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Jaimie Branch: A beacon of jazz dimmed too early

As a trumpet player Jaimie Branch's schooling was in jazz, as a musician, she drew from all over the place: folk music, Caribbean calypso, psychedelic rock and punk

Jaimie Branch in November 2021 at Utrecht in the Netherlands.
Jaimie Branch in November 2021 at Utrecht in the Netherlands. (Wikimedia Commons)

On a Sunday earlier this month, Iggy Pop, proto-punk stalwart, iconoclastic rockstar, and broadcaster, played a twofer from Jaimie Branch, the immensely talented American jazz trumpeter, on his weekly BBC 6 show, Iggy Confidential. The two tracks he played were Borealis Dancing and Baba Louie, both from Branch’s third album, Fly Or Die Fly Or Die Fly Or Die (World War), which came out last year. Iggy didn’t mention it but that was Branch’s final album and it came out posthumously. Branch died in August 2022, exactly a year before the release of that album. She was only 39, and her death, according to media reports, was caused by an accidental drug overdose.

Branch’s death had come as a crushing blow to jazz musicians, fans and music journalists who had been hugely impressed by her remarkably talented performances, recordings and compositions. In the span of an abruptly shortened career, Branch had emerged as a big influencer for many musicians and had quickly acquired acclaim among connoisseurs of modern jazz. Including the posthumous last album, as a bandleader, she has just four albums (one of them is a live recording; the others are studio albums) for us to experience her talent. But she has also left for us another body of work through her many collaborations.

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When you listen to Jaimie Branch for the first time—either on her studio albums or on some of the video recordings of her live performances—the first thing that strikes you is her boldness. The trumpet is not an easy instrument to master in jazz and some of the genre’s best trumpet players are also its greatest musicians. Some of jazz’s all time greats such as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, and Wynton Marsalis are also trumpeters.

Branch began playing the trumpet at nine. Later she attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, a private school. Subsequently, she was based in Chicago and began playing professionally at an early age, collaborating with many musicians. She had the ability to compose and play jazz across several sub-genres, including free jazz, but she also had the ability to combine it with other types of modern music such as punk, rock, folk, rap and world music. She used electronics, vocals and other effects to create compositions that broadened the appeal of jazz and was appreciated by different audiences, including those who were not regular jazz fans.

On her last album, which has become a sort of requiem after her death, she covered a song, The Mountain, which was originally by the Meat Puppets, a 1980s cowpunk band. Their title for the original was Comin’ Down, and it had a country-and-western-meets-punk feel. Branch’s version features Jason Ajemian, an acoustic jazz bassist from the Chicago underground jazz scene, who, along with Branch, also sings on the track. On the trumpet solo, Branch plays the tune as a soulful melody.

On Borealis Dancing (also from the same album), a reference to the phenomenon also known as the northern lights in the high-latitude Arctic region, Branch’s trumpet seems to recreate the phenomenon of dancing lights that happens when the sun’s light particles entering the atmosphere collide with gas particles in the earth’s atmosphere, emitting lights in the sky that appear to dance. The track showcases Branch’s ability to play free improvisational jazz as a powerful and tremendously talented trumpeter.

Branch was clearly influenced by jazz icons such as Miles Davis and another great trumpeter, Don Cherry, but also by other contemporary musicians. Back in 2008, still in her 20s, she collaborated with Tim Daisy, Chicago-based drummer and percussionist and formed the New Fracture Quartet, which made highly improvised free-form jazz. Their 2008 album, 1,000 Lights, is a showcase of their avant-garde brand of music.

As a jazz musician, Branch was prolific and collaborated with many other artists from different genres and scenes. With Jason Nazary, a drummer and producer, she formed the electro-acoustic duo Anteloper and released, notably, the five-song EP, Pink Dolphins.

With Luke Stewart and Tcheser Holmes of the free-jazz collective, Irreversible Entanglements, she formed the trio C’est Trois. She played with the saxophonist and composer James Brandon Lewis in his band, Unruly Quintet: there is a more than an hour-long live concert that you can watch on YouTube. She was also invited to work as a guest musician with indie rock bands such as Yo La Tengo, TV on the Radio and Spoon.

Her albums as a bandleader got critical acclaim for their originality and creativity. Branch was unique as a jazz musician. Although as a trumpet player her schooling was in jazz, as a musician she drew from all over the place: folk music, Caribbean calypso, psychedelic rock and punk.

Her albums appear to show the work of a pioneer who would be taking jazz to another new level: a work in progress where the influences of many other genres were being assimilated and blended together with contemporary jazz to create what might have given jazz an altogether new form, much like what pioneers like Miles Davis had done for the genre in the late 1960s. Sadly, with her loss we will not know what that could have been.


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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music. He posts @sanjoynarayan

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