Last month, the jazz world was shocked at the unexpected and tragic news that trumpeter Jaimie Branch had died, at home, at just 39. I only met her once, at a trio gig she played with bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Mike Pride in September 2019, and that was only because I walked up to introduce myself and set up the interview that appears below.
Here’s video of that performance. I am briefly visible a time or two.
That was one of only two times I saw her perform — the other was at Winter Jazzfest in January 2018, when she was part of an expanded version of Harriet Tubman that also included alto saxophonist Darius Jones, tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, Stewart on electric bass, and Warren Trae Crudup III on drums; they were performing an interpretation of Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz,” and it was amazing.
Like a lot of people, I discovered Branch when her first album under her own name was released in 2017. Fly Or Die sounded like nothing else by anybody else; there were little hints of Julius Hemphill and Bill Dixon audible if you knew to listen for them, but in the context of 2017 it was (and remains) a stunning achievement. The fact that it was one of the first wave of releases on International Anthem, a label that’s seized a shocking amount of territory in the last five years, seems totally unsurprising now. DIY as fuck and Chicago to the core of its bones, it wouldn’t have belonged anywhere else. I called it the best jazz album of 2017 on Stereogum, and I stand by that.
Two years later, the sequel was on the way, and I really wanted to interview her. I pitched a feature to Rob Young (ex-editor of The Wire, then running Norway’s Jazznytt) and got the go-ahead once we learned that she’d be performing at Nasjonal Jazzscene in January 2020. (Jazznytt is a quarterly.) So in late September or early October 2019, she and I spent about an hour on the phone. I wrote a 2500-word feature, which was translated into Norwegian, and later folded some of it into Ugly Beauty: Jazz in the 21st Century (available everywhere now!).
What follows is a very lightly edited transcript of our conversation. It’s long, but it’s worth reading, I think. She was a sharp, self-possessed artist whose work will remain important for many years to come, and this interview will give you some insight into her approach and philosophy.
Let’s start with the new record. Was it a hard decision to include lyrics on this record?
It was — it was the way the music was headed, you know? The blues, the “Prayer for Amerikkka,” kind of happened at a gig somewhat sporadically, and then over time developed into what it was, like over the course of tour, the next couple of weeks, and then “Love Song” is an old song, and I was trying it for the first time with this group. And you know, those lyrics were already written. So…
Yeah. Well, that one’s basically a mantra, it’s just the one line repeated, but the other one is a full-on, it’s like a Mingus sort of performance piece. And then when it speeds up at the end it kind of reminds me of Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln’s “Freedom Day,” so were you consciously trying to do something in that lineage, or how did that piece come together?
I mean, one of my favorite tunes probably of all time is the Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus version of “Fables Of Faubus,” but I wasn’t thinking about that super consciously. But it’s definitely in my listening bones, you know?
Do you do a lot of writing?
Vocal writing? Lyric writing?
Like, poetry — everything. Did the move to lyrics… was it a natural outgrowth of stuff you’d been doing anyway?
I mean, you know, what is natural, right? [laughs] But, you know, especially like writing the second half of that tune, it took a lot of time for me. ’Cause I wanted to say a lot, and I didn’t want to say at the same time — I didn’t want to use too many words, because for me, it’s a specific story, but it’s also many stories all at once, you know what I’m saying?
Yeah. Because it does kind of shift from one thing to another, from sort of homegrown racism to the immigrant issue, it becomes something entirely different.
And you’re also a visual artist. I mean, you told me when we met the other day that you do the background for your albums and then your tattoo artist, whose name I’ve forgotten, but he does the birds.
John Herndon, one of the drummers from Tortoise.
Yeah, he does the birds.
Did you go to school for painting or anything like that?
No, nothing like that.
Just self-taught, screwing around and here you are.
I mean, yeah, screwing around or practicing art [laughs].
So this new record was recorded in London. Was that just out of convenience, like, all right, the music’s ready now, let’s do it while we’re here, or was that the plan all along? What was the process?
Yeah, that was the plan. I had the recording date before I had the music finished, you know?
Oh, okay. Like a self-imposed deadline, all these tunes have to be ready by this date?
Yeah, ready to record. It’s not — you know, I’ve been composing and performing for a long time, so writing a set of music is not a new prospect for me. But getting the music that you eventually want to put out, that’s a slightly different process. So what I did was, I brought the tunes out over the course of the tour, we recorded at the end of the European tour, and so I brought tunes out kinda during the encore slots of the night, and that’s how we started working on the tunes that we played for the record.
