Justin Brown: Reflecting the Now

For his debut outing, the drummer puts a modern spin on classic jazz-funk

Justin Brown

He’s clocked myriad recordings and concert performances with Ambrose Akinmusire, Vijay Iyer, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, but Justin Brown is more than just one of the greatest jazz drummers of his generation.

“To be a black artist in these times means that I have to present myself in a positive manner,” Brown says on the phone from Amsterdam. “I have to be an example for young kids who look up to me. I want to utilize my platform in an honest, positive way to give back, and to be a vessel to inspire. I’ve been given this gift to play music. The only true gratification is inspiring people and figuring out a way to give people hope through the music.”

Brown titled his full-length debut as a leader Nyeusi (Biophilia), which means “black” in Swahili, a language the 34-year-old studied in his California high school. His colleagues on the album include Fabian Almazan and Jason Lindner (keyboards), Mark Shim (electronic wind controller), and Burniss Earl Travis II (bass). Nyeusi (pronounced “nee-o-see”) recalls the golden age of ’70s jazz-funk—think the Headhunters’ Thrust, George Duke’s The Aura Will Prevail, or Tony Williams Lifetime’s Believe It—with a touch of the surreal. Brown’s lightning-sharp drumming propels his front-line players into flights of improvisational wizardry. Shim’s solos soar over Almazan’s honeyed Wurlitzer and Lindner’s searing analog synths, as the thudding drums and papery cymbals agitate all within.

“Throughout writing and workshopping the material I used different configurations,” Brown says, “even playing the music in acoustic settings. But ultimately, I wanted music that reflected the now. I’m inspired by a lot of music from the ’70s and ’60s, but what’s happening in the now sounded better with this instrumentation.”

Nyeusi covers a broad range of textures and atmospheres, all within Brown’s “now”-inspired vision. Tony Williams’ “Circa 45” enters lazily, Shim’s loping melodies and Brown’s wind-flapping rhythms evoking a deranged sitcom theme. The catchy melody of “Lesson 1: Dance” is relayed via brooding synths and sonar-like sound effects. “Jupiter’s Giant Red Spot” increases the velocity—it’s basically a through-composed drum solo bathed in woozy Wurlitzer melodies—while the low-riding “Replenish” dials the pace back down. “‘Replenish’ came out of a moment realizing that, as a traveling musician, you just have to slow down and decompress,” its author explains. “You can’t always go with the in crowd, you have to fall back and look at yourself. Check that you’re okay. Maybe someone in their life will hear ‘Replenish’ as reflective.”

Befitting Nyeusi’s retro vibe, Brown’s drums sound flat and muffled, as if he transported himself and his Craviotto drum set (augmented by two side snares, a Leedy and a “lovely old” 10×15 Ludwig) to 1975 and recorded at L.A.’s Sound City. His cymbals are similarly trashy-sounding, like broken brass and shattered bells. “It was about making sure the funk was in it,” he says. “When you go back and listen to James Gadson or Bernard Purdie, sometimes their toms and bass drums didn’t have bottom heads. The drums are really dead-sounding. So I tuned my drums really low. I even put cloth on the floor tom to deaden it. I stacked my Istanbul Agop hand-hammered cymbals, and put shakers, a tambourine, or a splash cymbal on the snare drum. Sometimes that makes the drums sound programmed. But everything is played live.”

How will today’s screen-addicted music fans react to Nyeusi’s J Dilla-warped future soul?

“We live in an age where there’s a generation that’s exposed to everything because of the internet,” Brown responds. “But they’re also using it as a tool to learn and dissect music. Therefore, the palette is a lot wider now, so people are more open to creative improvisational instrumental music. Some people have reached out to say this album keeps them going forward in music, and that’s ultimately my goal.”

A native of Richmond, Calif., Brown grew up surrounded by music; his mother, Nona Brown, is a pianist and singer who worked extensively with the Edwin Hawkins Singers. After attending Stockton’s Brubeck Institute for two years, Brown relocated to New York, where he promptly blew off a full scholarship to the Juilliard School. “Sometimes I think it would have been nice to say, ‘Yeah, I went to Juilliard,’ but I’m very happy with my decision and where my life is and where it’s going,” he says.

Brown’s ongoing work with Akinmusire, Thundercat, Yosvany Terry, and Linda Oh has been supplemented by yet-to-be-released recordings with Flying Lotus and John Escreet, the latter featuring Brown playing double drums with Eric Harland.

“I definitely think long-term,” he says. “One goal is bettering myself as a person spiritually, mentally, and musically. I want to write and continue to make albums and figure out ways to give back, not only through music but through actions, whether that’s teaching or helping others. I just want to live and learn and write and let the music speak for itself.”