Thirty-three-year-old Oakland, California, native Justin Brown is an extremely busy bicoastal musician whose drumming with Thundercat, Gerald Clayton, Christian McBride, Stefon Harris, Kenny Garrett, Esperanza Spalding, and Vijay Iyer is simply a foretaste of his brilliant debut album as a leader with his band, Nyeusi.
On every Nyeusi gig, Brown’s cathartic drumming and ’70s-inspired funk/fusion material are thoroughly earth scorching. But within his kinetic rhythm brew are incredible groove reserves, a refined touch, and a deep knowledge of jazz history.
Part of a California-based crew that includes best friends Thomas Pridgen and Ronald Bruner, Brown is grace and fire to their pummel and power. Seeing Brown and Nyeusi perform at New York City’s Le Poisson Rouge recently was both mental flashback and contemporary jazz-funk psychedelic mind-bender. Nyeusi—which also features keyboardists Jason Lindner and Fabian Almazan, bassist Burniss Travis, and EWI wind-controller player Mark Shim—ties together past, present, and future, with Brown helming the group with musical invention and drumming wit.
A chat with Brown reveals his influences and favorite albums, including the Tony Williams Lifetime’s Turn It Over, Elvin Jones’ On the Mountain, CAB with Dennis Chambers, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Free for All, and Jeff “Tain” Watts’ Bar Talk. But revealing his cosmic soul, Brown also notes Astroid Power-Up!’s Google Plex with drummer Deantoni Parks, Mint Condition’s Definition of a Band with drummers Stokley and Chris Dave, and Slum Village’s Fantastic Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, featuring the groundbreaking programming of J Dilla.
Brown’s own body of work exists more in jazz terrain, and includes Chris Dingman’s Waking Dreams, Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead!, Gerald Clayton’s Tributary Tales, Linda May Han Oh’s Walk Against Wind, Revive Music Presents Supreme Sonacy Vol. 1, Yosvany Terry’s New Throned King, and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s Prelude to Cora and A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard.
Brown began drumming in church when he was two and eventually joined UC Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program. In 2002—the year in which he also played in the Grammy All-Star Band—he won a full scholarship to the Dave Brubeck Institute; two years later he was awarded a full scholarship to Juilliard. Upon arriving in New York, though, the drummer dropped out of Juilliard on day one and hit the circuit.
MD: What are some of the musical influences on your debut Nyeusi album?
Justin: My upbringing is in gospel and jazz. My mother is a pianist, so I was always really into voicings. It’s like a directional chain. I’ve drawn inspiration from J Dilla, Herbie Hancock, Mozart. The 1960s is my favorite period for jazz, and the 1970s for fusion, including Weather Report, Tony Williams Lifetime, Return to Forever, and Mahavishnu Orchestra. I’m trying to keep my head in the future and in the past. The most important thing is to live in the now.
MD: You placed second in the 2012 Thelonious Monk Competition.
Justin: Yes. There are political things involved with the Monk Competition, but I was very blessed to make it that far while being true to myself. It was a great honor. It wasn’t about winning at that point; it was about being honest. I was swinging, but not doing it in the traditional sense to where I was holding back. I was trying to react to what I was hearing instead of laying in the cut and playing it safe.
MD: Did you use any triggering for the Nyeusi album?
Justin: Not at all, it’s all live drums. I wanted to have the element of sounding like an MPC or an electronic instrument at times, and I like this idea of man versus machine. Whether it’s hip-hop or drum ’n’ bass beats, I wanted to emulate those styles on a live instrument. There might be elements in the mixing process that give an electronic-sounding boost, but all the drums and percussion were recorded live. I also used stacked cymbals and put cymbals on snare drums, as well as dampening the drums and adding low end to the bass drum in the mix. But it was all recorded live.
MD: Did you change tuning for different tracks?
Justin: I used three snare drums, and sometimes tuned them differently. My main snare is a brass/copper Craviotto, which is amazing for its high end. It cuts through. I also used an old 7×15 Ludwig and a Ludwig Supraphonic. On the record I played two left-hand snare drums and one main snare; that main drum changed for different songs. On “Lots for Nothing,” for instance, it’s an old 15″ Leedy.
MD: How do you generally compose?
Justin: Sometimes I’ll start at the drums. I hear the songs in my head first, then I compose and record in GarageBand or Logic to make a sketch, then I translate it to sheet music. I work out harmonies on the piano. I’m influenced by electronic music and software as well. But I’m still a stickler for live instruments. I emulate electronic sounds with live instruments.
