Updated: Jun 11, 2021
On this live interpretation of both the 'Fly Or Die' and 'Fly or Die II' records, the ever inspiring trumpet player and composer Jaimie Branch takes us through her world of free spirited soundscapes and superb jazz laden odysseys.
Some genres feel like they were born to play live, their elasticity and ever changing morphology lending itself to moments of divine intervention and inspiring sparks that lead to game changing sequences. Jazz in all its forms has been at the forefront of both recorded music and live music throughout the 20th century, with its incredible series of evolutions always noted as being pulled off by a rich array of incredibly talented musicians who combined vision, technique and creative will to great effect. A genre borne out of the African American music community in New Orleans, Jazz would go on to seep into nearly every single facet of contemporary music, with its freedoms and musical ideals influencing countless generations of music makers, with its influence spreading as far as the realms of techno, downtempo, pop, house and beyond. This is perhaps due to the many forms of Jazz that cropped up over time, that have continually added to or indeed challenged traditional norms which in turn have only helped to cement its legacy as a iconic sound. Its many forms contain the likes of Bebop, Free Jazz and 'Spiritual' Jazz, along with its many hybridised incarnations like Jazz Fusion and Jazz Funk, all of which helped to inform the lexicon of music in general and provided a continually evolving set of languages that performers could delve into if they so wished, such was the power of the umbrella genre and its ability to weave its way into so many differing narratives. Of all the key aspects of Jazz, from its fundimentals to its free spiritedness, perhaps one of its most important values is improvisation, which has remained an ideal of the genre since pretty much its inception on this earth. The idea of bringing together like minded individuals to noodle it out around a core element has always displayed itself on numerous jazz records, be it either as something to emphasise during key sequences in a track or indeed as the core reasoning behind making tracks, either way we have seen some truly stunning results come our way over the years from all kinds of artists. Free Jazz, or 'Avant-garde Jazz' as it is sometimes known, represents one strain of the parent genre that pretty much operates totally in this regard, with musicians found within this world concerned completely with the notion of challenging the norms and styles set about within Jazz and replacing them with new configurations. These records would often represent the seismic leaps that Jazz became so well known for during the 20th century and beyond, so purposeful and filled of imagination that they would change the course of Jazz on such a continual basis, serving as a point of reference and inspiration for all those that they touched with their progressive and obtuse brilliance. To this day, the spirit of Free Jazz and improv is alive and kicking, with further evidence of the sub genre's ability to push things forwards still very much alive and kicking, which reflects its core ideals of looking above and beyond to see a world filled with new and exciting possibilities. We revel in its passions, its ideologies, its musicality, forever feeling the need to dive back into its enriching waters for a further look around, to begin to understand the depths of possibility and to experience the far flung boundaries of musical excellence. Fill in the gaps, and you will be welcomed into a universe of the truest of pleasures, the boundless defiance of convention, and the never ending beauty of all that comes with jazz's earth shattering brilliance.
In the contemporary age, an artist that fully embraces these ideals - and indeed, goes the extra mile on many of them - is Chicago based Trumpet player and composer Jaimie Branch, who for a good while now has been a part of some incredibly exciting projects both individually and as a member of groups. Branch has shown herself to be not only an incredibly dexterous musician, but one capable to applying a wide ranging feel to the numerous sounds in which she has immersed herself within, be it more straight up Jazz through to neo-classical and improv, it feels like there is little she cannot accommodate within her scope of playing. Her trumpet playing is second to none, a singular voice rising high above for solos but slotting in so neatly and intuitively with the instruments that swirl around it, a playing style that operates on multiple frequencies in order to provide the most complete and heartfelt experience imaginable. Branch moves from the straight laced to the unpredictable in the drop of a hat, feeling out the ways in which to dazzle and entice in the most bountiful of ways, never for one moment do we feel like things aren't going somewhere, merely evolving through her exquisite audial narrative. The languages of her many group projects are complex and indefinitely intricate, with a look to always understand how the sonics can be pushed to the 8th degree, which in turn provides us with a sublime experience each and every time. From her group work be sure to check out
