FJR founder, Jordannah Elizabeth’s review for The New York City Jazz Record‘s July 2021 issue.
Within the first few moments of delving into the musical landscape of Jaimie Branch’s FLY or DIE LIVE, even the most adept listener can mistake the masterfully produced live album for a serenely tailored studio recording. It takes time to adjust and embrace the realization, leaving one with a morsel of envy for the crowd who were able to experience Branch’s music washing over them like gentle waves of a sonic river without any form of distance and barrier.
FLY or DIE LIVE was recorded in Zürich, Switzerland in January 2020, less than two months before the world was stopped in international lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. You can hear the confidence of Branch’s band, playing without fear or any semblance of anxiety, a marker of the past and the freedom of a pre-pandemic live performance.
The album opens with the title track from the band’s 2019 album Bird Dogs of Paradise. Drummer Chad Taylor opens the show (and both albums) with precise, spiritually potent mbira along with Lester St. Louis’ lullaby-like cello and Jason Ajemian’s artfully blended bass. The three bond as instruments become seamlessly interwoven, creating a melodic quilt of chimes and evenly dispersed rhythmic tones. Halfway through the song, Branch enters with sensual, drawn-out tonal
patterns that blanket the bright percussive performance.
Things then move to “Prayer for Amerikkka pt. 1 & 2”, also the second track of the aforementioned album. The song has a moody, blues-based style with a heavy, eerie drumbeat under walking bass. Branch speaks to the crowd and introduces the song: “We wrote this song about a year ago. Shit was real fucked up at home and it’s still real fucked up. In fact, it may be much much worse…” The trumpeter’s show may have been a part of the pre-pandemic era, but it did not
give any airs about being post-racial. Branch’s song seems like a foreshadowing of the George Floyd murder, captioning the mounting pressure-cooker of America’s unrest. Branch and the band moan as she belts out lyrics with passion and frustration before moving into equally impassioned trumpet playing.
The band plays two more songs from the album, “Lesterlude” and “Twenty-Three n Me, Jupiter Redux”, before breaking off with “Reflections of a Broken Sea”. The song highlights a bit of Branch’s avant garde composing, disjointed circular rhythms bending and flowing on and off syncopation. “Sun Tines” opens with mbira once again, then the rhythm section before they all fall silent to allow Branch to play a spaced-out experimental solo. She adds echo effects, playing calmly and romantically, dancing with the silence of the room, before the band slowly begins to reintegrate itself back into the performance.
Branch and her band perform 19 songs. She introduces the musicians and begins to wind down the set on the 18th, “Love Song”. Ending with energetic, uptempo jazz on “Theme Nothing”, the band shows no signs of exhaustion after a two-hour set.
Branch is a special musician. She is charming, humorous, strong and an extremely talented trumpeter. The chemistry of her band is admirable. Branch knows how to curate a setlist to evoke the maximum amount of artistry, social justice and jovial fanfare.