And so they sort of evolved over the course of a number of gigs until you felt like they were in a recordable form, or that the band knew them well enough that they could deliver a convincing version in the studio?
It’s kind of like the opposite of that. It’s like, a couple of the tunes had been worked up, but most of them, they didn’t even see until a day before the Oto sets. We did two days live at Café Oto and a day in the studio and a day of overdubs. So some of the stuff, we had brought out and worked on, but the day before the Oto sets I wrote out — well, I’d been writing the scores for a while, but I brought out these scores that I gave to everybody that had a lot of information that they had never seen before. And part of the reason for that is A, I write very simple music as far as like learning to play and internalizing it and B, I want people’s… I wanted a fresh take on the issue. You know? So I don’t really know if there’s ever a spot where you can be like, OK, this is recordable. Because if you’re like, OK, now it’s ready to record, you probably missed the sweet spot anyway of when it’s really good. Something can be over-polished.
Right, right. And then there’s also the idea that you’re gonna take this music back out on the road after the album’s in the can and it’s gonna change more.
So at what point does the album version become fixed in your mind, in a way? Only when it’s tracked?
Uh, I don’t understand the question. The album version is just one version.
Exactly. Exactly. And so that’s kind of my… I mean, I know filmmakers talk about how a movie is never done, they just take it away from you, you know? So do you feel the same way, sort of, about recordings?
Yeah, except I don’t think there’s a “they” taking it away from me, it’s more me moving on, saying OK, this is where, you know… I know when something is not finished. But knowing when something is finished is… that is up for debate and might not even exist, right? So at a certain point it’s like, OK, here it is. This is what it is. It’s not the end-all, be-all. This is what it was in January 2019 or whatever.
Right. Exactly. So when you’re putting the music together, do you — you said that the music you write is relatively simple, it’s sort of like vamping figures that build into solos and group playing and stuff like that, but is it traditional notation or graphic scores, do you use stuff like that? How do you write?
Yeah, I mean, let me see, let me pull out one of these scores here. One of the different things I did this time was I incorporated the use of color. So everybody basically got a flow chart of the way the whole suite of music runs, or the whole album, and there are some chord changes in there, some progressions, there’s some rhythmic figures written out, but most of the things are instructions and then when I need something to be notated I might have an addendum sheet, you know. On this version. The last version, I used traditional notation and scores as well, but this time it looks like I didn’t, and instead I brought in the use of color. To see what that would do, like, can people learn things faster if they’re thinking of a section as yellow, or up next is blue, or whatever? What kind of, like, subconscious things does that do to the musician while you’re learning the charts?
And how did it work out, do you think?
I think it worked out great, right? [laughs] I put it out!
Did it require more takes than the last album or anything like that?
Well, we had a little more time than last time, but last time we really just had one afternoon in my sister’s apartment. This time we had a day, and then we also had two live shows that we recorded and got stuff from, versus last time we did record two live shows but the first one was really a practice round and then we had the LPR show where we got stuff off. So yeah, I mean, we had a little more time this time.
Do you enjoy that kind of combination of live and studio for albums? What does it add, for you? Conceptually?
Well, conceptually, it’s take it or leave it for me. Conceptually, it doesn’t necessarily have to — like, I’m not putting the track on because you can hear the audience, I’m putting that track on because that’s the best version we got of that tune, you know? So it’s not like I’m setting out to have this mix of things, it’s just that, you know, I’m setting out to try to capture the best playing that we got going on. And so, last time and this time, I used both studio and live stuff. It seems to be working, I don’t know.
How did Tomeka [Reid] leaving and Lester [St. Louis] joining change the band? He was with you all through the touring for the first record, so how did his particular voice seep into the writing or whatever?
You know, Lester, like Tomeka, is a super talented cellist so basically anything I throw at him he’s gonna be able to dig, but I think the writing specifically was like, rolling into the tune “Lesterlude” into the next tune, I gave him a lot of soloistic space, I thought, you know? And I don’t know if that had specifically to do with Lester’s personality, but it definitely has a lot to do with his cello sound, you know? I just know that he can carry it, whatever it is. He’s also super fun — we get along really well and the hookup that he has with Jason [Ajemian] is fantastic.
How long have you been playing the trumpet? Did you start as a kid, and what drew you to it at first?
