stewart Smith speaks to jaimie branch about her various projects and the significance of avian imagery in her work

One of the brightest stars in the jazz firmament, trumpeter jaimie branch broke through in 2017 with the release of Fly Or Die, the first album from her band of the same name. With its ingenious balance of avant-garde abstraction, melody and groove, Fly Or Die is one of the most exciting jazz debuts of the decade.

Featuring a crack squad of fellow Chicago-to-New York transplants – Tomeka Reid on cello, Jason Ajemian on double bass, Chad Taylor on drums – Fly Or Die could hardly fail, but under branch's leadership, the band is more than the sum of its considerable parts. The use of cello as a rhythm and lead voice recalls saxophonist Julius Hemphill’s work with Abdul Wadud – on classic 1970s albums like Dogon AD and Coon Bid'ness – but Fly Or Die are unmistakably contemporary, with a streetwise cosmopolitanism that reflects the Chicago melting pot of free jazz, punk, blues, hip hop, house and West African traditions, alongside branch's own Columbian heritage. Her trumpet cuts through like a Miles Davis or Lester Bowie, but she is also fully conversant in the extended techniques of US and European avant-gardes, with her use of multiphonics and overtones, and her reverb and delay streaked 'ghost trumpet'.

Due to her own busy career as a member of Artifacts, Mary Halvorson's Code Girl and The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, the remarkable Reid passed the cello chair to Lester St. Louis, a brilliant young musician branch met in 2015. The reconfigured band dropped Fly Or Die II: Birddogs Of Paradise in 2019, building on their debut by adding Latin rhythms, blues and vocals to the mix. Politically charged, the album's centrepiece, 'Prayer For Amerikkka Pt. 1 & 2', excoriates "wild eyed racists" and protests US border violence. For all her righteous anger, branch is never preachy. A remnant of her punk days, 'Love Song (For Assholes And Clowns)' pulls off the rare trick of being both hilariously brutal and oddly tender. The album ranges from the diaphanous beauty of the mbira-led 'Birds Of Paradise' to the abstraction of 'Whales' and the hip Latin groove of 'Nuevo Roquero Estereo'.

Touring has turned Fly Or Die into a working band, and that sound is captured on Fly Or Die Live. Released in May, the double album complements and surpasses its predecessors. Taped in Zurich shortly before the shutdown brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, it finds the band on inspired form. branch has truly come into her own as a bandleader, adding soulful vocals and charismatic spiels to her brilliant trumpet playing. 'Prayer For Amerikkka Pt 1 & 2' is positively charged, going from slow stalking blues to a Morricone western storm. The more abstract and drone-based pieces are radically expanded, reflecting a group of musicians who are totally at one in their collective explorations.

Outside Fly Or Die, branch has kept up a relentless pace of work. Her other working band is Anteloper, an electroacoustic duo with drummer and producer Jason Nazary. She also plays with saxophonist James Brandon Lewis's Unruly Quintet and the jazz and poetry powerhouse Heroes Are Gang Leaders. An association with the Netherlands has produced a 2018 album with violinist Ig Henneman and flautist and violist Anne La Berge, and a recent live album with the US-Netherlands supergroup Mofaya! During COVID-19, she also founded C'est Trois, a band with Luke Stewart and Tcheser Holmes of Irreversible Entanglements.

How's the tour going?

jaimie branch: We're playing material off Fly Or Die. And I'm writing new material. I'm in the process of writing new stuff. We're improvisers you know. So the show is never going to be the same twice.

You released Fly Or Die in 2017. You've already included live recordings on the studio albums, but I imagine the material had developed so much on tour that you wanted to represent that?

JB: Yeah. It's always been a part of my process to grab some show stuff. But Fly Or Die Live is a completely different beast, a completely different animal. Fly Or Die and Fly Or Die II, the live stuff on those, they're very early on in us getting to the material. You know, really the first or second time we play it. So Fly Or Die Live, it's a record of a band, folks that really know each other and they've been on the road together.

That definitely comes through. And the way you're stretching things out. I watched the Vision Festival performance from July, and I think you only played maybe three or four pieces. So was that specifically for Vision or just the way things are going?

JB: We're improvisers so we do different things each time but with the Vision performance, you know, a lot of times these days we're playing a 90-minute set and, at Vision, I believe we had 45 minutes. So it was a bit tailored to the place that we were at and the respect that we're one of many acts on a legendary festival, you know, it's not the jaimie branch show. But yes, stretching that out. Part of it definitely had to do with the time restriction, but it was also just like, what are we going to do to try to make everything fit? No, let's just roll and see what happens.

