Interview: Free Jazz Trumpeter Jaimie Branch on Music-Making as Time-Travel

Jaimie Branch (2018). Photo by Schorle/WikiMedia Commons.

Jaimie Branch has been recording and touring since she was a teenager, but it wasn't until 2017 that the trumpeter released her debut record, Fly or Die, at the age of 33. Instantly met with critical acclaim, Fly or Die—which featured bassist Jason Ajemian, drummer Chad Taylor, and cellist Tomeka Reid—allowed Branch to take her new quartet on the road.

Fly or Die II: birds of paradise

As the band traveled throughout the US and Europe over the course of the next year and a half, their sound developed. Lester St. Louis replaced Reid in the cello chair and the group continued digging into the music, extending their collective improvisational vocabulary.

By late 2018, the Brooklyn-based Branch quit her day job, released an album with Anteloper (her duo with drummer Jason Nazary), and was ready to record a new album with her quartet, now dubbed Fly or Die. At the end of a three-week European tour, the band recorded a live concert at London's Cafe Oto, then headed into the recording studio at Total Refreshment Centre, where Fly or Die had played their first European gig in 2017.

Fly or Die II: bird dogs of paradise includes a mix of those live and studio recordings, helping the record make one of its big statements: Branch is the obvious leader, but Fly or Die is definitely a band with a collective aesthetic.

From the album's bold centerpiece—and Branch's recording debut as a vocalist— the protest song "Prayer for Amerikkka," every sound is intentional, and every note is performed with swagger: like the repeated riffage of "Twenty-Three n Me / Jupiter Redux" or the irreverent doo-wop send up "Love Song," which begins with the shoutout, "This one goes out to all those assholes and all those clowns out there." Nothing is precious on Fly or Die II.

We were curious about Branch's approach in creating Fly or Die II, so we chatted about her artistic practices, from developing the quartet and recording the album to her practice routines and how she finds inspiration for her music.

To learn more about Branch, her music, and tour schedule, visit her website here.

You recorded the studio tracks for Fly or Die II: bird dogs of paradise at Total Refreshment Centre in London, where the band played your first European show. What was it about the studio that was important to you?

To me, it made sense. I wanted to record in London. It was more the people than the actual studio. They were folks that I wanted to work with. I knew the environment there was gonna be chill—we were gonna be able to hang for a few days and have it feel good. That's totally important.

What was special about that first gig you played there?

The venue is gone now but the studio remains. It was the first time I had seen the London jazz scene that everyone talks about—young folks coming out to jazz shows, having a good time, dancing and shit. It was my first time going to London too, so that was special and just the whole vibe of the night. It was one of those electric nights.

You wrote the music for Fly or Die II while on tour. What was important about doing it that way for the sound of the record and for the sound of the band?

A lot of the music wasn't even brought to the band until the day before our first live show in London. I brought out some of the material over the course of the tour and we workshopped some things. Some of the things we workshopped we decided to leave off.

Right before the Cafe Oto shows, I brought out a whole set of music and we rehearsed it for a day, so the Oto shows were kind of the take one and take two of playing the whole set. A couple tracks from those shows made it onto the record and I think it helped.

It's not like you can ever get a perfect take, because it doesn't exist, which is a good thing, I think. So I put the live elements in there, I think it helps with the vitality of the record.
It's hard to make any kind of record in a studio, but especially one—for a lack of a better term—in a jazz world. You have so much improvisation and so many things can be different on any given night. It's not like you can ever get a perfect take, because it doesn't exist, which is a good thing, I think. So I put the live elements in there, I think it helps with the vitality of the record.

You haven't had any kind of day job since 2018. Can you talk a little bit about how that has affected your process?

It gave me a lot more time to play the trumpet again and spend time working on music. After I quit the job, I got a rehearsal space because I realized very quickly that I need to go somewhere to work. Being at home all day isn't that conducive to me doing a lot of work.

It gave me the time and energy to refocus into the music in a way that I hadn't done in a long time. I'd always been working on music and playing gigs and I'd always been practicing, but it was nested in this caveat that I had to go work and fit it in.

A 2017 video Branch's label, International Anthem, released about her creative process.

Now that you have that time, do you have any kind of routine or any kind of specific way of working?

I've just been on tour for two months, so there's no routine right now. I just try to warm up every day.