[laughs] Yeah, I’ve been playing the trumpet for twenty-seven years. I started when I was nine years old, this October, you know, in October, rather, and what drew me to it? I was deciding between trumpet and saxophone and I spilled my dad’s wine all over the saxophone sheet, and so literally that’s how that decision was made. I was like, well, fuck the saxophone. But I didn’t know that both my brothers played the trumpet, ’cause they’re my half-brothers and we lived in different houses, and my dad played the trumpet when he was a kid, I didn’t know that, so as soon as I started playing the trumpet I started learning about this whole family history with it. And I don’t know if that’s something that gets passed down in DNA or something, but there’s some awareness of the trumpet in my family.
When I’m watching you play, I’m kind of curious about the actual physical aspect of it, ’cause you point the horn up at the sky a lot, so does that give you a sound that you like, something that rings in your ears right?
Well, you know, it projects. That’s why I play like that. And now it’s naturally how I play, but that is drawn out of trying to project. I’m a short person, and then if I’m pointing the horn at the ground, good luck, you know?
But you could get a mic and put it up above you hanging down, like Lemmy from Motörhead.
Sure, and I do use a mic a lot. But the acoustic sound of a trumpet is very different than a mic sound, so I like to exist in both spaces.
I also noticed that you’re often fingering notes without actually blowing. Is that a way of thinking through your next idea, are you a tactile thinker when you’re playing, or is that just a reflex gesture?
Some of it is editing. You know, like, I could be playing all of this shit right now but I’m not. So I physically take my head away from the mouthpiece. There’s a lot of things, yeah — I’m listening all the time and I’m making… I want to be making strong decisions, so sometimes I just, like, edit myself.
I’ve seen you play a full-size horn, a pocket trumpet, and a flugelhorn, I think, all at different times. So is there one that you think is your truest voice?
I mean, I hardly ever play the flugelhorn. I played it with Matana [Roberts] recently, and I really loved that. I don’t know — truest voice, I play the trumpet most. I really like playing pocket trumpet as well. I don’t think of them as different, really, it’s like a different timbre, a different way of effecting your voice, I guess.
There’s also some bits on the new record where you’re using effects, some distortion and some echo and reverb and stuff like that. Do you like playing around with pedals and things, or do you generally try and stay acoustic for most of the time?
Well, you know, I have a whole band called Anteloper which is dedicated to rocking out on pedals and electronics and stuff. So I definitely have fun in that arena. I mean, for me it’s like Fly Or Die is a different thing, but then it’s also not, you know, so if I feel like electronics need to come in, then they come in, you know? I love playing with electronics [laughs].
Are there players who particularly inspired you, not in the sense of influence like stealing things from them, but inspired like you hear them and you want to be better yourself?
Sure. So many players. You want me to name some players?
Yeah, I’m curious. I’m also kind of curious what sort of era you listen to in particular. Are you somebody who listens to a lot of players from the Fifties and Sixties, or later people, stuff like that?
Yeah. I mean, I listen to everything, and I try to listen to everything. I heard… right when I first moved to New York, I heard Tyshawn Sorey do a set that absolutely fucked me up. Chad Taylor, Matana Roberts, Josh Abrams, those guys were all really influential to me, being young in Chicago. I mean, was that the question? Like, inspired by — yeah, anytime I see someone whose artistic practice and personality are so intertwined, that’s inspiring, you know? Think about cats like James Brandon Lewis and a guy Mark Reardon who you might not know, he’s in L.A. right now, but he’s a drummer and piano player, and man, the way he practices, he’s like a monk, he’s practicing every day, hours a day. That’s just something he needs to do for him. He’s a motherfucker, he sounds incredible, but that’s the sort of thing that really inspires me, like, people whose practice and personality are super entwined.
Are there any particular trumpeters that you have drawn on a lot? As a listener or like in your own journey with the instrument?
Either. If you tell me that you listen to tons of Thirties swing trumpeters, that’s…
[laughs] Well, you know, I like Roy Eldridge and Harry “Sweets” Edison and I like Rex Stewart and I like Cootie Williams and I like Dizzy Gillespie and I like Miles Davis and I like Booker Little and I like Freddie Hubbard and I like Woody Shaw and I like Axel Dörner and I like Nate Wooley and I like Peter Evans — I mean, there’s just so many people. I love the trumpet. Barbara Donald, you know, that’s a name you don’t hear super much but she’s incredible. Phil Cohran from Chicago, Lester Bowie, you know. Bill Dixon. I mean, Wadada Leo Smith, I mean, yeah. I saw Dewey Redman once, that really fucked me up. He didn’t play the trumpet, but…
It’s sort of fascinating to me the way guys like Bill and Wadada, they don’t sound like anybody else on Earth. Other guys, you can hear sort of coming out of a tradition of trumpet playing, but then those guys are like, no, I’m gonna do this entirely other thing.
