Jaimie Branch :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Jaimie Branch has been playing the trumpet since the age of nine, working the possibilities of her instrument to create the music that lives in her head. After studying at the New England Conservatory of Music under jazz greats John McNeil, Joe Morris, and Steve Lacy, Branch started gigging in Chicago. She has worked with many of that scene’s best known improvisers—Keefe Jackson, Tim Daisy, Ken Vandermark, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Toby Summerfield, and others.

Her latest album Fly Or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise delivers challenge and experiment in the context of irresistible swing; Branch even sings on a couple of tracks. In support, she reconvenes most of the band from her 2017 breakout, Fly or Die: Branch herself on trumpet and leading the band, Jason Ajemian on string bass and percussion and Chad Taylor on drums; the new guy is Lester St. Louis, a New York-based cellist sitting in the seat Tomeka Reid held down in the original Fly or Die. Here we talk about the music, her creative process, and the way the Branch’s joyful playing has seen her through challenging times. words / j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: The video on your website shows you writing charts. What’s the balance of improvisation and composition in this album and in your work in general? How much of it do you write out and how much of it gets created as you play with the band?

Jaimie Branch: I write skeletal sketches of the whole set. That can include things like chord changes or bass lines or melodies, but most of the music happens when the band starts playing. I like to leave the written material open enough so that it can go a lot of different places on any given night. And also, so that it’s not so didactic. I really think the music happens in the air not on the page. There’s a lot of improvisation.

AD: Your band is wonderful, and it’s an interesting configuration. Trumpet/bass/drums is pretty standard, but having a cello gives you almost a little chamber orchestra in there. What do you like about the way these sounds mix and interact?

Jaimie Branch: The cello is a super versatile instrument, because it can be part of the string section, like you’re saying, the chamber orchestra. It’s also part of the rhythm section, and then he can also be a soloist. Besides that, I really like the timbre of the bass and the cello together and the juxtaposition of those woody timbres with the trumpet’s brass timbre. I’ve been working with cellos for a long time now.

AD: How did you first get into it?

Jaimie Branch: I started playing with Fred Lonberg-Holm in Chicago. He actually gave me my first gig, pretty much, on the Chicago scene, and we had a trio for a while called Sherpa with the bassist Toby Summerfield.  

AD: How did you put together your current band?

Jaimie Branch: Jason [Ajemian] and Chad [Taylor} and I all knew each other from Chicago. Jason is one of the first people I started playing with in Chicago back in 2004 or 2005. And Chad was like coming up, he was in bands like the Chicago Underground Duo and Quartet.

AD: Yes, I’ve seen him in that…

Jaimie Branch: He has also played with Matana Roberts and Josh Abrams, and so Chad, I’ve always been a fan of his playing. I’m currently a fan of his playing.

AD:  The drumming is really good on this album. Really interesting.

Jaimie Branch: It leads a lot of the tunes, even though I’m the leader technically.

Lester St. Louis is new. Originally, Tomeka Reid, who is also a compatriot from Chicago, was in the band. We started ramping up, when we put out the first record—and we really didn’t know how it was going to be received or if anybody was even going to listen at the time. But as that record was gaining steam, we started working out a touring schedule. It became clear that Tomeka wasn’t going to be able to make the dates, mostly because she has her own really busy career, and she’s now a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Lester St. Louis is a young cat from New York, from Queens. I met him in 2015 when I moved to New York. I immediately thought of him, because he’s an incredible musician and he’s also a really chill guy. We played a few dates together and had a little band huddle, and it was unanimous that we should see if Lester wanted to join us, and that’s how that happened.

AD: Is this the first record you’ve sung on?

Jaimie Branch: It’s the first record I’ve sung on that’s ever come out.

AD:  How did you decide to do that?

Jaimie Branch: “Prayer for Amerikkka” started as an instrumental blues. We were working on it as we were touring. I really wanted a slow dirge-y blues, kind of like …I don’t know if you know Julius Hemphill? Do you know the Julius song “The Hard Blues” off Coon Bid’ness?

