Up & Coming
By Ken Micallef
Twenty-eight-year-old, Oakland-born Justin Brown plays jazz with a universality and maturity that have made him one of the busiest players in New York City, cutting records and performing with Chris Dingman, Gerald Clayton, Ambrose Akinmusire, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, Stefon Harris, Esperanza Spalding, Terence Blanchard, Josh Roseman, Gretchen Parlato, Yosvany Terry, and Vijay Iyer. An extremely quick-witted and responsive drummer, Brown is tough to pin down. You hear hints of Tony Williams and J Dilla in his lithe, forward-motion approach, but there’s nothing about the way he plays that boxes him into any particular era or camp.
Brown began drumming in church when he was two and eventually joined UC Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program, which he attended for a number of summers. In 2002 he won a full scholarship to the Dave Brubeck Institute; two years later he was awarded a full scholarship to Juilliard. After arriving in New York, though, Brown dropped out of school and hit the circuit. His first EP, a heady blend of surreal instrumental R&B and inflammatory improvisation, is set for fall release.
MD: You’ve recorded some of the most compelling records out of New York in the past few years. What’s been your general focus?
Justin: To be a great musician, not just a great drummer. I’m influenced by what’s happening now; it’s not just about straight-ahead jazz. With the iPod generation it’s hard to be narrow-minded about music. Everything is related.
MD: What did you practice growing up?
Justin: Rudiments. I studied a Roy Burns book for time and for applying swing beats. When I was older, I studied orchestral music, Charles Wilcoxon’s “Rolling in Rhythm” as a warm-up routine, Moeller technique. I was still playing in church but getting formal training during high school. These days I focus on independence—building up muscle memory to play four polyrhythms independently and applying it musically.
The stuff I actually apply is either conceptual or something from a record. I’ve studied African and Cuban rhythms, Steve Coleman’s rhythms—“Law of Balance” is one of my favorites. And I studied Bernard Purdie and Clyde Stubblefield, trying to understand what about their drumming made it so groovy.
If it was taking a Tony Williams swing beat or a Stubblefield groove, for instance, I would try to emulate it and make it feel good. I would practice a groove for hours, even with a minimal kit of bass drum, snare, and hi-hat, and do it with the metronome. Learning how to play behind the beat or ahead of the beat, playing the groove with a swung feel and with a straight feel—I would analyze all of those things.
I’d also just do a lot of listening; anything about how my sound came about or my time, it all comes from listening. I would work out a groove to a metronome, and then once I got it I would try to make it more lazy sounding, or accurate and perfectly on the beat. And I’d come up with solo concepts off the metronome. Or I would play along to my own drum loop—play off it, ahead of it, behind it, and play polyrhythmically to it. I’d take one thing and dice it up as much as I could.
MD: You can hear the references in your drumming, but you’re also transparent; your style is hard to categorize.
Justin: It comes from studying the music. I never wanted to have a specific style or concept. I love all aspects of music. And I knew I wanted to be as authentic as possible in every situation. You want to be yourself and have ideas and explore, but you have to play the music. If it’s jazz or fusion, I will do that. If a tune calls for a straight pocket beat and no fills, I’m going to do that at a hundred percent. I will do what is called for.
This takes a lot of maturity. It took a lot of time for me to know what is called for in each moment. I want people to hear the emotional and spiritual side of who I am, but you have to do it with full conviction. In any musical situation, if you’re going to be honest and feel free with it, you have to not only study it but do it with full authenticity.
MD: What’s your advice to drummers who’d like to have the types of gigs you play?
Justin: Never settle. If you feel like you’re at a point where you’ve done something right, never get comfortable with it. Always be developing. Always be working on something. That’s what I strive for.
Tools Of The Trade
Brown plays a Craviotto set consisting of a 6½x14 walnut snare drum, 7×11 and 7½x12 rack toms, a 15×15 floor tom, and a 14×18 or 14×20 bass drum. His cymbals are Istanbul Agop, including 16″ Traditional hi-hats, a 21″ Signature ride with two rivets, a 24″ Signature ride, and an 18″ 30th Anniversary crash. His heads include Remo Coated Emperor snare and tom batters and a Powerstroke 3 on his bass drum. Justin uses Vic Firth 8D sticks and brushes and a Ludwig lamb’s wool bass drum beater.