When I'm at home, there's a routine where I take the ferry out to the rehearsal space and go spend three or four hours and take the ferry back home. It's a ferry-based routine.

Has having that routine made you more productive?

It's hard to be quantitative about artistic progress. Spending time with synthesizers and drum machines, everything takes time. I've put so much time into trumpet and now I'm able to put similar amounts of practice time into learning a drum machine, which is a luxury.

You can see how time in the practice room enables you a fluency when you get on stage. I think that's what it does when you're practicing whatever you play. The more facility you have and the more of your own sound you have, the easier it is to do what you want.

Do you compose more now?

Not necessarily—I kind of compose on a rolling basis, though I can be deadline-driven as well. I had the recording session set up before I had the music completed.

Do you need that kind of pressure to make the final decisions to make the music happen?

I don't know if I need it, but it helps. I'm not that precious about things, it's not like I'm trying to write the perfect song. I'm trying to write music that I want to be playing for the next year and a half or two years and have it be loose enough where it can transform, so I don't try to be too tough about the quality. It's just like, "Here's what it is," and when the band starts playing, it'll become a different thing—and that's good. If it's not good, that's okay too, we just don't need to deal with it. I leave it very much open to how it feels when everyone gets involved.

You have a real holistic approach going on, since you do your cover art too. Can you talk about how they relate to you?

The art in both cases has come after the music, so it's almost been a reflection of the music. On bird dogs of paradise, I'm setting up a paradise-esque scene. On Fly or Die, it's kind of a mashup of Chicago and New York and mountains. They relate, of course, but it's not a literal relationship. I'm not trying to outline anything in the music in the artwork.

Having a visual art practice alongside a musical practice is another way of practicing art, but with lower stakes. I make a lot of paintings, but most of them no one has ever seen. But the process of making it and the time spent doing it is invaluable and has definitely influenced my music-making.

I went to music school [at New England Conservatory] and we could take electives at the college next door, which was Northeastern University, in Boston, and I was able to take photography classes. The only time I had experienced waking loss of time like I had with music was being in the dark room making these photographs. I'd be like, "Wow, I just spent eight hours in the dark! What the fuck?" But it didn't feel like you spent that time because you'd just be hyper-focused for that amount of time.

When we're making music, time passes at a different rate. An hour of making music can feel like 15 minutes. I really think it affects the way we age as well—like we're experiencing time differently. When we're doing things like making art or making music, we're time-traveling, and they definitely inform each other.

A 2019 video from the start of the Fly or Die II: birds of paradise tour.

You sing on Fly or Die II. One of the songs, "Love Song," you wrote in college, right?

Yeah, that's from 2005. The very first iteration of that was on my college recital at NEC.

I sang in punk bands, kind of more shouting. I had a band called Musket in the mid-2000s where I sang a couple tunes. With my improvised trio with Luke Stewart and Mike Pride, I'll occasionally get vocals involved. I'm not someone who's never done something with vocals, but it's never been a focus of mine.

What brought it about for this record?

The decision to do "Prayer for Amerikkka" came about before the decision to do "Love Song." "Prayer for Amerikkka" started as an instrumental and over the course of the tour it grew into a vocal. The lyrics are the last thing I finished for the album.

I was like, "I'm making a vocal tune and, not only that, but a protest tune, so I gotta say what the fuck I wanna say." I felt some pressure there, especially because the second half is telling an actual story about a girl, so it was important to me. I re-wrote those lyrics a lot.

You mentioned feeling less pressure about your visual art—do you feel more pressure presenting lyrics?

The thing about lyrics is that you no longer have the comfortability or anonymity of the abstract-ness of instrumental music. A lot of times when I improvise, I'll be saying some shit in my head that, if I was saying it out loud, would change the entire context of what I'm playing. But since it's instrumental, you don't get to know what that is. When you add actual words, there's no wiggle room, you're saying what you're saying.

Can you tell me about the title bird dogs of paradise?

That's an homage to my dog Patton, who passed in October of 2018. He's a bird dog and he's in paradise now. I wanted to call the record Birds of Paradise. The birds on the cover are these Colombian rainforest birds and I have Colombian heritage and was thinking about the jungle and the rainforest and paradise, but "birds of paradise" wasn't doing it for me. I was jokingly calling it "bird dogs of paradise" and realized that's the right name, so I got to throw a bone—if you will—to my dog. That dog had probably been to more free jazz shows than 99% of humans.

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