Home Featured Jazz trumpeter Jaimie Branch played with a sonic sucker punch | Jazz

Jazz trumpeter Jaimie Branch played with a sonic sucker punch | Jazz

Jazz trumpeter Jaimie Branch played with a sonic sucker punch | Jazz

Jaimie Branch, who has died at the age of 39, was an internationally acclaimed trumpeter who brought a demotic sensibility to some often very experimental music. Appearing on stage in baggy clothes and a trademark baseball cap, she could be brash, swaggering, hilariously foul-mouthed and profane – all qualities reflected by the sonic sucker punch of her playing. “Playing the trumpet is like singing your soul,” she said. “When you’re improvising your whole body feels like it’s lighting up.”

Born in Long Island, New York in June 1983, she started piano lessons at the age of three and trumpet at the age of nine. Her first teacher was a mariachi player in Chicago. “It meant that I learned to play loud, with loads of vibrato,” she said. She later learned to tone down the vibrato, but the forthright, incendiary delivery remained. She was a fan of punk and grunge – Nirvana, the Descendents, NOFX, Minor Threat – throughout her teens, and those hardcore tendencies often spilled into her jazz.

Jaimie Branch.
‘I learned to play loud’ … Jaimie Branch. Photograph: Abdesslam Mirdass

After moving to a northern suburb of Chicago in her early teens, she started taking music more seriously – as the only female trumpeter in her school band, she said there was a pressure to prove herself and be better than anyone else. After a chance meeting with the trumpeter John McNeil, she was offered a place at the New England Conservatory of Music, taking lessons from the likes of the guitarist Joe Morris and the celebrated saxophonist Steve Lacy, and improving her classical chops with the Boston Symphony’s Charles Schlueter. She later attended Towson University in Baltimore, where she also immersed herself in sound engineering and production.

It was only after studying on the east coast that she started to appreciate Chicago’s diverse, left-field jazz scene, the infrastructure for which had been laid by the likes of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ken Vandermark and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. And it was in Chicago that Branch truly found her voice. “Everyone was playing music at a super high level but it wasn’t ego-driven,” she said. “I was drawn to it in a physical, visceral way. I needed to be part of that scene.” She was mentored by the tenor saxophonist and club owner Fred Anderson (“he’d let me play and hang out at a jazz venue called the Velvet Lounge, on the condition that I couldn’t drink, because I was underage”), as well as older musicians such as drummer Frank Rosaly and saxophonist Matana Roberts. She started playing with the bassist Jason Ajemian, Keefe Jackson’s Project Project and the New Fracture Quartet, as well as numerous alt-rock bands. Her playing started to develop a mischievous quality, mixed with a raw power and intensity.

Branch also became obsessed with the experimental German trumpeter Axel Dörner, and pestered him for advice after seeing him playing a duet gig in Chicago (he recalls “a punky chick wearing a Ramones T-shirt, a backwards baseball cap and cut-off jeans asking for a lesson”). Through Dörner she started embracing extended techniques such as multiphonics and circular breathing. Branch would often play live with two microphones – one providing a clean sound, the other fed through a reverb-drenched FX unit that accentuated her trumpet’s resonant bass frequencies.

Jaimie Branch: Prayer for Amerikkka, Pt 1 & 2 – video

She was also interested in playing unorthodox lineups. Her Fly or Die band featured drums, double bass and cello (“I like the fact that I’ve got a mini string section in a small band,” she said), and she also explored electronica with Anteloper, a duet with drummer Jason Nazary. Tracks on her two Fly Or Die albums were recorded live in venues in London and New York and later manipulated in the studio – a rare mix of free improvisation and cutting-edge studio technology.

Her Fly Or Die albums also showed an explicitly political bent. While playing a gig in Paris during the 2018 midterm elections, she launched into a half-howled rap aimed at the nativist tendencies of then president Donald Trump, declaiming that “we got a bunch of wide-eyed racists in power”. This impromptu jam eventually became the 12-minute track Prayer for Amerikkka, Pt 1 & 2, the centrepiece of her Fly Or Die II album. The song also recounts the harrowing story of a refugee from El Salvador being refused asylum in Texas – Branch’s mother, Sally, who is of Colombian heritage, is a social worker who often shared with Jaimie harrowing stories of refugees that she was tasked with helping.

Branch has also talked about her drug addiction – she moved to New York in 2014 to seek treatment for heroin. Based in the Red Hook neighbourhood of Brooklyn with her giant, 14-year-old yorkshire terrier Patton, Branch also took advantage of the city’s status as the world’s jazz capital. She maintained contact with many old Chicago sidekicks, but also fell in with New York musicians like saxophonist James Brandon Lewis and guitarist Ava Mandoza. She also connected with jazz legends such as the veteran double bassist William Parker. “Jaimie doesn’t fool around,” he said. “She has a darting and daring sound that has power and isn’t intellectual.”

Jaimie Branch is survived by her mother, Sally, her sister Kate and two half-brothers, Russell and Clark. “She was my everything,” said her sister Kate on social media. “She was the bravest person I knew, on and off the stage. And my life seems too quiet now.”

Jaimie Branch: 10 great recordings

Jaimie Branch: 10 great recordings – Spotify playlist Spotify

Waltzer (from Fly Or Die, 2017)
Branch could be brash, but her playing could also be introspective – here her trumpet sighs, mournfully and groggily, over a constantly mutating walking bass and atmospheric percussion.

Prayer for Amerikkka, Pts 1 & 2 (from Fly Or Die II, 2019)
Inspired, apparently, by Julius Hemphill’s militant anthem Coon Bid’ness, this 12-minute epic became Branch’s calling card.

Bird Dogs of Paradise (from Fly Or Die II, 2019)
Egged on by audience members at London’s Cafe Oto howling like wolves, Branch’s band started following suit and incorporated it into this arrhythmic improvisation, all creaky bass, flailing drums and trumpet drones.

Theme 002 (from Fly Or Die Live, 2021)
Recorded live in Switzerland in early 2020, it sees Branch ducking and diving against a fast, dubby, calypso rhythm and a busy ostinato bassline, which slowly devolve into arrhythmic mayhem, with Branch tripping out on a kalimba thumb piano.

Fossil Record (from Kudu by Anteloper, 2018)
Scribbly, shrapnel-spraying trumpet improvisation over a wobby electronic pulse and a tom-tom-heavy drum.

Isotope 420 (from the EP Tour Beats Vol 1 by Anteloper, 2020)
Branch’s FX-laden kalimba thumb piano and her muted trumpet soar over this one-chord Afro-funk groove.

Dome Ship (by Booker Stardrum, 2018)
Branch exercised her circular-breathing chops on this piece of drone-based minimalism by the Los Angeles-based percussionist and composer.

Dark Honey (4The Storm) (from Beautiful Vinyl Hunter by Ashley Henry, 2019)
Branch shares the trumpet roles with James Copus on this skittery waltz, playing alongside Chicago drummer Makaya McCraven on this all-star session by London pianist Henry.

A Wrinkle in Time Sets Concentric Circles Reeling (by Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra, 2020)
Branch’s trumpet soars over the clockwork arrangement on Chicago lynchpin’s sci-fi-themed album.

Bastards on the Run (from See You Out There by Dave Gisler Trio, 2022)
Branch plays tight harmonies and explosive freakouts with tenor saxophonist David Murray and guitarist Gisler on this dense, frenetic, 100mph track from a wonderfully chaotic album.