MD: On your album’s first track, “Lesson 1 DANCE,” it almost sounds like two rhythms are happening at once.
Justin: There I’m thinking of Marvin Gaye and that spirit of letting go and being free. Drum-wise, I wanted that fatback, Bernard Purdie sound. I wanted that danceable thing, and a little J Dilla. So you hear four on the floor and some extra action from the combination of the hi-hat and ghost notes on the snare drum.
MD: “Lots for Nothing” has these staccato rhythms and pointed drum fills, and a recurring melody, all within an odd meter.
Justin: The meter is interesting. The guys in the band heard it different ways. I think of the main vamp as being in fifteen. You can think of it as two different systems, a bar of 7/4 and a bar of 8/4, or a seven-bar phrase with one bar of 6/8 and six bars of 4/8.
MD: “Lesson 2 PLAY” opens with what sounds like phasing cymbals.
Justin: I used stacked cymbals to create that effect. The song is dreamlike and ethereal but moving forward. Within that song you can hear the hip-hop and J Dilla influences.
MD: When first presented with another composer’s new music, what’s your focus?
Justin: I try to internalize the music first. I don’t like to have my face buried in the sheet music. I want to create in the moment. So I try to internalize everything, to get it in my memory as fast as possible. I always try to internalize, whether it’s chord changes, harmonies, melodies, bass parts—committing it to memory so it will be easier to focus on the music. Within that I’m letting go of my fears and my ego, and I’m submitting to the music. I want to help create this thing with the band that portrays the story the composer is trying to tell.
MD: What are your approaches to the music of Chris Dingman versus Ambrose Akinmusire versus Thundercat?
Justin: I think of it as all the same thing musically. Within that these guys allow me to still be myself. They put the music in my hands to help orchestrate. They have confidence in what I will bring. The only differences are physical things. There are periods when I’m laying in the cut, but sometimes the music can be more aggressive, and that takes a toll on the body. I’ve learned to build stamina, drink more water, and eat healthy. I always knew I could play the kind of music I do with Thundercat, but there was something to finally getting the opportunity to go on the road and do it. It’s completely different, but in more of a physical way than a musical way.
With all the music I play, I always want to learn its history. When I studied rock music, I lived with those musicians. Same thing with hip-hop—I went to the clubs and spoke with the producers, asking questions and living that lifestyle. Once you learn how to live each genre of music, it’s easier to understand it and tell your story.
MD: Is being a good sight-reader important?
Justin: Reading music will enhance your ability on the instrument. There are many great musicians who don’t read music. But it’s a requirement for the composers I play with, and it definitely helps me to internalize music faster. Thundercat doesn’t hand me sheet music, but Ambrose and Chris Dingman give me lead sheets. Sometimes they’ll include specifics they want to hear, or directions in regards to dynamics or to make a section looser or more grooving.
MD: You play a lot of odd meters with Ambrose Akinmusire. Jack DeJohnette has commented on your skill in that regard.
Justin: That’s great! Hopefully I play odd meters that people feel they can dance to. It helps to be deeply rooted in groove. I think about James Brown and Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks, and how deep their groove was. My conception of odd meters is influenced by African, Asian, and Indian music, but within the idea of being deeply rooted in groove. When it comes to R&B, it’s all about the funk. I’m constantly thinking, How do I make it feel good?
MD: You’re incredibly fast. And you have a great touch on the drumset. How did you develop your speed, and is it mostly fingers or wrists?
Justin: It’s a combination of both. I’m a stickler for the Moeller technique and relying on rebound, but I also used to play on pillows to build speed and endurance. Moeller, Alan Dawson’s Rudimental Ritual, and Charley Wilcoxon’s Modern Rudimental Swing Solos helped me develop speed. It’s a combination of utilizing rebound and using the wrists and fingers.
It also depends on the volume you’re trying to get. I use more wrist strength with Thundercat because I’m digging in a little more. With jazz, I rely on rebound and fingers because I need a lighter touch and lighter sensibility. It also depends on what I’m trying to play in the moment.
MD: How did you develop your refined touch on the drumset?
Justin: That comes from working on dynamics, learning how to play at really quiet dynamic levels but with intensity. Art Blakey could dig in and play loud, but when he was tipping he had this relaxed thing going while continuing to keep the intensity. Jack DeJohnette has that thing as well. I used to practice playing fast at all dynamic levels. Your muscles change at different dynamic levels, so you should practice at different dynamics and tempos. Find the threshold, stop there, and relax and work on controlling the dynamics.