AD: No, sorry, tell me about it.

Jaimie Branch: You’ve got to check it out. It’s really hard to find. There’s a saxophone quartet version. The tune, “Prayer for Amerikkka,” started off as an instrumental tune and kind of, a la the tune “Coon Bid’ness” by Julius Hemphill. We were playing in Paris on November 6, 2018. It was the day of the midterm elections at home. I kind of was going on a little bit of a rant, and I started singing that night. I started singing the outline of “Prayer for Amerikkka” basically. We were flipping into the Latin part, for lack of a better term, on the second half, but there wasn’t really a through story line yet. So, it became a two-part piece. That’s why it’s called Part I and Part II. Part one is more centered around domestic issues in America, and the second half is about our relationships with our neighboring countries down south in Central and South America.

AD:  It’s a really powerful narrative about a young woman who is trying to immigrate to America but is refused asylum and has to go back.

Jaimie Branch: Yeah, she was refused asylum. She came with her family because her father was murdered by a gang. He wasn’t part of the gang. They just wanted to extort him. So, the mother moved the family with a backpack and $300 to the United States. They sought asylum in Texas. The mother and the two younger sons were allowed to pass through to live with her brother in Chicago, but the daughter, who was 19, was refused entry. One, based on her age, and two because she didn’t pass the test of credible fear. That’s what they call it.

AD: Even though her father had been killed?

Jaimie Branch:Yeah, right, of course there was fucking fear there. But she got deported, and she had a really horrific story when she got back to El Salvador. She was sexually assaulted. She tried to seek asylum again, and basically, she sat in holding for three plus years.

AD: Is this someone you knew?

Jaimie Branch: My mother is a social worker. It’s a family that she was helping. There is a slight upside in that she was able to pass through eventually.

AD: Oh good…but still, that’s one out of so many.

Jaimie Branch: Exactly, and it’s also …the conditions down there, she said in the interview, were subhuman. And when they let her go, it was almost like a flippant decision. There’s no humanity there.

But for this song, the music came first, this mash-up of spaghetti western and bolero. And then the lyrics came later as I was analyzing why I was making this musical decision. I realized that it was because of this story that I had heard and that my mother was so close to.

AD: It must be weird now being in Europe where I think everybody’s saying, “What the hell is going on in America?’  

Jaimie Branch: The sad truth is that this stuff is happening in a lot of other countries. There are some weird, dark undertones in a lot of countries that I’ve been to lately. But yeah, the consensus around the world is that Donald Trump is a fucking idiot. I’m pretty sure that’s the consensus in his cabinet, too.

AD: Yeah, but there’s money to be made and judges to be confirmed.

Jaimie Branch: Yeah.

AD: A couple times in that song, you switch very quickly from playing the trumpet to singing.  Is that hard to do?

Jaimie Branch:Hah, it is a little bit hard. The way I’ve been doing it live is I kind of swing the XLR cable around my neck and I just, when it’s time to sing, I’ll put my horn down quick and then just kind of whip my neck and grab the mic. That’s my new style right now.

AD: Oh, wow, that sounds dangerous.

Jaimie Branch: Yeah, right? I’ll probably bash myself in the teeth. But you know, I’m not a trained vocalist, so I get to it the way I can. I’m not a big fan of music stands or even mic stands, really, so I usually have the mic on the ground.  

AD: I love the groove in “Simple Silver Surfer,” and it seems like it’s a constant, the way your songs balance locked-in grooves with flights of really free, abstract playing. How do you see these two elements working together?

Jaimie Branch: I don’t like one better than the other. I think that all of the sounds are good sounds. I think balancing is an interesting way to put that. Not just balancing groove and abstract-ness, but also heaviness with lightness. I feel like “Simple Silver Surfer” is a little bit of a reprieve of the heaviness on the first half of the record.

AD: It makes you feel good.

Jaimie Branch: And then it goes into a drone piece.