Yeah, yeah. So lemme ask you about some of your sort of early projects, ’cause I went through on Discogs looking up all your super old stuff, so I wanted to ask about Princess, Princess, which was the first thing that I know of. What can you say about that trio and was Pionic your own label?
Yeah, Pionic was my ill-fated label. Maybe we’ll see the day again, but Princess, Princess was a trio with Frank Rosaly on drums and Toby Summerfield on bass. It was an improvising trio and the real interesting thing about that was that we had a weekly gig. We had a bi-weekly gig, actually, for two years at a place called the Skylark in Chicago. So we really got to work it out, you know? And then when that gig was coming to a close, we were actually able to flip it into a weekly series, which still exists, called the Ratchet Series, in Chicago.
At the same venue or someplace else?
Yeah it was at the same venue, and since then it’s been at a number of venues, but Princess, Princess was the starting point for the Ratchet Series.
And then the Musket album from 2008 had those two guys and a few other people, so was that expanding on the same ideas, or just similar personnel and new concepts?
Yeah, that was similar personnel, new concept. That was like a septet, I think, it was Frank and Theo Katsounis who plays in that band Joan Of Arc, Jason Ajemian was on bass, Fred Lonberg-Holm was on cello, and then Toby on guitar, a guy named John Paul Glover on baritone guitar, and then I played guitar, a Moog synth, trumpet and did some shouting. And that band was like an avant-rock band, was how I kinda talked about that band. So those were compositions. And those were — that was the beginning of my flowchart style.
You were also on Jason’s album Folk Forms Evaporate Big Sky. Was that when you started working with him, or did you know him from live playing before that?
I knew him from live playing before that, and like, life, you know? I was on that record of his, and I was also on a record of his called “Smokeless Heat.” Those are way long ago.
Was that The Art Of Dying the one that was on Delmark?
Yeah, “Smokeless Heat” was The Art Of Dying. And Folk Forms Evaporate Big Sky, that one is not on Delmark, I don’t think. I could be wrong, but I thought that was self-released.
Yeah, I think you’re right. The other Delmark one that you were on was Keefe Jackson’s record.
Yeah, Project Project.
The Art Of Dying… I was listening to it on Spotify and it’s very melodic, and very kind of conventionally beautiful. So what was that situation like for you as a player, and was that a style that you had fun with?
I mean, yeah, that was early, you know, that was probably 2005 or 2006 when it was recorded. And that was like a jazz tune, you know? There was changes and everything, so I definitely enjoyed playing that way, especially with Matt Schneider on guitar. I think to date that was the very first song, the first solo I ever took where I was like, Hey, look at that! That sounds pretty good. That got caught on tape, at least. The other thing I remember about that session is that I had extremely bad poison ivy, ’cause I had just come back from Ohio, where I had this arts and music residency, and I had gone in a pond after I got into some poison ivy and gotten it all over my body. And I didn’t know I had poison ivy, I thought I had this bug called chiggers, and so I had put [laughs] clear nail polish on the poison ivy, which is not what you wanna do. My friends were like, “Oh yeah, that’s bugs, you have to kill it with clear nail polish.” I was like, sure, bugs. I don’t know, I’m not from the country. And so I was on all this fuckin’ Benadryl. I remember that about the session. [laughs] And I didn’t know that it was poison ivy until the next day, I woke up and I couldn’t open my eyes. I got it in my eyes.
Oh man, that’s terrible.
Yeah. [laughs] The doctor took one look at my ass and was like, “Yeah, you got poison ivy.”
What do they even give you for that?
They give you cream and they give you a special shampoo and a special soap to shower with. But they had to flush my eyes out like a ton. Yeah. [laughs]
Earlier this year I was under a tremendous amount of stress and I got shingles, which was a fuckin’ party.
My dad got that, and that shit hurts.
I’m young for it, too. I’m only 47. But at least now I got it out of my system, ’cause they say you only get it once.
I’ve actually never had the chicken pox.