MD: Your drumming has a great sense of forward motion.
Justin: Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes have that forward motion in their playing; it’s like a flowing stream of water. Within that I try to have a mindset of patience. Intense things can happen on the bandstand, but I’m constantly thinking of flowing like a river, being relaxed and letting things come naturally and not forcing anything. I always keep my mind and my ears open.
MD: You used exercises from Modern Rudimental Swing Solos as warm-up routines?
Justin: Yes, I played those every day in college. There was something about the feeling of the double-stroke rolls and displacing the accents [in the bar] to where it felt like the movement of a rubber band. That helped me develop my fingers and get a relaxed rebound to the sticks.
MD: You’ve spoken of working with a metronome to make the time sound “lazy or less accurate.”
Justin: Yes. You have metric, perfect time, but being lazy or ahead of the time is [adjusting to] the foundation of time; that’s the element that never changes. Say I wanted to play lazy, behind the beat. Maybe I would displace the bass drum a 16th behind the quarter note. Or move it an 8th note or a triplet behind the quarter note. It’s not necessarily dragging the beat, but investigating where each note falls within the foundation of time.
I also like personality and stank! So it’s the lazy feeling you get from that [attitude]. The technical side versus stagnant, nonflexible time. It’s up to you how far ahead or behind the beat you place [the emphasis]. That comes from playing to drum loops or a metronome. I’d transcribe drum grooves and then dissect them and place them ahead of or behind the beat. Playing behind the beat is still playing in time.
MD: You flow easily between matched and traditional grips.
Justin: I’m trying to get better with matched grip. But when it comes to jazz and getting ghost notes, matched grip produces a different sound from traditional grip. I’m also trying to get better at playing a pocket with traditional grip, like Steve Jordan does. But with jazz, if I want ghost notes on the snare drum, it’s easier with traditional grip.
MD: Why do you hold your sticks back on the butt end?
Justin: I try to let the butt of the stick be at the edge of my pinky finger. That gives me better control of rebound. [To build control and strength] I used to play series of 8ths and 16ths on each finger. Jojo Mayer’s Secret Weapons for the Modern Drummer DVD is great for technique. I used his methods to develop each finger, whether playing 5A or 8D sticks. That gave me more control of the sticks and rebound. And then you have the option of gripping the stick with the pinky and ring finger and playing off the back end of the stick. It’s about options and control.
MD: What are the general requirements to work in the New York jazz scene?
Justin: Be open to information and be open to music. If you want to do this, you can’t be narrow-minded, because there’s so much to choose from and be inspired by. Do the homework. Investigate and learn the history and the lifestyle of the music. Work as hard as you can. Create practice regimens. And check your ego. Music is a team effort.
MD: What’s been key to your success?
Justin: Never settling and always wanting to grow. I could have easily settled on being an R&B drummer. But I always felt I had to keep going, that there was something to always get better at. It’s important to let go of the ego; the music is not about you. Music is a tool to speak to the [people].
I learned playing in church as a kid that music is a spiritual thing that heals people. Music is not about getting likes on Instagram. There’s a bigger picture. Be a vessel to speak in the now, [translating] the energy of the room or the energy of the world. I thank God every day for this gift. I try to remain humble and keep God first and do the work. I try to pray in every moment. Be a vessel to spread love. That’s my goal.
With Ambrose Akinmusire
• 6.5×14 walnut/curly maple/walnut hybrid wood snare
• 7.5×12 mahogany tom
• 14×14 mahogany floor tom
• 14×18 mahogany bass drum
Cymbals: Istanbul Agop
• 15″ OM hi-hats
• 22″ Trash Hit
• 22″ 30th Anniversary ride
• 20″ 30th Anniversary ride
• 5×15 ballad snare floor tom
• 6.5×14 brass/copper hybrid snare
• 7.5×11 and 8×13 mahogany toms
• 16×16 mahogany floor tom
• 14×20 and 14×22 mahogany bass drums
Cymbals: Istanbul Agop
• 22″ Trash Hit/20″ OM crash stack
• 18″ Xist hi-hats
• 22″ 30th Anniversary ride
• 15″ OM hi-hats (stacked)
• 20″ 30th Anniversary ride
Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador snare batters and Clear Hazy snare-sides, Clear Emperor tom batters and Clear Ambassador resonants, and Clear Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter
Hardware: Tama and DW
Sticks: Vic Firth 5A barrel-tip