AD: I was going to ask you about that, because drone is its own genre, and you probably don’t care about genres too much, but it’s interesting to have that right there. That long sustained sound with the strings.

Jaimie Branch: It’s strings, trumpet and percussion. I mixed it on purpose so that the trumpet is not so obvious, because I really wanted it to be a group sound. I wanted it to be a song that says, “This is a quartet playing.” You can’t even tell Chad’s in there, but he’s bowing. He’s bowing the cymbal or bowing some percussion, and then it develops into a drum solo.

The other thing about drone that I wanted to say is that it’s a really good way to focus everybody’s ears. It’s a moment of reflection, you know. When you’re playing, especially like with folks that haven’t improvised together before, I’ve always found that droning to start gets everybody listening and ears going before they’re thinking about things like chops. 

AD: Interesting. Almost like a group meditation.

Jaimie Branch: That’s exactly what I was about to say. And it is a meditation. I think music is a form of meditation. 

AD: Oh yeah, I do, too.

Jaimie Branch: But, specifically drone. And then it pops into a drum solo that was taken from a live show. The drum solo with all the wolves coming out, that came from a live show in London.

AD: You’re talking about “Bird Dogs of Paradise?”

Jaimie Branch: Yeah.

AD: Where everybody’s kind of howling? Tell me about recording that song. What was that like?

Jaimie Branch: That was from our first night at Café Oto in London. It was an organic happening, you know. I started howling, and then Jason on the bass started howling, and then somebody in the audience started howling, and the whole thing kind of blew up in a really magical way. The beauty of live performance, you know.  

AD: What about “Love Song?” Why do assholes get their own love song?

Jaimie Branch: [Laughs] You know, even assholes need some love. “Love Song” is actually one of the older tunes on the record. It was a song I wrote in 2005. And I’ve tried it over the years in different configurations, and when I tried it with this band, I really didn’t know how it was going to work, and everybody fell into it so great, it was like, okay, here we go. It’s like calling people out in a friendly way, almost, you know. There’s a lot of assholes out there. There’s a lot of clowns, and that one goes out to them.

AD: Can you tell me a little about how you got started? You started playing the trumpet at nine?

Jaimie Branch: Yup. We moved from New York to Chicagoland when I was nine, and that was also the year that the school band started. I picked the trumpet.

AD: Did you know right away that was going to be your life?

Jaimie Branch: I was already pretty heavy into music. I started playing the piano at age three. I have an older half-brother who is ten years older, who is a musician. So, from even before I can remember, I wanted to play music. I took lessons where you learn by ear, which was really cool. You tape the lesson, and then go home and then learn the song from the cassette. And then I really wanted to play the string bass, the double bass, but when we moved, the school didn’t have an orchestra. They just had a band. And so, I chose the trumpet. It was a big decision between trumpet and saxophone. But I chose the trumpet. By the time I was 12, I knew that was going to be my life.

AD: Was it still unusual then for a girl to be playing the trumpet?

Jaimie Branch: There were nine trumpet players in our school band that started and two were women, or girls.

AD: When I was in band, there was one. Flute was a girl instrument. Clarinet was a girl instrument, and trumpet really was not.

Jaimie Branch:Right, but that gives you the impetus to be better than everybody else. They don’t have much to say if you’re better than everybody. I felt worse for the one boy flute player, who really got made fun of. That was rough.

AD: Who were some of your early heroes in music?

Jaimie Branch: Definitely Miles Davis. The first solo I ever transcribed was a Miles solo, and then shortly after, Chet Baker. For me, this is because, a Chet Baker solo isn’t nearly as intimidating as a Clifford Brown solo. It was a way to get in and feel like I was learning something. But it took time to really find my voice, for sure.  

AD: I know that you went to music conservatory, so you have the hard-core training. Can you talk about the academy versus what you’re doing now, and what you learned there versus what you’re able to apply? Did you have to toss a lot of that out?