Fly Or Die are made up of Chicago via NYC musicians. Did the project develop organically or was there a master plan?

JB: Well, the very first time we played, we played one of my kind of graphic scores. So it was like 90 percent improvising. And that was like, five or six months before we recorded the record. We only played that one show. And Scottie [McNiece] from International Anthem was there – I was putting on a show for one of his artists actually. And he called me up a few months later, and was like, 'Hey, you want to make a record?' And I was like, 'Yeah, definitely.' And so when I was getting the music together for Fly Or Die, I listened back to the performance, the improvised performance. And actually a couple of the themes that I composed, for Fly Or Die, came out of that improvisation. Specifically, 'Theme 001' and 'The Storm'. I put the band together of Chicago folks, and I put the band together of my friends. I had a fairly good feeling that it would sound amazing, because it's Chad Taylor, Tomeka Reid and Jason Ajemian. Besides that, it wasn't like a master plan of 'this is about to be my next project', you know? I thought it was gonna be a one-off. I had no idea what was in store.

Can you tell us more about your approach to scoring? I understand you use a combination of traditional notation, text, drawings and colours.

JB: So I've been writing in kind of a suite style since about 2004 or '05, a long time now. And it's been developing over the years in different ways, from the paper I use to the the way I notate things with Fly Or Die. The first one was very much like the way I had been doing things, which is that I write on big staff paper, and then I cut it out and tape it onto 8.5x11, so I can make copies easily. I use not only traditional notation, but a lot of instructions, some graphic notation, but mostly it's a flowchart. There are arrows or lines connecting one piece to the next, and when I say piece I don't mean song, I mean motif or theme or even instrumentation. Like I might say, 'bass solo' or 'drum solo' or 'do whatever', you know. For Fly Or Die II, I made similar scores and it was a flowchart for everybody but this time, I colour coded in a way where I used the primary colours. I had yellow, blue and red sections. And I wanted to kind of test this theory. Is it easier for the band to remember the song if I paint yellow behind it? If they look down at the score, is their brain going to make that connection before they even read it? They see yellow and they know, 'Oh, that's 'Simple Silver Surfer'', or they see blue and they're like, 'Oh, that's the blues.' That one's on the nose – what are you going to do! And so I think it went successfully.

I'm still working on those theories, but I really don't like having to read music on stage, because the music is never on the paper. It's just always here [gestures to heart], you know? So when I do scores, it's not begrudgingly, it's out of necessity, usually. But I want to make it so that nobody is ever going to have to have their head buried in the page. That's the opposite of what I'm trying to do.

To what extent are the more abstract or drone-based pieces scored?

JB: Well, on the live record, at that point, we weren't using any sort of score. A tune like 'The Storm', for instance, yeah, that was notated. The intro to 'The Storm' is basically these dive bombs. I call them nose dives. These fast kind of crescendos from high to low. And so that was notated as literally like aeroplanes nose diving. And then it goes into space world which might look like an atom or something like that. Timbre wise, I'll notate that, say like, 'go to space world' or 'go to outer space'. And then from there, it's not really notated. I just lead that on stage.

You know, if my bell is buried into a microphone with a 20-second reverb on it, then we're going to be in outer space until I feel like being done with that. And some of the other things like long tones, we had a song called 'Whales' on the second record that appears on the live record, too. It's really just Jason and Lester in a long tone string duet, and I had commented at some point that it sounded like whales. So it's not rocket science, but it is high listening music. I mean, the players. The through line is everybody is just listening super hard all the time. Follow the music.

They're such strong records rhythmically. On 'Theme 001', say, the drum pattern is as much of a hook as the theme – this super funky jitter. I know you've written certain rhythmic ideas into the scores, so does Chad build on them or bring in ideas of his own?

JB: Most of the amazing Chad stuff is Chad. It's just Chad being Chad. On 'Theme 001', that beat is crazy. 'Theme 002' also. We did a few different versions with 'Theme 002' when we were in the studio, and he called me afterwards. He was like, 'You got to use the version with the house beat!' Like, okay, cool. And it was already the version I wanted to use, because it was the best, but he had a connection to that too, it was fresh for him as well. 'Nuevo Roquero Estereo' is a really good example of a song where I brought in a completely different rhythmic idea. And Chad was like, 'If we do this', basically took it and turned it upside down, and then the song all of a sudden came to life. So sometimes I notate stuff. I play pretty rhythmically, you know. So again, there's a lot of importance in the moment of what's going on. But yeah, Chad is such a gifted percussionist, and drummer. I really trust anything he's about to do.

