Jaimie Branch: Fly or Die
Hear in Now: Not Living in Fear
If you were to do a little survey of major publications' 2017 year-end lists, you'd notice Fly or Die appearing repeatedly in the jazz category. A single listen to the trumpeter's debut record explains why: the concise thirty-five-minute set stokes serious fire from the drop and makes an equally serious case for this firebrand's highly personalized vision. It doesn't hurt either that the musicians with which she's surrounded herself—cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Jason Ajemian, and drummer Chad Taylor—are as committed to the music as she (guitarist Matt Schneider and cornetists Ben Lamar Gay and Josh Berman also guest on the recording). The four dig into Branch's genre-busting charts with furious intent, making Fly or Die a must-listen for open-eared listeners everywhere.
A familiar face on the Chicago scene and a recent addition to New York's, Branch brings classical training and an avant-garde open-mindedness to the project, as well as a broad range of experience. She's had a hand in many projects in jazz and beyond, and her credit list cites associations with William Parker, Matana Roberts, TV On The Radio, and Spoon. It's worth noting that while Fly or Die most naturally invites the jazz categorization, it's hardly jazz in the traditional sense, and anyone looking for swinging triplets is shopping in the wrong department. Instead, we get a slamming, Taylor-powered groove that drives “Theme 001” with urgent bite and a wildly adventurous two-part plunge that shows off Branch's experimental side.
“Theme 001” has a whole lot more going for it than Taylor's punchy contribution, as strong as it is. There's Branch's brash declamation of the main melody as well, plus the remarkable interplay between Reid and Ajemian, who pluck with fury and wield bows like so much lethal weaponry. The music's, in a word, dizzying, so much so it demands repeated listenings to absorb everything that's going on. The subsequent “Theme 002” and “Theme Nothing” revisit the material, recasting it as a kick-ass stomp that's as rooted in country as techno, strange as that might sound, and featuring soloing by Branch that comes as close to jazz swing as the album ever does. Elsewhere, her avant side moves to the fore during the free-wheeling breakdown “...meanwhile,” whereas the slow exploration “Waltzer” sees the outfit taking things down to an entropic pitch.In that aforementioned two-part setting, “Leaves of Glass” begins as a plaintive chorale featuring Branch's lead trumpet in counterpoint with the cornetists, but things take a dark turn halfway through when creaking strings and braying horns emerge to effect the transition into the even wilder “The Storm” where plummeting bowed strings and ominous drum rolls establish a nightmarish ambiance. In this bravura set-piece, horn wails and string groans add to the horrific effect, making the track play like some deathly soundtrack to the earth's demise. It's about as far from jazz as could be imagined and testifies, like the album in general, to the boldness of the trumpeter's concept.
Reid's always a force to be reckoned with (in 2015 the Chicago Tribune named her “Chicagoan of the Year” in the jazz category, for example), and she proves to be an excellent sparring partner for Branch. But frankly any recording the cellist plays on merits attention, and that certainly applies to Not Living in Fear, the second studio album by Hear in Now, the string trio Reid shares with violinist Mazz Swift and double bassist Silvia Bolognesi. The group came together in response to a 2009 commission from WomaJazz in Italy, which brought them together from their New York, Chicago, and Siena home-bases to not only perform but meet for the first time, and in the years since, the three have stepped away from their individual projects to reconvene under the Hear in Now banner.
The recording provides an in-depth portrait of the trio's MO, balancing as it does a generous share of improvs and formally composed pieces. Adding to the release's appeal, homages to Charlie Haden and Abdul Wadud appear, and in an album highlight Chicago jazz singer Dee Alexander elevates the title cut with a soulful vocal contribution. Tunes such as “Leaving Livorno” and “Cicle” play to the trio's strengths in undergirding strong lead melodies by Swift with solid groundings by Bolognesi and Reid.
Any assessment of the album would be incomplete without drawing attention to the violinist's bravura turns on “Terrortoma,” “Cultural Differences,” and “Cantiere Orlando”; elsewhere the trio memorializes Haden in heartfelt manner, with Bolognesi, appropriately, making a memorable solo statement, and offers an equally affecting prayer for Wadud (an invaluable 2014 interview Reid and Joel Wanek conducted with the cellist is posted at the Point of Departure site). The violinist isn't always at the forefront, by the way, as other tracks see the front-line role split between the three, a move that marks Hear in Now as a project where hierarchical divisions between leader and follower collapse. It's not unusual for two members to play in unison, freeing the third to solo, and for different couplings to emerge within the same arrangement.
Truth be told, Not Living in Fear could have done with some of the concision that makes Fly or Die so satisfying; there are moments during the improvs where the momentum flags, and at such moments I couldn't help but think that the hour-long, thirteen-track album would have benefited from some tightening up. Such a caveat hardly argues against this fine recording, however, which earns its recommendation and then some.