I had it when I was a kid.
That’s how you get shingles. You can’t really get shingles, I guess.
But then you get something way worse. There’s some catch in there.
It’s always something.
It’s always fuckin’ something.
So you were on a bunch of records in 2007-2008, and then you kinda slowed down a lot, like you were only on one or two records a year between like 2009 and 2015. So, was that just, like, were you in a transition period or what was going on?
Uh, I mean, I left Chicago in 2012. I went to grad school for a while. And now, I mean, it’s been pretty well documented at this point that I had a pretty bad drug problem at that time, although I don’t know if that really, like, how much, it definitely has something to do with my records not coming out, but as far as playing on other people’s records, I did play on other stuff that maybe hasn’t seen the light of day, you know what I mean? I stayed active. I was in bands called, like, Medium Size Rabbit and Rupert and a whole bunch of things, you know?
And how did you — I mean, I don’t want to make this any kind of focal point of the story, because it’s not that important, but I’m curious how you managed to kind of clean up. Like, you still drink and stuff now, so I guess you’re not in NA or anything, so…
I’m not sober sober, but I went to rehab in 2015. MusiCares, the Grammy foundation folks, paid for me to go.
And that’s kind of one of those things where it’s like, one and done. They pay for you, they pay for the whole fuckin’ thing, but I think they only do it once. [laughs] So rehab is really expensive. So that’s how it happened.
That’s what I’ve heard, is that it’s thousands and thousands of dollars.
It would have been like forty grand or something. Yeah. You’re kinda shit out of luck.
I’ve always been wondering about that, ’cause there are a lot of people with serious drug issues who are also afflicted with serious money issues.
[laughs] Yeah, big time.
So was it difficult, though? Sort of starting over in New York? Did you find that the scene was welcoming in the same way Chicago might have been? ’Cause I feel like there’s a very different vibe in New York, it’s not as communal and organization-based as Chicago is. There’s no equivalent to the AACM or anything like that.
Yeah, there’s definitely no equivalent to the AACM, although …Yeah, I don’t know, I just started going out. And I knew a lot of people in New York because I had been touring already for ten years, you know? I’d been touring for longer than ten years when I came. I spent some time here probably in 2003, 2004, so it wasn’t like starting completely fresh. I was also born out here. So, you know, even though I grew up mostly in Chicago, I grew up in a family of New Yorkers, you know what I mean? So some of the things that might seem super abrasive when you show up to New York from the Midwest, or even worse from the West Coast, I think I had already ingrained in me, kind of, you know?
I remember years ago I went out to Los Angeles, and I was trying to explain to them concepts like double parking and the idea that you don’t have to be nice to people if you don’t like them…
[laughs] Yeah, that’s a thing to learn, especially as a kid going from New York to the Midwest; I thought everybody was so nice, and then I realized that people here just talk behind your back. That’s the difference. In New York, people are assholes, but you know the way they feel, which is actually preferable, I think, to thinking everything’s cool and then being inundated with some bullshit. I also thought Chicago was the cleanest city in the world and then I realized that the difference was, Chicago had alleys. So the garbage went in the back.
So, I saw you play with the expanded version of Harriet Tubman doing “Free Jazz” at Winter Jazzfest. So tell me about that whole thing. Like, did it come together quickly? Did you do much rehearsal with it? Tell me the story of that.
I mean, the way we worked that up, obviously Harriet Tubman the trio unit has been playing so long together that we basically did horn rehearsals with Melvin [Gibbs], you know? So it was me Darius [Jones] and James [Brandon Lewis] and Melvin sitting down and working out what the horn arrangements would be. And then we did the gig.
I remember watching, and it seemed like you were one of the sort of conductors. Like you and James and Darius would look at each other when somebody was soloing and collectively decide, “All right, that’s enough out of you,” and then you would, like, play the fanfare to kind of play them off.
[laughs] And it’s not even like “That’s enough of you,” it was really a beautiful concept that Melvin wanted to stick to of people really sharing the space. So it’s like, we’re not gonna do a 15-minute tenor solo and a two-minute trumpet solo and an eight-minute guitar solo and a three-minute tenor solo, we’re gonna do five-minute solos. And I don’t remember exactly what the increment was, but I do remember feeling like it was really cool that the space was gonna be shared evenly.
And did you joining James’s band come out of that experience? ’Cause you’re about to leave for tour with them in Europe.
