No one’s going to be playing Evan Parker or Invisible Taste at the gym anytime soon, but sometimes improvised music—even really “outside” improvised music—is just the thing to set yourself up for a workout. That’s what I found, anyway, after blasting Jaimie Branch’s debut as a leader, Fly or Die, immediately before an afternoon of moving bookshelves. I went out the door with a spring in my step and was still buzzing when I got home, just in time to talk to the Brooklyn-based trumpeter, reached at a café somewhere in her Red Hook neighbourhood.
The idea of using Fly or Die to power an unintentional Stairmaster session amuses Branch, but she’s willing to consider the possibility. “I think that’s Chad Taylor, that spring in your step,” she says with an audible grin, referring to her band’s drummer. “He’s the engine behind a lot of the music on the record, especially the groove stuff. He really hits the drums.”
Branch is equally effusive about bassist Jason Ajemian and cellist Lester St. Louis, the player recently tasked with replacing Tomeka Reid, who performs on the album. St. Louis has an especially important role, given that he has to switch between sketching out the music’s harmonic content, supplying scratchy, abstract textures, buttressing Ajemian’s bass lines, and taking his own often beautiful solos. Branch didn’t necessarily intend to feature the cello in the first iteration of her quartet: the idea was simply to showcase some of her fellow Chicago-to-Brooklyn transplants, and Reid happened to be in the vicinity. But she’s glad she did.
“The cello is a super versatile instrument,” she explains. “It’s kind of like the bassoon or the trombone of the string world, but with more facilities, probably, than either of those instruments. The cello can act as part of the rhythm section; it can also act as a soloist.”
Branch is looking forward to featuring St. Louis’s expansive skill set in her next batch of pieces, and feels that the quartet as a whole has endless potential. She’s less interested in self-assessing what she brings to the table. “Next question!” she says, before relenting.
“I’m a trumpet player!” she says. “I play the fucking trumpet. I play the shit out of the trumpet. I can’t rip bebop lines like Lee Morgan, but I want to play with the same energy as him. Well, not the same, but I want to have the energy that those cats had in the music that I’m playing.
“Sometimes it’s hard,” she adds. “Sometimes you’re fighting with the horn, but I don’t know… You’ve got to keep in shape.”
It’s a good thing, then, that Branch’s challenging but uplifting music provides the perfect soundtrack for just that.
Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die plays the Ironworks on Saturday (June 30), as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.