the wonderful straight up jazzy vibes found on the 'Just Like This' record, which was released by the Keefe Jackson's Project Project in 2007; the utterly mesmerising feels found on the 'We Have Always Been Here' record, which was released under the Galactic Unity Ensemble name in 2017;
and finally, the powerful rhythmic embraces of the 'Kudu' record, which was released by the Anteloper ensemble in 2018. After playing her part in some incredible group projects, Branch turned her attentions to solo works, which started off with the 2017 LP 'Fly Or Die' and was then followed by 2019's 'Fly Or Die II: Bird Dogs Of Paradise', with the tracks featured on this record making up the contents of the live album we are reviewing today. Both of these records feel like they have built upon all the experimentalism and conceptualness explored by Branch through her earlier group work, with an emphasis placed on the nature of polyrhythms not just from the drums but from the cello and bass lines, with all three elements combining beautifully to provide an incredibly compelling backdrop to proceedings, with Branch's Trumpet rising higher and higher within the sea of unreal tones and textures. There is an enormous amount of space and scale provided for each instrument to really shine, with the momentums provided leaving us with an immense level of satisfaction as we dip and weave throughout the superb instrumentalism which never fails to entice and mesmerise. Both pieces of work stand tall as exemplars of contemporary and free jazz, and many were surely waiting to hear these tunes being played out as an experience live, and one of these shows was indeed recorded live, early in 2020 at Moods in Zurich. Featuring the playing of Lester St. Louis (cello), Jason Ajemian (double bass) and Chad Taylor (percussion/drums/mbria), the sound featured on this record is truly unique, with plenty of improvisation included that really involves the listener, along with plenty of excellent transitions that the crowd react to feverishly. Its a truly remarkable recording, one which came as the world began to completely shutdown in the face of the COVID pandemic, and one that Branch didn't want to even listen back to when the tape arrived, but when she did take the chance it was a game changer. Unlike many of the lucky souls that were there to witness this experience in the flesh, we are so very grateful that the recording has found its way into the public consciousness, as it is a brilliant piece of freeform, improv jazz that lives long in the memory after you finish listening to it. The instrumentalism is top notch, the vibe ebbing and flowing, the feels maximised to the utmost, its all you could wish for in a live recording and more, - so, without further delay, lets dive right into this little masterpiece.....
Because that's really what it is at the core of all of this, music as dance.
Up first comes ‘Birds of Paradise’, and this one begins with the textural vibrancy of the mbria to get us going. Their arrival slides in from the left, their movement gradual and ever so slightly sweeping with plenty of spaces left for increased activity to occur within, and that is exactly what happens as the placement of the notes ramps up as time passes by. The way in which the notes weave and dip around one another is a sight to behold, as the structure seems to shift like the sands or the fluttering of swifts in the summer breeze. The lightest of kicks arrives to provide a anchorage point to the flow, with its steadiness providing even greater encouragement for the mbria to continue with its mesmerising flow. Its singular melodic presence is joined around the mid way mark of the track, and its tone and placement could not be any more euphoric if it tried - euphoric in a beautifully calm way, we mean. It just hits you in all the right places, a pleasant sight and sound to the ears of all who care to listen, and it’s pretty magical. Truly a special way to start off a live gig. Up next comes ‘prayer for amerikkka’ pt. 1 & 2’, which begins off with the bass moving in and around the peripheries with a broken intensity. The drums soon arrive to complete the rhythmic foundation, their sway off the chain in relation to crafting swirls for which you could dive head first into, and out of the haze and gaze comes the vocals. The narrative talks about America and its problems - and indeed the rest of the world - before finishing up with the words ‘and its not always time to be neutral’, which moves the track directly into its first climax. The trumpet rings out across the plains with utter fearlessness, its high pitch tone capturing a significant amount of energy as time passes by in an instant. The track then takes a dip into a vocal driven segment, which culminates with the words ‘this is a prayer for America’, the tone of the words just above the bass notes as we slide through lucid postcard memories of a land we all know. The track then resurfaces back into a more full structure, with the drums and trumpet making a return with the vocals proclaiming ‘we have a bunch of white eyed racists’, with this line repeated over and over for good measure before we slide back into a wondrous trumpet solo that weaves and dips beautifully, as ever. The final segment of the track just keeps the groove flowing along a consistent plain, the words gently nodding along with a softly spoken beauty, a sublime expression of purity in jazz and narrative. Wonderful stuff right here.