Jaimie Branch: I don’t know if you ever really throw out anything that you’ve learned, but you can certainly throw out attitudes around the music. The big thing for me at the conservatory was number one, practice time. On my instrument. And then, two, the teachers and the students that I was able to learn from and play with, most notably John McNeil, trumpet teacher who I studied with for the first two years, Joe Morris, the guitarist, who I studied with my last couple of years and then Steve Lacy, who I got to study with for one incredible year. We were able to split our studios, so that doesn’t add to five years. It’s just the way it happened.  

Studying with those three guys and also the classical trumpet player, Charlie Schlueter from the Boston Symphony, who helped me get my chops together, that was huge for me. And a lot of my classmates that I went to school with are still out and play, you know? Some of whom I still play with. That’s the main thing for me. The main thing about school was putting the time in on the instrument and then preparing for my recital. It was the first time I was really leading a band, a jazz ensemble. That was really good for me, too, and it was the first time I wrote in a suite style. I wrote this one piece in particular that kind of turned out to be the way that I would continue writing until now. 15 years or so.  

AD: I know you’re interested in extended technique. Tell me about that.

Jaimie Branch: I’m always working on trying to get more and more extended techniques, just get deeper with it. The trumpet player who really inspired me was Axel Dörner, the German trumpet player. I heard a record of his called Trumpet, that was two tracks and all circular breathing with multiphonics.

AD: Wow.

Jaimie Branch:That really put me on a quest to find some other sounds on the horn. I saw him play at the Empty Bottle and at Myopic Books in Chicago, and the Myopic show, I was probably one of seven people there. And I just went up to him and asked if I could take a lesson. And that was the very beginning of my extended technique journey.

AD: What are you working on now in terms of extended technique?

Jaimie Branch: I don’t know how exactly to explain it, but most with multiphonics and things like that, I’m always trying to get deeper and deeper into the resonance. One thing that Axel does that other trumpet players that I’ve heard can’t quite do, is that he’s able to fill the entire room with his sound, even if his sound isn’t loud, because he has all these harmonics in it. So, for me, it’s getting more and more into this resonance spectrum, and also articulation-based stuff. One of my huge influences is Evan Parker, the saxophonist, and Evan has all these different articulations, and he also has a whole ton of nuance. He feels like a really mutable player, who can play differently every time, and every time, it’s like, you know, fantastic. So circular breathing is something that I learned how to do way back in the day, mostly because my brother, my aforementioned brother, could circular breathe on the euphonium.

AD: Which allows you to play really long notes?

Jaimie Branch:Really long notes, and also to kind of push the phrasing. You can go beyond where the phrase would naturally end because of the breath.

AD: Do you think in trumpet or do you hear the music and then try to figure out how to play it on the trumpet?

Jaimie Branch: I think both. Depending on what I’m doing. A lot of times, the thing that I’m trying to do is to play the music I hear in my head. That’s A-1-A, number one, the goal. But sometimes, I’ll notice somebody else do something and I’ll be like, okay, I’ve got to figure that out. Someone like Peter Evans, who has this crazy slap tongue technique. I still can’t do it but I’m working on it. That didn’t come from my head. That came from listening to Peter.

AD: You said some really interesting stuff on the video about your addiction and how that relates your music. I don’t know how much you want to talk about that.

Jaimie Branch:For me, there was an emotional part to improvised music that I was not so keen on leaning into at first, because I thought it was corny or cheesy or something like that. Like playing a simple melody is probably not something I would have done in 2007 or 2008. And then, you know, basically I got in pretty deep. And so, finding a way out of that, I realized that one of the things I need was this vulnerability or something in order to have this adrenaline drug kind of kick off while you’re playing. That gave me some sort of chemical reaction that I wanted, that I wasn’t getting any more from the drugs. And so, I defused that down. I try to think about what does that even mean? I think it’s like feeling something. When I’m up there, I’m putting it all out on the table. It’s like high risk, high reward.

AD: What’s the one most important thing that you’d want people to know about your music? If you could only tell them one thing?

Jaimie Branch: I want them to know that I mean every note that I play.

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