I didn't mention Jason Ajemian or Lester St. Louis much. But Jason is one of my oldest friends in music. 2003 or '04, you know, we started hanging out. And I've played in a lot of his bands. He's played in my bands. And there's the interplay between Jason and Lester, and Chad. I feel so lucky that this is my band, you know, there's a lot of trust on stage. And when you have that trust, you can really paint whatever type of picture you want. Even if it's a shitty picture, next time it will be a better picture, but rarely is it shitty. I gotta be honest, I just get so much excitement and so much happiness from playing with them.

You introduced vocals on Fly Or Die II, with your own lead vocals backed up by howling and whooping from the group. That's developed further on the live album. Is that something we'll hear more of?

JB: I've been doing more of it in my other bands. So I imagine that yeah, there'll be more in Fly Or Die as well. I have a project called Anteloper. And I've introduced singing to Anteloper. And I have some new trios out there. Once called C'est Trois with Luke Stewart and Tcheser Holmes from Irreversible Entanglements, and they're singing in that band as well. So, yeah, I think singing is here to stay for right now. I got a lot to say still.

Some of your raps in the live album build on the political content of the songs. I think it's interesting that it was recorded in Zurich and you're able to universalise some of the lyrics. In the introduction to 'Prayer For Amerikkka', you point out that it's not just in America where shit's fucked up. I think sometimes in Europe and the UK, we look down at Americans for electing Trump, but then we elected Boris Johnson!

JB: I think Chad actually pointed out to me kind of early on, like when we were playing in Europe, I would do these kind of preambles to the songs. We have conversations, of course, all the time. It's something that I kind of had to point out. It's not just about America and its problems. There are probably problems everywhere. Racism didn't start in America, you know, because we weren't invented yet. I'm sure if we were invented, it would have been there too. And so I had to reach out and talk to the audiences and just make sure that they realise that I'm not talking about just at home, I'm talking about everywhere. Yeah, I'm talking about you guys too. People really need to feel that, because if it's a passive thing – an abstract idea about a place like America – it's a lot easier to ignore it. You know what I mean? Like, no, this is right now, right here as well.

The narrative of 'Prayer For America', about a South American woman seeking refuge and dealing with the border violence of the US, is really powerful, and pertinent to the European situation too.

JB: My mum is a social worker, and was dealing with the family that I talk about in 'Prayer For Amerikkka Pt. 2'. And hearing that story, I guess second hand or even third hand, again, it's this idea of breaking down this abstraction of atrocities. It's very real. And if you're able to empathise, or you know somebody personally, it becomes more real. One thing I want to make sure that people understand is that it wasn't a song about Trump. I mean, Biden is in power. The Democrat is in power now. We still have these prisons along the border. They're still there.

Moving on to Anteloper, your duo with drummer Jason Nazary. Can you tell us more about that project? How does it relate to Fly Or Die?

JB: They're pretty distinctive. I think of them as like different arms or different limbs, right? So Fly Or Die is my right hand, Anteloper is my left hand. Anteloper is a fully electronic project, Fly Or Die is almost entirely acoustic. And that's by design. I play a lot with electronics right now. And I've been kind of keeping Fly Or Die in this zone of acousticism because I'm still very much interested in making music that way as well, although I have a lot of fun fucking around with electronics.

So Anteloper, originally it was going to be a trio. We got asked to open for Jeff Parker back in 2016 when The New Breed came out, in New York. We were gonna put together a trio, but the third person didn't show up. And then at the rehearsal, me and Jason both played electronics. Afterwards, we realised that we had the trio: it was drums, trumpet and electronics. So it's our trio duo. And we've been playing ever since. I mean, Anteloper is definitely my busiest project in New York. Fly Or Die tours a little bit more right now. But Jason and I only live ten minutes away from each other. So what I love about that project is that we have a really deep relationship that is informed by a lot of time being put into it on the regular.

Can you tell us about the process with Anteloper? Am I right in thinking that your electronics set-up is more hardware-based?