Up next comes 'Lesterlude', and as the applause begins to draw to a close we are greeted with some incredibly beguiling sounds indeed. The cello of St Louis crunches its way across the room, its rhythmic feel reverberating off the walls and deep into the foundations, its sliding metallic like feel making sure to touch the heartstrings of all in attendance. The vibrancy of the sound moves from all out assault and down into this intriguing textured bottom end, moving across the plains where it only occasionally murmurs some notes, its pace slowly but surely getting back to the initial explosion. Its final form is the single plucks that come in towards the third passage, before a mixture of picking strings come together within the outro. That was one hell of a journey. The track flows immediately into 'twenty-three n me, jupiter redux', which sees the bass begin to fill up the space. It is quickly joined by the light taps of the snare and hats, which leads the crowd to clap along, and before long the trumpet comes back into the mix, its lead line one of hope and indefinite pleasure, as we swing and glide within the mid section of the cut. From the regular comes the very much irregular, as the trumpet swirls atop a sea of incredible rhythmic extrusions, the bass and cello also crafting some ridiculous lines through the centre to create this powerful ensemble of sublimity. The energy comes down a notch as we see things out the door, the vortex which we were previously trapped in unwinds to a canter as we slowly drift away within a sea of soft tones. Glorious stuff. 'Reflections on a broken sea' comes next, with the intro here consisting of some wonderful trumpet notes to get us going. The regular feel slips away to shift focus over to the cello, which operates on an incredibly high octane level as light percussive elements join in on the progression, and before long the trumpet comes back into the fray, its presence welcomed by the other elements as we become locked in once again to a sublime soundscape. Beautiful! 'Whales' comes next, and this sees the cello grow in tone and feel. The frequencies drone much like the sounds of a whale deep in the ocean, its words moving through the deepest trenches to arrive at us, calling out from across the waves to land, and with that notion the drums move back into view, which brings us into the next track, 'theme 001'. The pattern has a real groove about it, with plenty of hard knocks interlaced with fills that take the breath away, as the momentum moves from side to side, with this feeling only pushed forward further as the bass line moves into view. Its weaving line adds real meaning and purpose to the ongoing progression, its placement filtering on all sides of the pan as it looks continuously to find space between the drums, never stopping still for one moment as it dips then dips some more through the haze. The trumpet arrives soon, landing itself on top of proceedings as it rises higher and higher to feel the room in which the gig is being played out, always finding the time to pause and rest as flourishes bring a strong reaction from the crowd. Sublime stuff.
'...meanwhile' arrives next, and this one is a distinctly quietened affair. The lightest of drumming patterns permeate through the haze, quietly chugging along but sombrely growing in scale and presence as time passes by, their emergence drawing in much power as time passes by, alongside an ever expanding level of complexity that keeps on keeping on. The climatic feel of this progression is so satisfying, as the layers continue to grow and grow with each passing second, and like that we get thrown right into 'theme 002', and the switch up is absolutely glorious. The swing of the beat, the rhythmic applications of the bass is perfection personified, with the fast paced progression providing the perfect basis for the trumpet to float into. The instrumentation is so brilliant, with an intricacy abounding from all sides which remains crystal clear for all to see, as the track finds plenty of time to grow in terms of density. The trumpet remains the core focus, as the anchoring elements of the drums and the bass do much to provide balance to the momentum, the sequential feel of the track doing much to keep the fire very much burning. A beautiful groove, bravo on this one. ‘Sun tines’ comes next, and this sees the Mbria come back into the fold. After all that energy, its very refreshing indeed to see the mood come down ever so slightly, but the vibrancy of all that has come before remains pulsating through the core, with this sentiment personified as the trumpet comes into the middle of proceedings. Its purity and precision cut across the composition, the singular note ringing out from across the mountains and streams as it surrounds us, binding us to its presence and place. The modulations weave their way right into the next track, ‘leaves of glass’, which sees heavier densities replace the spareness. Undercurrents begin to emerge that provide a greater weight to the momentum, as the trumpet weaves and dips throughout the haziness, never stopping in its pursuit of textural and tonal perfection. The deep whooshes begin to craft a kind of climatic swell to proceedings, as the cymbals and bass notes push us further up a hill towards the peak, with little dips exploded with every single momentum. Around the two minute mark the regular placements start to become ever so slightly more solid, and as the drums come into view the previous spaces are filled to the brim with life, as the percussion goes above and beyond to provide an enriching experience indeed. The hypnotic displays are found everywhere, from the quickly evaporating trumpet lines to the swirling fills of the drums, everywhere you look there is something to marvel at, and this feeling has become pretty much commonplace on this record. Sublime stuff. ‘The storm’ arrives next, and this one picks up from where the previous flow finishes. The sonics come right to the surface here, with a crunchy top layer doing wonders to fill the mind with all manner of expectation and hope, with light but expressive drumming lines helping to push the momentum onwards, and from here on its a gorgeous unravelling of all manner of layers, where light feels push against the weightiest of tones in all the ways in which you could imagine.