Yeah. Um, we had already been playing together, I think. Yeah. We did a gig at Winter Jazzfest that same year, so it was around the same time I guess but I don’t think that one necessarily ran into the other; I think it was, me and James started playing together, and then we started playing together more.
The UnRuly Manifesto record, what are your memories of making that and how’s that group growing and evolving on the road? ’Cause it seems like you’ve been doing a bunch of shows with them.
Yeah! We all went down and recorded in DC, spent the day recording, and James and the engineer mixed it after, and they’re all James’s tunes. The nice thing with playing live is that you can really stretch things, and obviously James’s trio exists within the quintet, so that’s a really cool dynamic as well. You kind of have this tight-knit group and then kind of two outliers, although [guitarist] Anthony [Pirog]’s played with them a lot. Ava [Mendoza] is actually gonna be on the tour with us. And so even changing one person like that really changes the frequencies that vibrate. And we’re just like, me and James are… it’s not an easy thing to have, for me at least, it’s not such an easy thing to play with other horn players.
I was gonna ask, do you like that traditional jazz two-horn thing?
Yeah. I mean it’s certainly not a traditional jazz thing we’re doing, and so having that two-horn thing doesn’t feel like much more than, like, I’m the person he wanted on trumpet. Or like, I’m the person he wanted and I play the trumpet.
But it’s not a Lee Morgan/Hank Mobley sort of thing.
It’s not, no. [laughs] I mean, it is in that those are the instruments, right, but…
Yeah, but that’s not the type of material and that’s not the approach.
The trio that I saw you play with recently, with Luke [Stewart] and Mike Pride, how long has that band been together?
Over, let’s see, probably like two and a half years now?
Are you gonna make a record with them?
Yeah, something’s cookin’. Workin’ on that. Off the record, we might have one. But that’s not ready to be announced, really, or anything.
Is that a group that you write for, or is it more of an improvising unit, or what?
Yeah, it’s an improvising unit. Sometimes I give verbal instructions, and I’m not against the idea of writing for the band, but you know, one of the things I wanna keep doing which is something I’ve always done is play a lot of different types of things. So the Fly Or Dies I write, that’s a compositional outlet, the trio is just free jazz, like hard playing free jazz, and Anteloper’s like electronics, you know? And that’s a collective. I mean, the trio’s really a collective too, it’s just under my name a little bit for convenience. But Anteloper is a collective, we both bring ideas to that band, and instead of being written-out things, that could be more like sequences or starting points or sounds, you know.
Do you feel like the Anteloper record was received the way you hoped it would be, or was it given a different importance because it came out after Fly Or Die and there was this wave of press attention and stuff like that?
Oh, I don’t know.
’Cause I mean, it seems like it has a completely different philosophical approach, so maybe people misconstrued what it was. You know?
Yeah, I don’t know. I can’t really worry about that.
I read an interview recently — it was the one in The Wire — where you talked about just needing to come up with an opening statement and then extrapolating on that for the rest of a piece, and how you’re focused on melody in that sense. And it reminded me sort of of the way Ornette thought about music, like in a linear way, moving from A to B but thinking as you go, and I’m wondering if that’s your philosophy of free music in some way.
Of that kind of linear thinking, rather than how some improvisers throw an idea out, then throw out a completely opposite idea, and keep throwing things at the audience. Sort of the Derek Bailey approach of sparking conflict rather than trying to move in a straight line, or even a wavy line.
Yeah, it’s not — to me, it’s neither of those two things, ’cause both of those things are always valid. It’s not about being linear, and it’s not about being conflicting. For me, it’s just always… it’s always pushing forward, but forward doesn’t necessarily mean linear, because I think of things as having no start and no end. So I think of things more like a circle, and extrapolating the information from something can be done in a very linear way, but you can also, like, you can also take the first thought and shelve it and go with your second thought, and that could be a very different idea than your first thought, you know? So it’s not only one thing leads to another leads to another, and it’s also not I’m gonna jump in here with this because I want to set up this environment against whatever this person is doing, and that in itself is a whole thing. I mean, I feel like both of those philosophies are super valid, and my situation is that I’m like, first of all there’s no start and no end, but then I’m listening big all the time and making strong decisions. And what I’m talking about there is like, in those first five seconds, are you talking about that shit where I’m talking about the first five or ten seconds of an improvisation and trying to really pay attention and then split that up into a million things? That to me is because even though we’re improvising, we’re playing this music right here, so let’s really try to figure out what this music is, even if it’s in the moment. Like, what is this? So flesh it out by whatever means possible.
