Nyeusi (Biophilia Records)

Justin Brown

Released June 29, 2018

New York Times Best Jazz Albums of 2018






After years as an essential member of groups led by Ambrose Akinmusire, Thundercat, and Flying Lotus, – he’s also been tapped to round out the sound for Esperanza Spalding, Terence Blanchard, Bilal, Vijay Iyer, and many others – Brown is finally ready to extend his reach beyond the drumset to lead his own band, NYEUSI.
Rounding out NYEUSI are Jason Lindner and Fabian Almazan on keyboards, Burniss Earl Travis on bass, and Mark Shim on electronic wind controller. Brown on drums is the engine propelling an intoxicating synthesis of varying influences that offers deep groove and charged improvisations. “I cannot think of a more highly anticipated debut by an artist right now that is also a lynchpin in today’s creative music scene,” says WBGO’s Simon Rentner.

Track Listing:

1. Jupiter’s Giant Red Spot 01:48          

2. Lesson 1: DANCE 02:31          

3. Lots for Nothin’ 04:00                

4. Waiting (DUSK) 01:18              

5. Waiting on Aubade 06:23         

6. At Peace (DAWN) 01:02          

7. Lesson 2: PLAY 02:27              

8. Entering Purgatory 05:18         

9. Replenish 02:44              

10. FYFO 03:31          

11. Circa 45 06:07               

12. Burniss 00:32                 

13. Lindner’s in your Body! 02:37


Justin Brown: drums, Fender Rhodes, synths, Yamaha DX7
Mark Shim: wind controller
Jason Lindner: Moog Synth, Prophet, Mopho, Schoenhut Piano
Fabian Almazan: Fender Rhodes, Mopho, Wurlitzer, Laptop
Burniss Travis: bass

Recorded June 24 and 25, 2015, at Brooklyn Recording Studio, by Andy Taub, assisted by Adam Tilzer, and August 15, 2017, at Electric Indigo Studios, by Jesse Fischer assited by Morgan Guerin

Produced by Justin Brown

Mixing: Andy Taub (tracks 1-8 & 11-13) and Jess Fischer (tracks 9-10)

Mastering: Colin Girod

Artwork: Roland Nicol

Layout: Aestheticize Media


The drummer Justin Brown first arrived in New York almost 15 years ago, scholarship in hand, to attend Juilliard. He lasted at school for exactly one day.

He said he looked at the traditional jazz-based curriculum and made the decision to leave immediately. “Man, this is stuff that I kind of have studied already,” he remembered thinking. “I’m at a point to expand and grow.”

Sitting in Harlem’s Jackie Robinson Park on a recent evening, he spoke with a mix of shy introspection and lighthearted confidence. “I just couldn’t help but to feel that a real jazz musician is going to adapt to new music,” he said. “They’re not going to have one level or one way of thinking.”

So Mr. Brown quit school and set about finding as much work as possible. He joined rock bands, attended hip-hop and R&B jam sessions religiously, practiced nonstop, sought out mentors. It started paying off immediately. Today, at 34, he is one of the most highly regarded drummers in music.

For many years he has held down the drum chair for Ambrose Akinmusire, probably jazz’s most influential bandleader under 40. And Mr. Brown has recently been playing festivals and rock clubs around the world with Stephen Bruner, known as Thundercat, the oddball prince of modern-day fusion, who skates between jazz, hip-hop and psychedelia. (Mr. Brown also collaborates with Flying Lotus, Esperanza Spalding and Terence Blanchard, to name just a few.)

On Friday Mr. Brown opens a new chapter, releasing “Nyeusi,” his debut album as a bandleader. (He celebrates the release with a show that night at Nublu 151, in Alphabet City.) It would be too simple to call the record a hybrid of his work with Mr. Akinmusire and Mr. Bruner, though stylistically it does incorporate both Mr. Akinmusire’s flair for irresolution and the woozy, wafting ambrosia of Mr. Bruner’s music.