‘Waltzer’ arrives next, and this one brings the frequencies down just a tad. The bass takes the lead on this one, gracefully grooving between the lines as the drum fills pick up the pace as time passes by, with both sequences starting to converge with one another as the trumpet starts to slide into view. By this point all four lines start to overlap one another with a dazzling feel, a succulence that you could hold in the palm of your hand, as we drift with such feel from here to there, never for one moment feeling lost but merely mesmerised constantly. The way in which the track peaks and troughs feels like a floating leaf within a vast ocean, cusping over the lapping water as the sun peeks out from beyond the clouds, the warmth allowing the leaf to grow and unfurl as we reflect on the majesty that continues to come forth. ‘Slip tide’ comes next, and this one continues onwards with the mesmerising feels. The mbria comes back into the fold, its flowing feel lulling us into a very serene state indeed as the bass then emerges to overtake the view in front of us, with its continuous notion keeping us completely locked in to the momentum. Its swirling feel traps us into a gorgeous vortex, with this energy then moving us directly into ’simple silver surfer’, which contextualises the bass line with the drums. The bass fills up the gaps left within the drumming pattern with a breezy ease, as the cello adds further to the momentum with a rising sequence, with the elements creating the perfect set up for the trumpet to arrive into the mix. The notes keep a steady pace through the middle, crafting a real sense of feeling as we meander through the membranes of groove, and as the trumpet fades away we are greeted with further expressionism from the other melodic features. The crashing of the cymbals greets the trumpet as it slides right back into view, and this time its range expands to reach the top ends as we slide along, nodding our heads to the consumate feel of it all. Glorious stuff.
‘Bird dogs of paradise’ comes next, and this one begins with the scattering of trumpet to get us going. Their placement rises from down below before rising up high, moving through a series of incredible frequencies as we shift through sporadic but incredibly meaningful drumming patterns, all the while the lightest of cello sequences moves along the bottom ends to great effect. The composition comes together in its totality around the 2 minute mark, which helps to bring forth all the aspects into one complete piece of music, and it just works wonderfully. Up next comes ‘Nuevo roquero estereo’, and this one starts off in a particularly groovy place indeed. The drums are uptempo and filled with rhythmic features, their presence never moving away from a solid tone as we continue to grow along with the instrumentals, which expands to include some wonderful textured work from the cello and bass. The trumpet then throws itself into the mix, sliding across the layers as ever with a graceful elegance that works as a binding unit to the overall momentum. The drums evolve into a double time moment, with the cymbals and hats doing much to provide density to proceedings, with this segment working particularly well with the trumpet solo that arrives soon after. The track continues to evolve and then evolve some more, its form always looking to morph and blend in the most beautiful and surprising of ways, and this is exactly what continues to happen as we move through the gaps to a new sense of euphoria. Incredible stuff. ‘Love song’ arrives next, and this one begins with Branch exclaiming ‘well you made it!’ - and to be honest we could continue on this journey for as long as possible, but alas every concert must come to an end. The track begins with the light drumming patterns to get us going, with cello and bass intertwining themselves within the percussive elements beautifully, crafting this incredibly hypnotic foundation for Branch’s voice to move into view, talking about love and arseholes and clowns and all those who hurt you, and its just fantastic. The vocal lines then move into the next phase of the journey, as the trumpet slices through atop a sea of ever evolving rhythm and density, before moving once again into the chorus, where the audience is encouraged to get involved before the track moves into a more deconstructed period. The final segment sees everyone really getting into the swing of it, with the audience and the whole band just chanting away to the words. Great shit right here. To wrap things up, we have ‘theme nothing’, and this one builds upon the feels of the two previous theme tunes and knocks them out the park, as one final parting gift to this very lucky audience. The beats are full and flowing, the cello is frequent and never wavering, the bass line incessant and full of energy, with these three elements working so beautifully together to move proceedings onwards and upwards to new levels of brilliance. Its a triumph of an ending, with all the technical and conceptual elegance you have come to expect with this record, and to be honest the utmost injection of the unexpected, a feature that lurks around every corner as we remain entranced from start to finish. This is Jazz at its most transformative, its most emotive and its most daring, a sound that situates itself somewhere in between the layers of musical and human expressionism which works to move us to so many differing spaces. Truly spectacular, in every shape of the word.
Live experiences translate themselves in a myriad of ways if you listen back to them, and the presence and scale of the experience comes across only through the ways in which the performers transit their passions. From the minute the needle gets put down, you feel the vibe oozing out of every corner, the fever and meaning pouring from every facet, the emotion and rhythm pouring into every channel that lays itself out in front of us. Branch has curated over a magnificent presence, one that feverishly moves from side to side on a spectrum that continues to give over to us so much on every listen, with impeccable details placed throughout that take the breath away, such is the overarching musicality that floats our way. There's moments of stillness, where the frequencies meander for a moment before exploding into life as we get washed away in a frantic flow of simmering beats, trumpet and bass, and at the end of the day, that's what we really need in life.
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