Jaimie Branch knows this. The Brooklyn (by way of Chicago) trumpeter, composer and singer maintains a super-casual image — T-shirts and sports jerseys, ripped jeans, unkempt hair and, invariably, a cocked baseball cap — that connects her to the street instead of the ivory tower. That said, she also wore a flowered robe at the Kennedy Center’s Club at Studio K on Wednesday night, which added an ironic twist. Maybe that was the point. Branch and her quartet, Fly or Die, put some fun back into the avant-garde.
Yes, there was still some gravitas to be had, but they got it out of the way early — and flippantly. “I’ve been really psyched to play this song in D.C.!” said Branch, introducing her politically pointed “Prayer for Amerikkka Parts 1 & 2,” the second song on last year’s “Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise,” which the band played in its entirety. Sure enough, she sang and played it menacingly, prowling back and forth onstage like a caged animal and shouting, “We’ve got a bunch of wide-eyed racists!”
The dark stuff thus dispatched, the rest of the set had not only more spice but more dance. “Twenty-Three N Me, Jupiter Redux” had drummer Chad Taylor, bassist Jason Ajemian and cellist Lester St. Louis playing odd-meter patterns together while Branch did a light little step at center stage, yelping out riffs with her trumpet. Later, she danced outright, banging on a tambourine in between the tasty licks of “Simple Silver Surfer.” Eventually, everyone onstage got moving, all four playing percussion instruments on the Latin street groove “Bird Dogs of Paradise.”
There was a lot of levity, intentional or no. When the atonal, reverb-soaked abstraction “Whales” threatened to get too heavy, Branch interrupted her own guttural drones to yell to the sound man. “Ryan, turn that up!” A few minutes later, as the quartet was moving back into consonance, St. Louis prematurely began improvising while Branch was still going. The band members kidded him — “She was right in the middle, man!,” Ajemian said — and St. Louis rolled his eyes.
Near the end of the set, St. Louis got an assist from Branch. “Can you guys hear the cello out there?” She asked as the band began “Nuevo Roquero Estéreo.” The audience applauded. As the quartet began the closing, sardonic singalong “Love Song,” Branch circled back to that moment. “Yo, we made it!” she shouted cheerily. “We made it through that whole Lester scare.”