JB: Yeah, it's really hardware based. No computers. We both have our electronics set-ups. Mine is synthesiser and pedal-based. And Jason's is trigger-based and modular. He uses some sequencers as well. So we're both coming at it with our own personal angles, and we kind of fill in each other's gaps, which is nice. I use a JU06A which is basically like a Roland Juno copy. I have a big boy Juno at home too, but I don't get to tour with that. And I have a little mini keyboard. I run my horn, my mbira – which is a new instrument I picked up – and the keyboard and a drum machine into the mixer and then it rolls through my effects chain, which right now has a couple of Moog pedals, a ring modulator and a phaser. And then I go into the Electro Harmonix 45,000, which is a four-track looper. I recently added a brand new delay looper called the DL4 which is like a green Line 6 DL4.

When I started with Anteloper, I hardly had any of this equipment. Jason had to lend me his DL4. And that was kind of the start of me building up a working rig. I've been messing around with synthesisers for a long time. I bought my Juno in 2002 for $200, in Boston, from a guy who plays in the band Karate, Jeff Farina. I've been very interested in synthesis. But by the time I got to New York in 2015, I really didn't have much equipment left. I had moved so many times at that point and had to shed stuff when I needed money. So these past five years, I've been rebuilding my electronic vision.

You also contributed to Jason Nazary's excellent solo album, Spring Collection, which he recorded during lockdown. Can you tell me about the process there?

JB: Yeah, he sent me an improvisation. I think [keyboardist] Matt Mitchell was already on, and then I gave [Nazary] a couple tracks, a clean trumpet and effects trumpet. And then I gave him a couple tracks of synthesisers. Jason, he's an amazing master producer. So I just said, 'Do whatever you want.' And he did.

I love the way he's chopped everything up, with this mix of sampling, resampling and live improvisation. It\s got grooves and loops, but it feels free.

JB: He's an amazing drummer. I use all these loops, right, but it's all manual, nothing is quantised. I mean, I'll use a four, I'll use the 808. That is obviously the time, it's a drum machine. But the amazing thing about Jason, and I haven't found any other drummer that can do this yet, which is maybe why Anteloper is so specifically Anteloper, is that whatever loop I have, with its impreciseness, he grabs it, he hears it. And so whatever it is, he knows, and he comes back around, and it could completely recontextualise the time every few bars, because it's not in 4/4, it's not in 15 or 13 or seven. It's in clucking jaimie time. And Jason is able to find that and just make it groove – not make it sound like a groove, he makes a groove, so that's a very specific Anteloper thing. Most drummers will hear the loop and hear that it's getting off with what they're doing. And they'll try to fix themselves. With Jason, it's not like that. It always feels like it's exactly where it's supposed to be. And I can tell you, because I'm doing it, it's not where it's supposed to be. It's never where it's supposed to be! But Jason makes it feel right there. He's a really gifted drummer.

You recently put out an album of fiery free jazz with Mofaya!

JB: Mofaya! is a combination of the Dutch group, which is John Dikeman and Aleksander Škorić, and then me and Luke [Stewart] joined them in Amsterdam in 2019, and we made a record that just came out on Trost. We did a little touring as well. It's an example of music that I've been playing for a long time, improvised fire music. But there isn't much documentation of me doing that on record. John Dikeman is a formidable tenor saxophonist. I think we play well together, you know, there's a nice tension between the ways that we play. It's not always easy for me to play with a saxophonist in particular, because sometimes I feel like, 'You don't need me, you got all the notes.' But John is a very sensitive player. It's four-dimensional.

It's interesting, man, because the foreground and background can be played with quite a bit, which is something that we got into with Mofaya! and my long standing trio with Mike Pride and Luke Stewart. I've recorded [the trio] a number of times, but it's one of those things where it needs to be this amazing show that is captured well. Sometimes we'll have an amazing show but the audio is not great. It's hard to capture improvised music like that in the studio. I haven't been happy enough yet with any of the recordings. So I'm the person that's standing in the way of making a record, unfortunately, because I think that this band really needs to tour and be out there. But we'll get there.

And Mike Pride. I mean, he's an amazing drummer who I've known since 2005. So he's been a friend for a long time. The through line you'll see with my bands, it's like I pretty much only play with my friends, because I don't have time for any other bullshit, for real. Like, if you got an attitude or you don't like me, are you gonna judge me on stage? It's like, 'Fuck you, whatever.' We don't need to play together. No disrespect, you have your life, but we don't have to get up, you know?