Mostly it’s a ringing testament to Mr. Brown’s own, unmapped path. Burniss Earl Travis’s fortified bass and the swarming force of Mr. Brown’s drums work as a kind of magnetic therapy, softening your senses and opening your ears. Above, the keyboards and synths of Fabian Almazan and Jason Lindner swim together, Mark Shim’s electronic wind instrument curving and drifting against them.

You can hear the album as the next step in a hybrid subgenre — the stuff of J Dilla and Madlib, Karriem Riggins and Chris Dave and Jamire Williams. It’s dreamy, air-and-stars beat music that retains a hardened undertow. You can also hear it as a gentle reminder that gospel music lies near the heart of American popular music: The taut, thwacked, polyrhythmic musculature of African-American church drumming offers depth and flexibility across styles.

“Nyeusi” also works as a revival of the electrified fusion of the 1970s, a maligned era that’s being reclaimed by many adventurous improvisers these days. (The only cover on the album is “Circa 45,” a Tony Williams number from 1971.)

The album’s title, which Mr. Brown also uses as this band’s name, means black in Swahili. (He learned the language in high school.) He likes the various meanings of the word — the way its aesthetic implications are now inseparable from its political and historic ones, and the way in which darkness and beauty can cohabitate within the color. “You can think of it as about being a black man, you can think of the color itself,” he said. “There’s some density in the record, but it’s got a lot of beauty in there too. It connects with culture, learning, growing.”

Jazz, as a largely instrumental music, has always been affective as well as linguistic — some of its best moments involve moving beyond artistic idiom or music-as-language, drawing more directly from intuition and personal hybridity. “Nyeusi” gets there.

“I wanted to have these ethereal developments sort of represent emotion,” he said. “It’s not just like you have the harmony and the melody and that’s it.”

Mr. Akinmusire describes playing with Mr. Brown in admiringly abstract terms. “It feels like you’re making music with an element. He feels like nature, he feels like water, like the earth,” he said. “What nature does, it just blows a little wind in your face, and that can mean that there’s a storm coming. The tide coming in means something. I think that’s something that he’s developed in his playing more recently.”

It helps that Mr. Brown embeds so many crossing cadences and interleaved harmonies in this music that you have no choice: You can only lose track of things, sit back, feel and absorb.

“It’s almost like he has an unlimited number of graphs going on at the same time, and they’re all grooving,” Mr. Akinmusire said. As a result, when trying out ideas over Mr. Brown’s beats, he added, “almost anything works.”

Mr. Bruner is just as succinct. “Justin is a monster, to say the least, on his instrument,” he said. “His playing is beyond.”

Mr. Brown grew up in Richmond, Calif., just north of Oakland, in a musical family. His mother, Nona Brown, is a respected singer and pianist who worked for years with the gospel icon Edwin Hawkins. Richmond was a hard place to raise a family; Mr. Brown remembers his family’s car being stolen, his house being robbed. But before any of that, he recalls seeing the impact of music on a religious congregation.

“They call it the Holy Ghost — when you see something like that hit someone,” he said. “Even though I couldn’t really understand it, I was absorbing it.”

He added: “You start to realize that you’re just a vessel.”

He met Mr. Akinmusire at Berkeley High School, where they were part of a crowd of young musicians who would eventually become pros (Jonathan Finlayson, Thomas Pridgen, Charles Altura). After quitting Juilliard, Mr. Brown tried one more time to find an academic setting that might work, enrolling in the Manhattan School of Music a year later. But just as the semester started, he got called to go on tour with Kenny Garrett, the primo alto saxophonist whose band has launched more than a few careers.

By 2012, he was the broad favorite to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, focused that year on the drums. But after a blistering, pyrotechnic performance, Mr. Brown placed second. He missed the grand prize, which included a contract with Concord Records, but he gained some perspective.

“Music is not meant for a competition in the first place,” he said. “It goes back to spirituality, and why I made this album. I made this album to say to myself, ‘Keep going. There’s a vision. You have a purpose. Give back to the world, give back to the trees.’”

Giovanni Russonello (New York Times)