You’re in a lot of leadership roles, so is there ever a point where you want to be a supporting player more? Like, playing the background and just throwing in little bits here and there and letting someone else be the dominant voice?
I mean, I guess I do a lot of things, you know. [laughs] Like, I’m a sideperson in James’s band, I played in a lot of different situations, you know? Hip-hop projects where maybe they just need a little trumpet solo right here, or whatever the music requires. But as far as if that would be a more laid-back way, I don’t know. Maybe it has a little to do with the instrument, like, there’s a lot of… trumpet’s maybe not the first thought when people are putting together bands, like what’s gonna be a nice supporting instrument?
No, people think of it as being up front. So is there a way for you to play a background role that’s fun for you?
Yeah, I mean, I guess it would depend on what that was. But I try to make everything fun on purpose, and also I try to give every music consideration and weight, you know.
Have you done much work in really large ensemble type of situations? Have you been like a third trumpet in anything, stuff like that?
Ooh, like a traditional thing? It’s been a while. There was this swing band in Chicago called the Alan Gresik Swing Orchestra that I sat in with a few times; in a not-so-traditional way, I mean, I’ve played in William [Parker]’s Little Huey [Creative Music Orchestra] a few times now, and man, I love that. I would really like to do that. And sometimes there can be like three trumpets. Really love to do more of that. I played in Fred Lonberg-Holm’s Lightbox Orchestra. But as far as like, Darcy Argue or Maria Schneider or anything, I haven’t really done anything like that since college, where I played in a band that Bob Brookmeyer started and occasionally conducted.
Yeah, the Jazz Composers Orchestra over at NEC.
So I’ve seen in the liner notes to this record and in other interviews, you’ve been talking recently about your Colombian background. Has that become more important to you, given the cultural environment at the moment? I mean, I find it interesting because I’m 6’2” and blond, but my mom is Mexican. You could be just some white girl the same way I could be just some white guy. I think of myself sometimes as like a stealth Mexican. So do you feel obligated to kind of step out, given the way things are at the moment?
I mean, it’s just all part of where I’m coming from. So I feel like yeah, I mean, there is so, so much — everything is so convoluted and fucked up right now that obviously I felt like I wanted to say something on this record. And yeah, I mean, it’s such a… we could go on for hours about this shit.
Yeah, it fucks with your head a lot. Just…
It fucks with your head a lot. My mom is a social worker in Chicago, so the second half of “Prayer For Amerikkka” is about a woman she was helping, it was the story of her daughter. Which was happening while I was writing and recording the record, you know. So that’s like, the music came first, but when I was — the lyrics came last, as far as the stuff that appears on the record. I tooled around with a whole bunch of different things, but I felt like that story was important to tell, but kind of what I was saying earlier, keeping it vague enough because it’s so many other people’s story also.
And sort of related to that, but not entirely, I’m just curious about this and this may be just something that’s not new but it’s something that I never noticed before, but I feel like your image is changing a little bit lately. Like, I’ve always seen you in kind of hip-hop gear, but more recently I’ve seen some photos where you’re wearing like patterned robes from the William Parker collection. So are you changing up your style somewhat, and if so, what’s inspiring that?
Uh, I mean, I also wear an awful lot of overall print Champion sweatsuits [laughs], so I don’t know if my style has changed that much, but I will say my performing style has changed somewhat, and it’s a feeling of putting on a robe for this performance, like a boxer puts on a robe to go out and box. It’s a different dynamic, and I’m exploring that right now.
So it’s part of the performance in a sense.
Yeah. It’s part of the way I want to feel when I’m performing.
That reminds me, I always think of this famous quote from Cecil Taylor, where he says “You don’t simply walk to the piano.” Like, he was into the idea of making shows into ritual and theater and stuff like that.
Yeah, I mean, it’s also part of getting to that other part of your brain that you need to be wide open while performing. That is maybe otherwise shut off a little bit when dealing with the day to day, because it has to be or we’d all be these crazy little sensitive orbs on the floor, crying all the time, you know? So, that — I relate to what he’s saying there, absolutely. The way you walk onstage, the way you stand onstage, if you decide to talk or if not, I mean, all that shit is… if you have that portal in your brain open, you’ll be okay? And if you have to think about it too much, well then, you’re probably fucked anyway.