Jaimie Branch’s debut is a longtime coming. Having grown up in the heart of Chicago’s music scene and relocated to New York City, she’s had a role in improvising, hip-hop, and indie rock scenes for years and she’s also worked as a sound person, enjoying punk and underground aesthetics of all creeds—in interviews, she’ll mention everyone from Sun Ra to Matana Roberts to Show Me the Body.
“Fly or Die” didn’t come together in a conventional manner and it owes a little bit to each of the traditions that Branch has experienced over the years. The record seamlessly incorporates post-production guitar ramblings, live set interpolations, and dubbed over trumpet trios without losing the sense of a single paint stroke.
Themes 1, 2, and “Theme Nothing” operate as major focal points. After a 15 second snack of trumpet distortion, Chad Taylor, Tomeka Reid, and Jason Ajemian combine forces to set the tone with a driving minor groove. Reid and Ajemian’s chemistry is immediate, as they trade off little pieces of bass line over Taylor’s melodic approach to the kit. Branch enters with an ascending line with a lot of room for reinterpretation, leading to a lot of interchange between her and Taylor.
One recurring theme on the record seems to be abstracting distinctions between solo and ensemble, written melody and improvised and this track immediately touches upon that. Branch leads the charge into the back end of the track, which eventually dissolves into a dramatic landscape aided by longing, bowed string melodies and some acoustic guitar ramblings from “guest artist” Matt Schneider. “Meanwhile” then focusses in on Schneider, with Taylor eventually building back the energy for his final fill into “Theme 2.” Although set-up a bit differently, the process somewhat repeats here with another fun, driving groove that gradually falls off into obscurity.
“Theme 2’s” end finds another important skill of Branch. As I’ve said, the album is highly varied, but still feels like one paint stroke and part of that comes from the gradual introduction of the next melody at the end of the previous tune—a tactic that comes up all over the project. Here, Reid and Ajemian paint a hectic backdrop and, as the dust settles, Branch introduces the balladic melody for the next track.
This first utterance of the “Leaves of Glass” melody gives off the impression of a ballad and the track initially has a sense of cleanliness to combat the violent end of “Theme 2,” but nothing is as it seems on a Jaimie Branch record and as the phrase repeats itself, the added trumpet parts lead the overall mood into another dystopian noise ploy. It’s frankly amazing that Branch is able to move through these moods with such ease and her melodic knack helps ground each splash of emotion.
“The Storm” continues the noisiness and showcases one of the best examples of Branch’s use of recording technology. After the “nose dives,” as Jaimie calls them, where each member of the band descends through the whole range of their instrument, a trumpet player spits out a bunch of biting, be-bop oriented lines. This trumpet player is actually guest artist Ben Lamar Gay and Branch is making all of the static radio noise with extended techniques right up against the microphone. This song is also taken from a live performance.
Had Branch not told me these details, I might not have even noticed–It really says a lot about a composer if their musical stamp is so ingrained in the work that even when they hand off the spotlight to another player on the same instrument, their personality reigns true. After this tune, “Waltzer” dedicates itself a bit more to the notion of a ballad and “Theme Nothing” delivers another pulverizing groove to finish of the project.
As a whole, this record could appeal to a lot of music heads out there. There’s instances of blissful groove, but they get balanced out by distorted messes. The production of the project is also impeccable and almost lends itself to the studio ideas of lo-fi folk movements from the late 90s by cutting and pasting all sorts of different ideas into one flowing collage of sound. Branch sounds poised as just about any other band leader out there right now and this album is a testament to her undying creativity and successfully carves out an exciting, unique position in the contemporary instrumental music realm.