Hear A Tribute to the Form-Bending Musician This Sunday, 9/11, at 9 am on KUTX ‘s Sunday Morning Jazz
By Jeff McCord
Treading borders between camps is an excellent way to avoid being detected by either side. Such was the fate of Chicago trumpeter Jaimie Branch, a brilliant force in both composing and performing. She also sang, and improvised on electronics, shunning genre conventions along the way. Within the confines of experimental music and jazz, her star was rising rapidly. That is, until late August, when at her home in Red Hook, Brooklyn, she died. She was 39 years old.
International Anthem, the adventurous Chicago label that released much of Branch’s work (including the recent Pink Dolphins from her electronic duo Anteloper), announced her death. No cause was given.
Branch was one of those rare individuals whose muse overtook all notions of decorum. Those expecting keyboard gazing at her electronic improvisations were shocked at her wild animations. Those overtaken by her New England Conservatory of Music-trained trumpet mastery found a raucous onstage persona that seemed anything but serious.
Though she’d shared stages with others (everyone from Ken Vandermark to TV on the Radio), I first began to notice Branch when she released her debut album as a leader, 2017’s Fly Or Die. Her sound was lyrical, mournful at times, punctuated by piercing screams and quiet interludes. She’d lay back and let her band (cello, bass, drums) groove. Everything seemed intensely felt; she had the playfulness of a young Don Cherry; the brashness of Lester Bowie, and the wide emotional range of Miles. Everything about her debut was impressive.
At this year’s Big Ears festival, I tore myself away from the closing selections of an intense Jason Moran performance to catch Branch and her band live. I’d seen some fairly recent pictures of her and knew Branch, who had been public in her struggles with heroin and opioids, had put on weight. Still, I was utterly unprepared when she appeared, in an Outkast ATLiens t-shirt, covered by some kind of fishnet kimono. On her head, swim goggles held on a knit cap. She was – there’s no other way to put this – enormous; flustered, sweating, loudly cursing.
And then she began to play. Instantly transforming, her eyes and face lit up, she was vibrant, and engaged. Using finger flicks to cue her band – a locked tight rhythm section of drums, bass and cello, alternating between swing, dub, funk and reggae – Branch shouted exclamations, fired out notes, danced, sang, muted her trumpet with a handle-less bathroom plunger, and mouthed rhythms as she walked off the mic to groove to the beats. She was in her element, and completely in control. Branch was not just making music, she was absorbing it.
In a festival full of mind-blowing performances, I think about Branch’s set often, particularly since her death. I’ve rarely seen a more musical being, one who, despite her struggles, performed with the epitome of grace and intensity. It didn’t matter what you called it. For that hour, she made her music. And nothing stood in her way.
Jeff McCord will feature a tribute to Jaimie Branch on KUTX this Sunday, 9/11, when he guest hosts Sunday Morning Jazz