C’est Trois is a band that came out of COVID-19. Luke Stewart had a residency at Pioneer works, which is an arts and music centre right by my house [in Brooklyn]. And he had a whole month in the studio there. Similar to one I had in 2018. The Anteloper record Tour Beats came from those sessions. It's Tcheser Holmes on drums and percussion, some vocals in the future I bet to myself, synth and trumpet and vocals, and Luke on percussion and bass, upright and electric, and he also plays MPC. And so yeah, that's a new project that I'm very excited about. We just had a pretty awesome show at the BRIC Jazz Fest. C'est Trois, It's Three baby!

Talking about the Dutch connection, you also put out Dropping Stuff And Other Folk Songs with violinist Ig Henneman and flautist and violist Anne La Berge in 2019. I know you're a great admirer of Axel Dorner and Evan Parker, so it's interesting to hear you in that European improvisation context.

JB: Yeah. In some ways, it relates to the Mofaya! record. Improvised music is something I've been doing for so long, and I love so much, but hasn't been documented that much. So, yeah, I got together with Ig Henneman and Anne La Berge, who's an amazing flautist and obviously plays viola. Ig is really a cool person, she has a punk rock past and has been steadily making records for decades. And when I played in, I think [Amsterdam venue] Bimhuis the first time, we hung out afterwards and really hit it off. Anne is an expat American living in Amsterdam. And she is funny as hell, super smart.

The three of us together is a really fun hang. Which I think makes for interesting music as well because to me, it's very conversational. I think a lot of music is, but it's free from a lot of the tropes, you know. If there's a rhythmic gesture that's happening, it's not like we're all going to jump on it and groove out into the sunset. You know, it's kind of stated, and then maybe it happens again, but from a different angle. It was kind of echoed but not necessarily jumped on together, if that makes sense. It's kind of like a crystal music and it's building its structure as it's growing. There's not a structure set that we dive into.

[shows an elaborate parrot tattoo on her forearm]

So I got a new big boy.

Wow! You have bird tattoos, birds in the artwork and song titles. So what's the significance of birds?

JB: Oh, good question. I've been a little obsessed with birds, since they're basically dinosaurs, right? I'm not even a bird watcher or anything, but I love those birds of paradise videos online where they do the dances and where the males are doing their mating calls. And when I got to New York, with Fly Or Die, it's lucky that that title came with that band at that time because I had all these other bands. I had like Fire Boats and Fire Birds and Water Birds and Water Boats, all these boats and birds-type bands that you know, the titles are fine, but Fly Or Die is really a much better name than any of those. And it's a little bit lucky that I saved that one for for that band. Maybe it's not luck, maybe I'm smart as fuck.

You know the pigeons? [points to pigeon tattoos] That's when I was a newbie in New York, you know? And so when I was talking to [Fly Or Die I & II cover artist] Johnny Herndon, the drummer from Tortoise, who also has done a couple of my tattoos – this is a toucan spaceship. And this guy driving it is a ruffian, but he has those eyes that look into the future, just like the pigeons on my record [Fly Or Die]. And then on the second record, the birds on the front are actually Columbian birds of paradise. And I love that because it's also like a Columbian cardinal, which, if you don't know, the cardinal is state bird of Illinois, which is where Chicago is. And so, I didn't send [John Herndon] too much. I don't want to give too much instruction over because my friends are so talented. I don't want to stifle what they do naturally. But I gave him some pictures of some of the Columbian birds that I wanted him to take a look at. And that's what he came up with, the two hummingbirds and then the cardinal and the other dude, the yellow cat.

And then the new record, it was a departure to not use any birds. I don't think there's one bird on the live record. Yeah, not even on the inside. The record is a gatefold record. So it opens up. And on the inside. There's a two panel collage of touring, which was really fun to make. It kind of reminded me of punk CDRs from the '90s, or cassette collage culture, you know? But yeah, no birds, no birds anywhere. And the front and back is all over print kimono. One of the robes I wear all the time. So the birds, yeah man, I don't know, they're our dinosaur brethren. I accidentally murdered a bird when I was 17. And I don't know if I've ever fully gotten over it. I accidentally burnt down my parents' house. And Kiwi the parakeet died. And so maybe it's all psychologically coming back to Kiwi. I don't know. I feel bad for Kiwi. RIP Kiwi. I didn't mean it.

Fly Or Die play the Jazz Cafe on November 19, 2021, as part of the London Jazz Festival