Trumpeter Jaimie Branch left this earthly plane on Monday, sending shockwaves through the jazz and experimental music communities. The 39-year-old was a consummate collaborator, building close relationships in Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, New York, and beyond. Her sudden passing is a stark affront to the generous spirit at the heart of her music.
Although she studied at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, her enthusiasm and adventurous musicianship, more than a formal pedigree, made her an in-demand player and later a bandleader. She folded punk sensibilities into her work, approaching her instrument with an intense curiosity about every possible sound it could make—whether or not it sounded like a trumpet “should” sound. Associated with the progressive Chicago label International Anthem, branch connected the focus and intensity of high-concept sound artists with the unbridled joy of living in the moment. She’d link up with spiritual seekers as often as wooly guitar jammers, and features on recent albums by Medicine Singers and Eli Winter. Her list of live alliances is even longer than her credited collaborations, among them Angel Bat Dawid, Luke Stewart, Yo La Tengo, and Ryley Walker.
Like many brilliant improvisers, the branch’s most sublime performances likely disappeared into the rafters along the way. Still, she enshrined plenty of her work in recordings. Here are a handful of the highlights.
Fly or Die (2017)
On “Theme 002,” branch sneaks up on a bustling scene—Chad Taylor’s skittering percussion and Jason Ajemian’s bobbing bassline—playing coy, but slowly moves toward a pealing climax. The song is a standout from branch’s 2017 debut album as a bandleader, Fly or Diean ambitious take on free-jazz freakiness that served as her global introduction. Fly or Die itself feels like a journey, with branch working through spells of uncertainty, ebullience, and introspection in her playing. Also worth checking out: last year’s Fly or Die Livewhere branch and company lift off with unmatched energy at a Zurich performance.
The 11-minute “Prayer for America Pt. 1 & 2” is a jewel in the branch’s catalog, arriving early in Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise. She uses her voice for the first time on the album, her slightly raspy timbre adding another texture to the dynamic mix of performance styles. Energetic as it is, Fly or Die II moves away from Fly or Die‘s mostly upbeat exhilaration, and toward expressions of outrage and exasperation over racial injustice.
SOS Sessions 3 (2020)
“I try to write all my music like a suite,” Branch once told Bandcamp Daily. Although she bristled at the idea of making a concept album, she circles the notion with her contribution to the SOS Sessions, a series of works about climate change. Amid her torrents of trumpet and electronic rhythms, branch places soundbites from AOC, Biden, Trump, and more, highlighting the dizzying disorientation of living through a climate emergency while politicians bat around half-measure solutions. Obama’s repurposed warning of “there is such a thing as being too late”—a quote borrowed from Martin Luther King, Jr.—feels especially foreboding in the branch’s context. As with Fly or Die IIbranch offers an indictment of apathy and inaction, reflecting the unease of living in an ill world.
Dropping Stuff and Other Folk Songs (2019)
Although it’s called Dropping Stuff and Other Folk Songs, don’t expect Woody Guthrie covers here: branch joins forces with violist Ig Henneman and flutist Anne LaBarge for a set of freeform pieces. Her trumpet stands in crisp contrast to LaBarge’s airy flits and Henneman’s peculiar squiggles; their compositions prioritize vast openness, and branch’s contributions illuminate the shadows. Dropping Stuff is sparse and icy compared to much of the trumpeter’s discography, yet another reminder of her seemingly limitless powers of improvisation.
Pink Dolphins (2022)
Branch stretched into electronic music as one half of Antelope, her duo with Brooklyn-based drummer Jason Nazary. On the Jeff Parker-produced Pink Dolphins, released in June, branch and Nazary deliver thick compositions that are heady and all-encompassing. “One Living Genus” sounds like a galaxy undulating as it explodes in slow motion; branch’s trumpet flickers in pockets of dense synths and percussion. Branch described the LP as “aquadelic,” a nod to both the rare Amazonian mammal that inspired the album’s title and the fluid sensibility that prevails throughout it. Pink Dolphins demonstrates branch’s capacity for thinking far beyond what might be considered jazz, a glimpse of the important work that was still ahead of her.